If asked for one book recommendation for the people that shape Kenya foreign policy, I would pick Turkish academic Ahmet Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth.
Davutoglu was perhaps the most important foreign minister’s in Turkey’s history. His thesis was simple: Turkey was once a great power, the capital of the Ottoman Empire that straddled continents.
He called for a return to that era of predominance in the Muslim world and advocated a complete rethink of Turkey’s foreign policy which at the turn of the millennium was pro-Western and mainly inward looking.
Let’s make friends with the nations that surround us. Let’s stop this focus on chasing the elusive dream of joining the European Union. Why don’t we trade and make friends with our neighbours, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians and others?
The approach was called “zero problems with neighbours”. Under that umbrella, Turkey offered a range of incentives to countries in its neighbourhood including foreign aid, visa-free travel and stepped up trade.
The results were impressive with inflation falling from 30 per cent when the Recep Erdogan administration came into office in 2003 to 6.6 per cent within a decade and the volume of exports rising from $36.2b a year to $153b.
The “economic miracle” was underpinned by Davutoglu’s strategic approach of having zero problems with neighbours. The last few years have brought a sudden reversal to Turkey’s success story. The Arab Spring dramatically changed the status quo in the Middle East and Turkey suddenly found itself having to make choices.
It opted to support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was overthrown by the military and Turkey found itself frozen out of one of the most important countries in the region.
In Syria, Turkey, like much of the West, made the disastrous calculation that Bashar al Assad would fall quickly and funded many of the uglier militants including the so-called Islamic State hoping to change the regime in Damascus.
Their attempts to oust Assad have brought nothing but grief to Turkey with its efforts to strike a peace deal with its Kurdish minority in tatters and IS attacks on its soil affecting the critically important tourist industry.
Still, Kenya and others should borrow a leaf from Davutoglu’s theories on the way to achieve national goals by having warm ties with countries in the neighbourhood.
Whether you like him or not, one of the most significant achievements Uhuru Kenyatta has chalked up as president is to send a message to the great powers that run the world that the views of Africans need to be taken into consideration when making major decisions.
For far too long, the big powers have ignored African states and seen them as people to be talked down to rather than as equal beings that should be engaged and not just lectured.
Kenya is absolutely right to be angry with the laughable decision to pin all the blame for the attack in July on refugees and foreigners including American citizens on the shoulders of force commander Lt Gen Johnson Ondieki who had only been on the job for three weeks – leading a UN mission which as usual was operating under vague and restrictive terms of engagement.
The wider question, though, should be this. Why were Kenyan troops deployed in South Sudan in the first place?
The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) has long had a policy cautioning that troops should not be sent to countries with which they share a border because of the possibility that deployments may be seen as attempts to meddle in the affairs of those countries.
With the benefit of hindsight, we must admit that Kenya miscalculated badly by getting directly involved in Somalia, with all its complicated clan politics that made Kenya appear to be backing the Ogaden in the south against other Somali clans.
In South Sudan, despite Kenya’s best intentions, the intervention has seen Kenya being viewed as firmly backing the government of Salva Kiir, a leader that has proven hopelessly unsuited to filling the big shoes left by the towering John Garang.
It is good that the Kenyan troops are coming home. The next step should be for Kenya to stay above the fray and avoid being seen as being pro-Dinka and anti-Nuer.
Smart policymakers should also be plotting an exit from Somalia and heavy deployments along the border to secure it. We could even find clan elders to tell the Shabaab that we will not attack them if they do not attack us.
Turkey’s boom years showed when you are located in a nasty corner of the earth, it is in your best interest to make peace with your neighbours. Kenya should avoid getting militarily entangled in its neighbours’ affairs at all costs.
By MURITHI MUTIGA