Historically, Ethiopia — the country that was once known as Abyssinia — had trade exchanges and religious connections with a variety of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern countries. The Ancient Greeks, the Byzantine Empire, Portugal, Russia, and the Holy Lands of Jerusalem and Mecca were familiar with Ethiopia. Ethiopia continued to maintain its independence in the modern era, except for a five-year occupation by fascist Italy (whom it expelled in 1941), and even during the European “scramble for Africa” remained the torch bearer of independence for Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.
In 1896, Ethiopia, in the Battle of Adwa, defeated Italy in its attempt to include her in its intended colonization of East Africa. Ethiopia gained importance and European countries expressed increased interest in establishing diplomatic relations. In spite of its isolationist posture, in 1903 the US had established trade with Ethiopia which eventually led to diplomatic relations. This relationship with the oldest independent state in Africa marks the first formal US overture towards an independent African country.
The US interest in Ethiopia was based on the knowledge of Ethiopia’s past glory; expected economic opportunities for American businesses from an African “El Dorado,” as it was touted by American media of the time; and prospects for researchers. The US, as an emerging power, saw benefit in forging diplomatic relations with an independent African country that had long attracted the attention of European countries and increasingly gained international importance. The US foreign policy regarding Ethiopia nonetheless has been determined by the isolationist and the idealist posture of the US and by the Cold War political realism.
The fact that the US was not a colonial power and had no history of antagonism toward Ethiopia, unlike a number of European countries, encouraged Ethiopia’s emperors to establish ties with the United States. Both Emperors Menelik II and Haile Selassie I played pivotal roles in the Ethio–US relations until 1974 when a military regime replaced Emperor Haile Selassie, adopted socialism as a state philosophy, and opposed the US, whom it believed to have worked against Ethiopia’s interests.