Kenya’s regional diplomacy: peripheral or adaptive pragmatism?

Kenya’s regional diplomacy: peripheral or adaptive pragmatism?

Kenya has, for some time, been dismissed as a reluctant regional actor. Those who question its influence and lack of leverage in regional geopolitics point to the country’s comparatively better economy and draw attention to the absence of a corresponding geo-political and cultural influence.
 
These critics argue that Kenya has not consolidated its status as a pivotal state and that it sometimes adopts regional engagement strategies that are a passive object of the geo-strategic interests of others. On the flipside are those who maintain that Kenya has upheld pragmatic principles in its regional engagements by focusing on domestic concerns and generally favouring multilateralism and soft-power approaches. The question is, why has Kenya not consistently converted its material and ideational resources into political influence in regional geopolitics?

A radical departure in Kenya’s regional engagements, however, was its incursion into Somalia in October 2011 to wage war against the Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab. This was the largest military adventure that Kenya had undertaken outside the country's borders since independence. Kenya, for once, appeared to be shifting its regional engagement strategies from the customary low-risk, non-interference posture towards a stronger engagement that aligns its interests with its economic and military strengths. Would Kenya be willing to continually use both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power to grow its image as a pivotal actor in the region?

This paper revisits the debate on Kenya’s regional diplomacies and, in particular, explores the passive versus pragmatic dichotomy in its engagement. It assesses the reasons behind Kenya’s perceived ambivalence in regional geopolitics and considers whether or not Kenya needs to assert itself more robustly, especially at regional and continental levels. With the East African and Horn of Africa regions becoming an important hydrocarbon area, and a new frontier for oil and gas opportunities, it is important that Kenya understands the political space it wants to occupy at various levels and also clearly defines instruments it wants to use to maximise the benefits of its diplomatic engagement in line with its long-term development strategy, Vision 2030.
 
The paper also examines whether or not events such as Kenya’s incursion into Somalia (‘Operation Linda Nchi’, which translates as ‘Protect the Country’) and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pronouncements about a more assertive pan-African focus represent a shift in the country’s regional relations and foreign policy. The objective is to promote an understanding of Kenya’s interaction and behaviour within the region and to stimulate discussion around strategic thinking and tools to take advantage of the country’s various forms of power.
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