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Ten years after the conflict in Darfur began, Sudan and the newly-sovereign South Sudan are still experiencing terrible violence and efforts to ensure lasting peace in the region are falling short. What can the United States do differently to help foster governance that works for both countries? My guest on this week’s Wonkcast is Kate Almquist Knopf -- author of a newly-published CGD report that argues, surprisingly to me, that the United States should normalize diplomatic relations with both Sudan and South Sudan.

Kate previously worked as USAID assistant administrator for Africa and from 2006-2007 was the USAID mission director for Sudan, based in the capital, Khartoum.  I ask her what it was like to deal with senior officials in a government that is waging a protracted war against its own people. She tells me that participating in meetings with Sudan president Omar al-Bashir and other senior leaders was a surrealexperience.

“You sit there and think you’re in an alternate universe somehow. The world is very different from their eyes. They can sit there and deny every single fact showing that there is a problem going on in this or that region of the country. We have a hard time understanding each other.”

Given Kate’s experience and her intimate knowledge of the two Sudans, I find it initially surprising that her new report, Getting to Normal with the Two Sudans, urges the United States to end the practice of relying on a single special envoy to both countries and instead normalize diplomatic relations and appoint an ambassador to each of the capitals, Khartoum and Juba, the new capital of South Sudan.

The United States, she explains, would like to see “two Sudans that are politically stable, economically prosperous, and at peace with themselves and their neighbors.” Yet the US diplomatic stance has yet to adjust to the reality that there are now two separate countries, she adds.

“We are still approaching Sudan as a north-south conflict, and treating the internal conflicts (in each of the two countries) as secondary,” she says.  By normalizing diplomatic relations with both countries, Washington would be in a stronger position to push for improved access for humanitarian relief and for an end to fighting within the borders of Sudan and South Sudan, she says.

For example, within Sudan, “there’s still conflict in Darfur, where more than 3.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. And more recently there have been reports of Mali extremists arriving in Darfur, so it’s a very messy conflict zone,” Kate explains. She and other Sudan watchers are also deeply concerned about a conflict within Sudan that began in 2011 along the border with South Sudan, in areas called Blue Nile and South Kordofan, she adds.

By arguing for normalized diplomatic relations with both countries, Kate is not suggesting that the United States should take the same attitude to both governments. To the contrary, she says that Washington relying on a single special envoy to both of the Sudanese capitals, and the focus on mediating between them, has contributed to a false moral equivalency.

“There’s a tendency in diplomatic relations to say ‘yes, you’re doing something bad and so is the other guy so let’s all come to the table and work it out,’” Kate says. “But in this case there’s bad [e.g. South Sudan] and there’s really really bad [Sudan].”

“What’s happening in South Sudan is not the same as waging war against 4.5 million citizens, as Khartoum is doing against its populations in Darfur or Blue Nile and South Kordofan,” she says.

I ask Kate if sending an ambassador to Khartoum would be seen as rewarding a government that is suppressing and killing its own people. Her answer: “No!”

“I don’t see sending an ambassador as a reward,” Kate says. “Having an ambassador allows us to conduct relations at the highest levels of the host country, and it allows us to have insight into the politics of that country and society so we can help where it’s constructive.”

My thanks to Alex Gordon for editing the Wonkcast and providing a draft of this blog post.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.