Uganda is landlocked and depends on foreign imports for most of its consumer goods and energy requirements. Even before independence, maintaining an open trade route to the Indian Ocean was the primary foreign policy objective of all governments. For this reason, once the railroad from Mombasa to Kampala was completed early in the protectorate period, relations with Kenya became the government's most significant foreign concern. During much of the period of British rule, the most worrying foreign issue for politically conscious Ugandans was the possibility that Kenyan white settlers would gain control over all of East Africa. During the 1950s, when African nationalism gained the upper hand in the four East African territories, the achievement of closer relations among the four also became an important foreign policy objective. Later, however, economic differences eroded initiatives toward federation and eventually led to hostilities between Uganda and Kenya in the 1980s that would have been unimaginable two decades earlier. After independence, political issues erupting into violence within Uganda or its neighbors also caused serious strains in their bilateral relations, frequently involving rebels, refugees, and even military incursions. Because of its former colonial rule, Britain maintained a close and special relationship with Uganda. But over time, this role slowly diminished as Uganda cultivated new links with other industrialized countries. And, despite its protestations of nonalignment, Uganda remained far more closely linked, both economically and politically, to the capitalist than to the socialist bloc.
Ugandan foreign policy objectives changed considerably after Idi Amin's coup d'état in 1971. For the first decade after independence, policymakers had emphasized cooperation with Uganda's neighbors and the superpowers, participation in international organizations, and nonalignment in order to protect the state's sovereignty and support the African bloc as much as possible without losing opportunities for expanding trade or gaining assistance for development. When Amin seized power, he followed a far more aggressive, though unpredictable, foreign policy. Uganda threatened its neighbors both verbally and militarily. The gratuitous verbal attacks that Amin launched on foreign powers served mainly to isolate Uganda.
The NRM government introduced new radical foreign policy objectives when it first came to power and consequently brought new complications into Uganda's foreign relations. At the outset, President Museveni enthusiastically supported international and especially African cooperation but conditioned it on an ideological evaluation of whether or not other regimes were racist, dictatorial, or corrupt, or violated human rights. On this basis, shortly after taking power the government went to great lengths to enter trade agreements with other developing countries based on barter rather than cash, in order to publicize Uganda's autonomy, even though most of its exports continued to consist of coffee purchased by the United States or by European states, and most of its imports came from Europe. In response, Uganda's neighbors were suspicious of Museveni's radical pronouncements and felt that he was attacking their rule through his denunciations of their human rights policies. They also avoided close ties to Uganda because they suspected that the NRM government, having come to power through a guerrilla struggle, might assist dissidents intending to overthrow them.
During its first four years in power, the NRM government moderated its foreign policy stance to one that more closely reflected the conventional positions of preceding Ugandan governments than the changes proposed in its Ten-Point Program. Uganda maintained friendly relations with Libya, the Soviet Union, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), and Cuba, although most of its trade and development assistance came from the West. In addition, though it consistently maintained its stance of geopolitical nonalignment, the fact that the NRM government accepted an IMF structural adjustment plan made it more politically acceptable to Western leaders. During this period, many African leaders overcame their suspicion of Museveni and the NRM and elected him chair of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in July 1990.
Postindependence heads of government in Uganda made almost all significant foreign policy-making decisions themselves, leaving their foreign ministers to carry them out or explain them away. In order to shore up their domestic power bases, Obote, Amin, and Museveni often introduced new foreign policies that broke sharply with existing relations. They also used foreign policy symbolically to signal the international posture they wished to cultivate. Amin's pronouncements were the most puzzling because they frequently incurred enormous costs for Uganda's relations with other states. Foreign ministry officials never knew when it was safe to ignore his orders or when they had to take them seriously. All three presidents often used foreign policy as a public gesture in an effort to give the government more autonomy in international affairs, improve its public standing with radical states, or satisfy vocal militants in the government. In such cases, the government usually gave public support to radical states and causes, while continuing privately to maintain its more conservative foreign relationships. Foreign relations with radical countries, however much they irritated United States and British officials, did not play a significant role in shaping Ugandan foreign policy.
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