The Ethiopian empire retained its political independence through the European Scramble for Africa. The imperial elites oversaw the transformation of the empire into a territorially-bounded state, part of an international system of states regulated by international law and by international institutions such as the League of Nations, and later the UN. Ethiopian intellectuals were keenly aware that Ethiopia had joined this international system from a subordinated position and that its sovereignty remained at risk. The struggle for sovereignty was fought not only at a diplomatic level, but also at a narrative level. Afäwärḳ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus’s 1908 Traveller’s Guide to Abyssinia and Käbbädä Mikael’s 1949 Ethiopia and Western Civilisation pushed back against the European depiction of Ethiopia as intrinsically inferior and intrinsically unable to develop. Both Afäwärḳ and Käbbädä rejected the rigid determinism of stagist models of development, and argued that Ethiopia and Europe were natural allies by virtue of their shared Christian heritage. Global power hierarchies rigidified Ethiopia’s domestic power hierarchies. The article shows how the way in which Afäwärḳ and Käbbädä defended Ethiopia’s place in an unequal world had important consequences on their vision of domestic nation building, resulting in hierarchical assimilationist policies that marginalised Ethiopia’s non-Christian citizens.