Kenya’s foreign policy: A balancing act between peace and mediation

  • 21 Apr 2024
  • 4 Mins Read
  • 〜 by James Ngunjiri

Kenya’s foreign policy has long promoted peace rather than conflict with other countries, earning it a reputation as an impartial mediator among its peers.

Kenya’s commitment to non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries has bolstered confidence and won admiration and respect for the nation.

Since September 2022, Kenya has increasingly sought to assert itself on the global stage while continuing to balance a range of competing international partners. The government has signed a new trade pact with the European Union (EU), hosted visits to Nairobi by the German Chancellor, Russian Foreign Minister, and UK’s King Charles as the Head of the Commonwealth, is negotiating a new trade pact with the US, and President William Ruto has visited China.  

Kenya has also been an outspoken voice on global debt issues and environmental inequalities. In 2023, it hosted the African Climate Summit and has committed to leading a multinational police intervention in Haiti.

Kenya has also played a pivotal role in stabilising volatile nations in the region and Africa in general. It has successfully pushed for the recent admissions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia to the East African Community (EAC). 

Prime Cabinet Secretary and Cabinet Secretary for Foreign and Diaspora Affairs Musalia Mudavadi, while discussing Kenya’s foreign policy at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known as Chatham House in London, England, on December 7, 2023, referred to the country’s foreign policy as ‘a new age of diplomacy’ of Kenya being an honest peace-broker by design, and that Kenya has embraced the role as a peacekeeper.   

“At the heart of Kenya’s foreign policy lies a steadfast backbone of commitment to peace and security. Our nation, nestled strategically in East Africa, not only safeguards tranquillity within its borders but also actively contributes to regional and global stability,” said Mr Mudavadi. 

The West and the East

Since independence, Kenya is said to have done well balancing relations with the West and the East. The country’s foreign policy profile is open to investments from anywhere, and Kenya is usually seen as an economic hub and stable pole in a region beset by political instability.

For instance, the US and the UK maintain close security partnerships with Kenya, while China has invested heavily in Kenya’s infrastructure. Countries like Germany and several other European nations are seeking strategic ties with Kenya, particularly in renewable energy. 

Currently, Kenya appears poised to take the next step to claim a more prominent international role, particularly in the area of climate diplomacy. Observers have credited President Ruto with an “atypical foreign policy strategy, which aims to distinguish Kenya from its African peers globally and add to Nairobi’s list of accomplishments as a pan-African leader.” But, back home, away from the global stage, public dissatisfaction with the government’s policies is at an all-time high. President Ruto’s positions on global conflicts, including in Ukraine, Gaza, and Haiti, have drawn criticism at home and from several African leaders. The president is being seen as a controversial figure, described by observers as having two faces, one international and the other one local.

It’s also becoming clear that decision-makers in Europe see Kenya as having a “like-minded” foreign policy, and they are ready to recognise President Ruto as an African thought leader. However, this positive assessment is not universally held by the broader Kenyan public or by some African leaders. They perceive President Ruto’s apparent willingness to accommodate the interests of external actors, especially Western countries, as a factor that undermines his credibility.  

Climate diplomacy 

Calls for greater cooperation on climate change and resource redistribution, along with demands for reform in the multilateral financial architecture, notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have boosted the country’s profile.

Kenya is also comparatively well established in the African carbon trading market and has the necessary legal framework. The government sees carbon trading as a major growth area that can attract foreign investment and increase the government’s revenue share. However, this positive view of international carbon trading is not unequivocally shared by some African countries. 

Master of inscrutability

According to Megatrends Afrika analysis, a joint project of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the German Institute for Development and Sustainability (IDOS), and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel), observers have described President Ruto as “a master of inscrutability”.

They say his messaging differs depending on his audience, whether his African peers, Western donors, or the Kenyan public. In multilateral forums, they say President Ruto relies heavily on morally grounded arguments and, to some extent, on shaming and appeals to powerful actors and institutions to change their behaviour.

“To support his positions, he refers to ethical imperatives and scientific evidence, especially when it comes to climate change. This foreign policy approach is often used (with some success) by smaller states that have an interest in promoting global cooperation on climate change while lacking the political clout and coercive means to pursue their objectives.” 

Additionally, the report says that sometimes, his messages contain (implicit) threats. For instance, Ruto has argued that institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, which deny African countries resources and affordable financing opportunities, should ‘Africanise or perish’. They add that he usually tends to strike a more conciliatory tone, calling for multilateral cooperation.

President Ruto does not utilise a geopolitical frame of global affairs, explicitly avoiding positioning Kenya on the East-West geopolitical spectrum. A case in point is at the Pan-African Parliament, where he spoke of a “geopolitical crisis” and its negative consequences for the multilateral system and Africa. And, while addressing the UN General Assembly, he described the UN system as being cannibalised by exclusive clubs that enjoy impunity. And while he initially blamed China for Kenya’s economic challenges during election campaigns, the President has refrained from voicing such criticism since being elected. Also, the President does not refer to any systemic competition between the East and the West or between democracies and autocracies. Instead, he refers to historical fault lines between the “Global North” and “Global South”. According to observers, this is where he locates the main source of injustice.

The President has been endeavouring to redefine Africa’s position in global affairs. Through his engagements, he aims to dismantle the perception of the continent as passive and reliant on external assistance. Instead, he seeks to emphasise Africa’s more dynamic and development-oriented perspective.

Back at home, President Ruto has been emphasising the alignment of his foreign policy agenda with national interest. He justifies his frequent travels abroad by framing them as missions to attract investment and job opportunities.