Winning aspiration needed to advance US foreign policy interests in Zimbabwe

The American Embassy in Harare has failed to achieve its desired policy outcomes. Michael Walsh argues that the US Department of State needs a new approach to country-level foreign policy planning

Senator Jim Risch (Republican; Idaho) recently called on the Biden Administration to 'abandon any misguided belief that it can negotiate with Zimbabwe's current leaders'. Referencing 'a lengthy history of human rights abuses, corrupt practices, and anti-democratic actions', Risch argued that the US Government 'should use every diplomatic avenue to forge a coalition of regional and global partners to act in support of the aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe'.

Even if the White House shared this view, such a recommendation would prove difficult for the US Department of State and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to implement. Over the past three years, the US Embassy Harare has not made the necessary strategic choices to achieve a winning aspiration that advances US national security and foreign policy interests in Zimbabwe. Remarkably, the Chief of Mission did not even update the Integrated Country Strategy Zimbabwe (ICS Zimbabwe) in the aftermath of the 2023 Zimbabwean general election.

The US needs more than a new approach; it needs to rethink how its Department of State goes about foreign policy planning

Risch is right: the United States Government needs to radically rethink US strategic engagement in Zimbabwe. That should inspire US government-wide changes within the mission and beyond. The US needs more than a new approach in Zimbabwe. It needs to rethink how its Department of State goes about foreign policy planning.

Historical context

On 24 March 2022, the US Department of State approved the current version of the ICS Zimbabwe. The Chief of Mission Priorities revolve around some broad themes, including the domestic political situation, economic challenges, environmental challenges, and security concerns. The Mission Strategic Framework includes four mission goals and one management goal:

  • Zimbabwe improves accountable, democratic governance that serves an engaged citizenry and respects fundamental human rights.
  • Zimbabwe has a market-oriented economy that provides an opportunity for all Zimbabweans to prosper.
  • Zimbabweans live longer, more productive, and healthier lives.
  • Zimbabwe becomes a responsible member of the global community and a reliable partner for addressing bilateral, regional, and global challenges.
  • In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Management will promote a more robust Mission-support platform to advance US government objectives.

Across these objectives, an AI-powered textual analysis suggests that 'Challenges and Risks in Promoting Political Reforms and Democratic Governance in Zimbabwe' is the biggest risk.

Chat GPT-generated top ten keywords for the Integrated Country Strategy Zimbabwe

MnangagwaUS interestsHuman rights abuseCovid-19People's Republic of China
GovernanceEconomic growthEnvironmental challengesDiplomacyRule of Law
Keywords exclude 'Zimbabwe'

Strategic choice analysis

One problem with the ICS Zimbabwe is that it is a strategic plan in search of a strategy.

As AG Lafley and Roger Martin conceptualise it, a strategy is a cascade of five choices. It starts with the winning aspiration, the most attractive future outcome. It continues with where to play; the places where the strategist will pursue the winning aspiration. This choice must be made in parallel with how to win. These are the activities that will take place on the fields of play, and their associated outputs.

Once the winning aspiration, where to play, and how to win have been selected, considerations turn to capabilities. One is the minimum capabilities needed to carry out these activities. The other is the management systems that would enable these capabilities to be effective. These fall under the ICS mission and management sections.

The Integrated Country Strategy fails to present a clear, concise articulation of how the mission will advance US security and foreign policy

Viewed through the lens of strategic choices, an ICS is a misnomer. It is a strategic plan that fails to articulate a winning aspiration. It describes a set of priorities, goals, and objectives that often reference spaces out in the world, such as functional domains and geographic regions.

However, the plan fails to specify the fields of play with sufficient granularity. Similarly, these goals and objectives often reference activities, outputs, and capabilities. However, the plan does not fully specify the resources, activities, and outputs at the level needed to put the plan into action.

The ICS is neither strategy nor logic model. It fails to present a clear, concise articulation of how the mission will advance US security and foreign policy interests in a particular foreign country. This is a general ICS problem rather than a specific problem with the ICS Zimbabwe.

Declared standards analysis

Another problem with the ICS Zimbabwe is that it presents an unrealistic strategic plan.

As a matter of governmental policy, an ICS must consist of sets of objectives that are 'realistic, specific, and measurable end-states that bureaux/missions seek to achieve, or make significant progress on, in the life of the strategy'. The theory is that achieving these objectives will lead to the achievement of a corresponding set of goals. These goals are supposed to 'represent the long-term, ambitious vision of the bureau or mission and should be linked to priorities in higher-level strategies'. Unlike the objective, nobody expects them to be 'accomplished within the four-year life of the strategy'.

The ICS Zimbabwe fails to meet these declared standards. Absent regime change, it would be unreasonable to expect the US Embassy Harare to achieve, or even make significant progress on, many of the declared objectives within the life of the strategic plan. These are not realistic four-year objectives in a world of renewed major power competition between the United States and a potential superpower seeking to remake the world order. They are at best fantastical and at worst absurd.

The declared objectives of Zimbabwe's Integrated Country Strategy are at best fantastical and at worst absurd

This is a remarkable state of affairs given that there were good reasons to expect the Zimbabwean government would take 'the country down a dark and familiar path of electoral violence, repression, and impunity' when the ICS Zimbabwe was sent out for inter-agency coordination.

Last year’s events surrounding the national elections confirmed that bottom-line assessment in the minds of many Members of Congress. Increasingly, the Beltway recognises that the status quo is not advancing US interests in Zimbabwe. It is time for the US Embassy Harare to do the same. This starts with the articulation of achievable winning aspirations in Zimbabwe and the wider region.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
Visiting Researcher, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Michael is a senior subject matter expert who regularly advises governments, humanitarian organisations, and think tanks on democracy, development, and security affairs.

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