Kissinger and Lord Macaulay on Ethiopia

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Both Kissinger and Macaulay have had outsized roles in influencing the long duration of Anglo-American foreign policy perspectives on the Horn of Africa, and in particular Ethiopia. To some extent these perspective still undergird policy framework today.

This paper draws inspiration from recent writing of Shiferaw Leulu and Engidashet Bunare at the Water Resources Development Council of Ethiopia


Advice given by Henry Kissinger in 1972 and Lord Macaulay in 1835 to their respective governments in the U.S and U.K regarding foreign policy issues concerning Ethiopia and Africa are remarkably still relevant to the present and future Ethiopia.

Lord Macaulay’s observations of Africa as and India reflected overriding 18th century European perspectives. He remarked that during his travels, he did not encounter any beggars or thieves. He praised the wealth and high moral values he witnessed in India as and Africa, as well as the caliber of its people. As head of education in British India, Macaulay proposed, ‘to conquer the country, the British should undermine its spiritual and cultural heritage by replacing its old education system and culture.’ He believed the same principal applied in Africa. The assumption being,English influence as superior will compel Africans to lose their self-esteem, native culture, and become a dominated nation. Lord Macaulay’s proposal aimed to diminish the self-esteem and native culture of India and Africa.

In the epilogue of Theodore M. Vestal’s book, on page 188, it is suggested that Henry Kissinger, while heading the National Security Council in 1972, wrote a confidential report on the future of Ethiopia. Kissinger recommended that the United States should exploit internal tensions in Ethiopia by taking advantage of vulnerabilities that include ethnic, religious, and other divisions. Furthermore, National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSS200) discussed ‘the necessary threshold for industrial development in Africa should be curtailed’. This establishes best way to preserve the status quo control of the Red Sea as well to counter transnational Pan-Africanism from rising in the Horn of Africa.

Henry Kissinger’s proposal centered around exploiting ethnic, religious, and other differences to maintain perpetual tension as well as conflicts in Ethiopia. Before delving into the relevance of their policy advice, it is important to provide some background information on these two individuals.

Who is Lord Macaulay

Lord Macaulay, who lived from 1800 to 1859, visited Africa before 1835. His visit coincided with the reign of Ras Ali, also known as the Junior Ras Ali of Ethiopia, from 1823 to 1845. During this period, governance in Ethiopia had become fragmented due to a series of rivalries between elites. This period is known as the Zemene Mesafint or the era of nobles, defined by a weakened central government, resulting in the loss of control over regional and local authorities. This era began in the second half of the 18th century and continued until 1855.

During the Zemene Mesafint, out of the decline of the Gondar Kingdom, three major powers emerged:

  • The Ras of Begemeder, led by the Ras Ali.
  • The Ras of Tigre, led by Ras Webe.
  • The Negus of Shoa, led by Sahle Selassie.

Sahle Selassie, who ruled from 1813 to 1847, was the most influential ruler of Shoa. His son, Hailemelekot, became the first ruler of Shoa to involve himself in the struggles of the Mesafint.

Invariably Macaulay’s observation of Ethiopia during this period of division left a mark on how he viewed the African continent.

Thomas Babington Macaulay
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington Macaulay, the renowned English historian, was born on October 25, 1800, in Rothley near Leicester. His father, Zachary Macaulay, a Scottish Highlander, had served in the West Indies and Sierra Leone and was well-regarded for his contributions to public life. Zachary actively opposed slavery and worked closely with Wilberforce and others. Lord Macaulay himself was an essayist, historian, liberal member of the House of Commons and later the House of Lords, a law member of the Supreme Council of India, and a British minister for war. He arrived in Madras, India, on June 10, 1834, as a member of the Supreme Council of India.

Macaulay played a significant role in shaping the educational system and policies in India. He advocated for a formal Western-style education that emphasized English as the medium of instruction, along with the study of Western literature and science. He proposed using the entire educational budget to achieve this goal, even utilizing existing educational institutions or oriental learning for the promotion of Western education. During his four-year stay in India, he helped establish a national education system and played a crucial role in drafting the Indian Criminal Procedure Code, the Indian Civil Procedure Code, and the Government of India Act of 1833, which imposed restrictions on the East India Company. Macaulay returned to England in early 1838 and continued his writing career. He was elected to Parliament to represent Edinburgh from 1839 to 1847 and served as the Secretary of War in the Cabinet from 1839 to 1841.

Macaulay’s most significant work in his later years was the celebrated History of England, which he pursued at the expense of his political career and social life. The first two volumes were published in 1848, followed by volumes 3 and 4 in 1855. In 1857, Macaulay was elevated to peerage, and died on December 28, 1859. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Who is Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger, a statesman, scholar, and public intellectual, provided policy advice to the United States concerning Ethiopia during the final days of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s reign. Born in 1923 to a German Jewish family in Fürth, Henry Kissinger immigrated to the United States in 1938 to escape the state sanctioned anti-Semitism imposed of the Nazi government. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943 and served in the Army from 1943 to 1946. After completing his education at Harvard, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree with highest honors in 1950, Master’s degree in 1952, and Ph.D. in 1954, he joined Harvard’s Department of Government and its Center for International Affairs as a faculty member from 1954 to 1969.

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Henry Kissinger

Kissinger also worked as a foreign policy advisor to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who made three attempts to secure the Republican nomination for President. In January 1969, President Richard Nixon chose Kissinger, a prominent advocate of realpolitik, to be his Advisor for National Security Affairs. Kissinger concurrently served as the 56th Secretary of State, beginning on September 22, 1973. Following Nixon’s resignation due to the Watergate scandal, Kissinger remained as Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford until January 20, 1977.

Throughout his tenure as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, Kissinger wielded significant influence over American foreign policy.

Similarities and differences of Kissinger and Macaulay vis-à-vis Ethiopia


Although there is a considerable time gap of approximately 137 years between these influential individuals (1835 to 1972), their policy advice to their respective governments concerning Ethiopia shares a common objective that can more or less be summarized as transforming the country into a submissive client state. As the last Bastian of independence in Africa, the Ethiopia had to undergo a series of “civilizing efforts” modeled on Western experiences.


The disparities between their approaches are primarily strategic. Macaulay’s approach centers around dismantling the core essence of the nation, namely its spiritual and cultural heritage, and replacing its ancient education system and culture. The aim is to influence Ethiopia to perceive foreign and English influences as superior, leading to a loss of self-esteem, abandonment of native culture, and eventual dominance by external forces. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger’s strategy revolves around exploiting ethnic, religious, and other divisions within Ethiopia to perpetuate ongoing conflicts.

Although both seek to achieve a similar outcome, their methods differ. Macaulay’s advice does not explicitly mention exploiting ethnic, religious, or other differences, while Kissinger’s 1972 advice places significant emphasis on exploiting such divisions to keep the country weakened and embroiled in enduring conflicts. This indicates a shift in the colonial strategy over the span of 137 years towards leveraging existing differences.

How and when the colonial strategy shifted to exploiting differences.

The groundwork for exploiting differences was established in the decades following Macaulay’s proposal, particularly in the latter half of the 19th century. This trend was further propelled by the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection suggested that all species, including humans, have evolved from common ancestors and that adaptation to the environment determines survival. As word of Darwin’s theory spread, philosophers and scientists, such as Herbert Spencer, began interpreting his ideas in new ways. Spencer introduced the concept of Social Darwinism in 1874, which applied the principles of natural selection to social, political, and economic issues. When applied to social and policy goals, this ideology held that the strong would survive and that the white European race, considered superior, was destined to rule over others.

Social Darwinism gained prominence in the Western world as Europeans, driven by advancements in technology and military power, started perceiving race as an explanation for differences among cultures. They believed that their technological and economic superiority was evidence of natural selection at play, with stronger societies flourishing while weaker ones were conquered or faced extinction. The emphasis on race and the ranking of races based on criteria such as culture, technology, and military power intensified during the late 19th century. Social Darwinism influenced various Euro-centric ideologies, including Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, and later seeped into Liberalism, and played a role in the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars.

Racism, as we understand it today, was relatively limited in the 18th century but grew significantly in the latter half of the 19th century. Social Darwinism permeated almost every aspect of Western societies, providing a rationalization for the brutal imperialism of that era. This period of rampant racism coincided with the “Scramble for Africa,” where European powers invaded, occupied, and colonized African territories. By 1914, 90% of Africa was under European control, except for Ethiopia.

The Battle of Adwa in 1896, which Ethiopia won against Italian forces, challenged the validity of Social Darwinism, and inspired other Africans in their struggle against colonialism. During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, the fascist regime attempted to exploit ethnic and religious divisions to gain control, but their efforts were unsuccessful due to the strong unity of the Ethiopian society. After World War II, colonial powers started exploiting the racist ideology of Social Darwinism in conjunction with Stalin’s national question, all while claiming to promote democracy. This shift in approach explains the differences between Macaulay’s and Kissinger’s policy advice.

The Impacts of Kissinger and Macaulay’s Advice

In the long term, Macaulay’s ideas were gradually implemented in Ethiopia’s education system, culture, and economy, birthing a new generation that perceives foreign and English influences as superior to their own. This implementation was initially carried out through the efforts of European explorers and missionaries, who traveled across Africa to discover new things and map the continent. Missionaries also played a role by deepening European involvement in Africa through the spread of European and later American versions of Christianity and the introduction of Western-style education. Significant efforts were made to whitewash Africa’s cultural and historical assets and replace them with Western modes of thought. Diplomacy, treaties, and friendships further contributed to the implementation of Macaulay’s idea.

Following World War II, European colonial powers began exploiting ethnic and religious differences in Ethiopia to weaken and dominate the country or even cause its disintegration. For example:

  • In the late 1930s, the British, through their consular office in Gore, exploited ethnic differences and organized local nobles in an attempt to seek British rule and annex the western part of Ethiopia. Although this annexation was unsuccessful, the teachings and radicalization that aimed to exploit language and ethnic differences continued, fueling ethnic conflicts to this day.
  • After 1954, the British, through their consular office in Harar, exploited ethnic and religious differences among the Somali, Oromo, and Afar communities in an effort to annex the eastern part of Ethiopia. Similarly, the teachings and radicalization to exploit language and religious differences persisted, contributing to ongoing ethnic and religious conflicts.
  • Additionally, since 1955, ethnic and religious radicals from northern and eastern parts of Ethiopia received training in Al-Azhar University in Egypt.
  • In the late 1960s, Germans, under the guise of missionary work, established a hospital in western Ethiopia and recruited and trained ethnic radicals.

These recruited and trained radicals, under the pretext of democracy, have continued to perpetuate ethnic and religious problems in Ethiopia up to the present.

Initially, the Americans showed little interest in manipulating ethnic, religious, and other differences in Ethiopia. That was seen to be the British way doing things. The U.S was more focused on cooperating with Ethiopia for their own interests in the Horn of Africa. However, several factors would later change this perspective:

  1. Emperor Haile Selassie’s strong and successful leadership in Africa’s struggle for independence from European colonizers threatened to awaken African consciousness
  2. Concerns arose after Eritrea’s unification with Ethiopia and the possibility of Djibouti also joining a larger integrated Horn of Africa, creating a historically independent regional union.
  3. The strategic economic interests in the discovery and production of petroleum in the Gulf countries, which led to viewing the Red Sea-bordering countries as potential chock points for the flow of energy to Europe.
  4. The Nile water sharing imbalance with Egypt and and its relation to Israeli and other Middle East policy influenced the U.S to adopt a similar approach as the Europeans had towards Ethiopia.

With Kissinger’s proposals gaining more dominance in the 1970s, the overarching policy he derived from European imperialist views began to be adopted by the State Department. To implement Kissinger’s proposals, the targets for this psychological operation in Ethiopia were confused and misinformed students, teachers, and recruited ethnic and religious radicals as mentioned earlier. University and high school students were particularly targeted, with the ideology of ethnicity and religious radicalism presented under the guise of democracy. It is important to note, the Soviet Union and the KGP also ran its own operation to influence Ethiopia’s revolutionaries on the 1974. These efforts differed only in their political ideology, but largely retained the same Euro-centric principles pushed by the West.

One example is Walelign Makonnen, who was influenced by the concept of Stalin’s “Nationality Question.” For the past 50 years, Ethiopia has been grappling with ethnicity derived from the concept of Social Darwinism.

The country is now divided along ethnic lines, the constitution amplifies ethnicity, political parties are organized along ethnic lines, and the education system is aligned with ethnicity, even removing the compulsory course on Ethiopian History from higher education. People are being targeted and killed based solely on their spoken language and forced displacement and looting have become common. The Orthodox church has also become embroiled in Ethiopia’s ethnic political order. The unity and self-esteem of the country are at risk of being lost.


Wallelign Mekonnen (left). The radical students, turned revolutionaries, brought catastrophe upon both themselves and the society they intended to change. Contempt for Ethiopia’s tradition bred extreme beliefs and was the fundamental reason why Ethiopia’s youth so zealously and uncritically embraced Marxism-Leninism. In this, they were no different from the pre-revolutionary Russian intellectuals or the Cambodian students learning Marxism in France, who later called themselves the Khmer Rouge

Kissinger’s proposal towards the horn of Africa, and in particular Ethiopia is based on Macaulay interventionism. This formula has been internalized by its intended audience, the African elite, who have used it to further their political goals domestically, as well as towards adjoining countries. The Horn of Africa region, exemplified by proxies and external patronages is a case in point.

Maligning Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II is widely regarded as a symbol of Ethiopia’s victory, self-esteem, and heroism, not only for Ethiopians but also for Africans and Africans in the Americas in their fight against European colonialism and racism. The 1896 Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopia triumphed, has made Ethiopia a beacon of hope for countries that have suffered from racism and colonialism. Emperor Menelik II represents a unified and strong Ethiopia, embodying the aspirations of the nation to regain its ancient civilization and stand as a symbol of independence.

To undermine Ethiopia’s prestige, self-esteem, and its goal of becoming a strong and unified nation in the Horn of Africa, Emperor Menelik II has been targeted and vilified by European colonial narratives. In Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik II is largely seen as:

  1. A champion who defeated the aggressive racist colonial powers.
  2. An African leader that was able to outmatch European maneuverings in the Horn of Africa. The emperor expanded this territory, and and calibrated his ambitions at times, in order not to extend and stretch defenses.
  3. A hero who challenged the notion of Social Darwinism and racism
  4. The figure who managed to unify a divided country, incapable of withstanding European incursions.
  5. The leader who safeguarded Ethiopia’s control over the Nile River from its source.
  6. The figure who instilled a strong sense of self-belief and heroism on Ethiopians and Africans.
Menelik II Emperor of Ethiopia 100
Emperor Menelik II

Downgrading the role of Emperor Menelik II

To this day ethnic nationalists, whose perspectives are largely derived from colonial narratives target Emperor Menelik II as villain. These stories were tacitly championed by Western powers whose aim, as mentioned is to erase independent African leadership and agency from the national psyche of Ethiopia, aiming to create disarray and weakness. The brutality of European colonialists in Africa was falsely attributed to Emperor Menelik II. He was portrayed as a brute expansionist . Some Western periodicals at the time even referred to Menelik as a white European. Ethnic nationalist radicals that sprang up in Ethiopia beginning in the 1970s inherited these euro-centric views of the Emperor.

  1. False histories have been written to confuse generations and distort the truth.
  2. Ethiopia is portrayed as solely shaped by Emperor Menelik II, erasing its long history prior to his reign.
  3. Attempts have been made to undermine the historical unity, dignity, and moral values of the country. This was done by portraying the nation as a collection of disparate and unwieldy peoples.
  4. Emperor Menelik II and his legacy was routinely vilified in education as well as public perceptions.
  5. Efforts have been made to diminish the significance of the Battle of Adwa and its contribution to Ethiopia’s national psyche. This was particularly true since ethnic nationalists came to power in 1991.
  6. The backbone of Ethiopian heroism and anti-racism, and Pan-Africanism has been targeted for similar degradation. Instead, ethnic identity politics has been promoted.
  7. There have been attempts to dismantle Ethiopia or keep the country weak and fragmented. These efforts are ongoing today, and exemplified by the most recent turbulence in the country.

The Way Forward

Both Kissinger and Macaulay have had an outsized role in influencing the long duration of Anglo-American policy perspectives on the Horn of Africa. In retrospect, and in light of the present, their policy advice still has relevance.

Despite the many shortcomings domestically, it is important to understand Ethiopia’s challenges are not solely internal. They have been decades in the making, and persistently exacerbated by external forces. Elites have fallen into narratives and ideologies, imported from abroad, that have little to do with Ethiopia’s condition and character. Some elites in Ethiopia as well as the diaspora are lured by the career benefits of adhering to Western institutional perspective steeped in Kissinger’s and Macaulay’s advice. Some others are lazy to do the work needed to uncover essential truths from the heap of rhetoric and falsehoods.

Presently, Ethiopia’s body-politic is overflowing with false narratives. Prime among them is the confining of national figures and heroes into an ethnic or religious paradigm box. This is true of the way Menelik II is portrayed as an Amhara overlord, despite the emperor rarely, if ever referring to his reign as such. Confining national leaders into a narrow ethnic box draws inspiration from colonial narratives originally defined to weaken and suppress a strong African state of convergence. These schemes found fertile ground when ethnic nationalists established their rule in 1991 under the tutelage of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Aspirational leaders who dream big and beautiful can expect to encounter resistance by global powers, be vilified and placed into parochial and stereotypical categories, and as such politically weakened. Economic support will be withdrawn from such regimes in Africa. Ways of achieving this has been made all the more implicit, but in some cases is overt. The contrary is true for politicians espousing ethnic nationalism, who will find an easy time getting support from external powers.

In the long run the choice is for the people to make. If Ethiopia and more broadly Africa is ever to regain itself and adopt genuine grassroots perspectives, it is crucial to uncover and debunk narratives based on deep historical untruths and bring them to light. A lofty goal that will no doubt be made difficult by the deliberate disinformation campaigns facilitated by Social Media.


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  4. Engidashet Bunare & Shiferaw Lulu; 2019. Proposed New Ethiopian Administrative
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  13. ሺፈራው ሉሉ እና እንግዳሸት ቡናሬ፣ 2011፡፡ የዘረኝነት ምንጭና የኢትዮጵያ ፖለቲካ ችግሮች፣ ለትውልድ ረፋኢ
  14. አርኖ ሚሼል ዳባዲ፤ በኢትዮጵያ ከፍተኛ ተራሮች ቆይታዬ፤ ተረጓሚ ገነት አየለ አንበሴ፣ 2009 ዓ.ም.
  15. ደጃዝማች ወልደ ሰማዕት ገብረ ወልድ፣ 2012፡፡ ሕይወቴ፣ ለአገሬ ኢትዮጵያና ለወገኖቼ ኢትዮጵያውያን ዕድገት
    የነበረኝ የሥራ ጥማት፤ ቅጽ አንድ (ከ1917 እሰከ 1967 ዓ.ም.)
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