President Ruto’s looking West foreign policy misses out on key historical lessons

President William Ruto, and First Lady Rachel Ruto arrive at the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, Washington, D.C, in the United States of America. 

Photo credit: PCS

President William Ruto has been globetrotting, shaping Kenya’s foreign policy. Since independence in 1963, Kenya’s foreign policy and implementation strategies have attracted the interest of policymakers and researchers.

Is it the wishes of the President? What are our national interests in the pursuit of foreign policy objectives? These and other related questions may inform Dr Ruto’s overseas visits. The issues that his regime ought to address, however, require us to scan the internal and external environment while thinking beyond the traditional views or perspectives of understanding global relations.

State visits are attributable to both pull and push factors in the international system. Since his election as President of Kenya in 2022, Dr Ruto can only be described as a high-flying president as compared to his peers. As the chief diplomat, he is engaging the rest of the world but the terms of engagement and intended outcomes might not always be clear. In any case, what is his agenda and how are Kenya’s national interests better served through the official state visits that he makes?

To answer this question, one needs to look at the determinants of foreign policy including colonial history and heritage, economic interests, domestic factors, external factors and environment, but is also important to add elite ideological orientation, most of it as a result of colonialism and the interpretation of the ideology of colonialism. At the end of it all, the determining factor ought to be what is there for Kenya.

Kenya’s foreign policy traditionally has been pro-Western, capitalist and anti-communist. In particular, it has favoured Britain and Western powers at the expense of other major and middle-range powers. Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, inherited and consolidated a neocolonial state and pursued a pragmatic foreign policy aimed at maximising economic benefits.

Kenya’s economy depends largely on her neighbours and exports to European and US markets on preferential terms. As such, it was expected that forging cordial relations with the West would revamp the economy and push Kenya into an African tiger. As such Kenya has opportunistically pushed for a gradual regional integration approach through the East African Community IGAD and African Union. The foundation laid for independence has not been changed as successive regimes pursued a foreign policy with a sympathetic attachment to Western values and ideas.

Domestic factors account for Ruto’s frequent state visits—serious economic crises and unsustainable debts. Its push factors deliver him to the West, as he purports to look forward.

Unlike presidents Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta, who keenly looked East, Dr Ruto is unprecedently looking West hoping to get endorsement and economic development. While the Jomo Kenyatta regime fitted it, the Ruto regime is not thinking out of the box and learning from history, at least that no country bids for another one and that a multipolar world is now a reality. Western, Vatican and evangelical diplomacy would not entirely serve Kenya’s interests.

In fact, the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa through BRICS plus diplomacy and search for a new world order that is fair and just to the global south would actually propel Kenya and Africa into key player in international relations. What is more, Uhuruto regimes pushed the country at the mercy of international financial institutions namely the IMF and World Bank now running Kenya's economy through fifth-generation structural adjustment programs named austerity measures as enshrined in the Finance Bill 2024.

Ruto's diplomacy and frequent state visits are therefore informed by domestic factors such as harsh economic times, a quest for a second term, failure to meet expectations of Kenyans as promised during campaigns, pressure from the US to delegate peace and security challenges within the continent, and legitimacy crises among others.

Unlike his predecessors, the external environment demands raw materials rich in the continent, neocolonial subjugation or alignment in new cold war. Kenya is currently viewed as US crony and a stooge in the service of the west. From Haiti, Ukraine, the Palestinian question, the US state visit in May, G7 visit in Italy and other western elevations in diplomacy, there can only be one conclusion, a new world order that is inclusive and fair has once again evaded Kenya’s foreign policy and Ruto diplomacy would achieve very little as the west has no permanent friends.

Perhaps intra-African trade through African Continental Free Trade Area would pay more economic dividends than facing West.

The writer is a lecturer at Riara University. 

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