Monday, 2 October, 2023

Challenges in Bangladesh-US Relations

Mahir Abrar

Challenges in Bangladesh-US Relations
Mahir Abrar

When “Friendship to all, malice towards none” was established as a foreign policy of Bangladesh, there were two superpowers, and it worked great at that time. This helped Bangladesh become an essential part of the non-aligned movement, an institution that has become outdated after the cold war. The world has changed, a superpower has collapsed, and our foreign policy remains unchanged. Aristotle said, “A friend to all is a friend to none.” This has created a world where Bangladesh is in a strategically important position but has failed to become strategically important to anyone.

The United States does not advocate for democracy and human rights everywhere. It does so heavily in countries where it believes its interest is not at stake. When Bahrain clamped down on pro-democracy protestors, with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, the United States remained silent. The United States is aligned with some of the least democratic countries in the world, with terrible human rights records. Its widespread use of torture and extrajudicial killings after 9/11 diminishes any claim to moral authority. Its democracy is flawed through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Yet, it continues to pressurise Bangladesh on its human rights and democracy. It is because a country like Bahrain, with a 14-lac population, is strategically vital for the United States, a close ally, while Bangladesh is neither. The value-based foreign policy can be safely applied to a strategically unimportant country like Bangladesh. A selective approach that often ignores democratic backsliding in strategically important countries like Bangladesh’s neighbour India or human rights in Qatar.

Bangladesh has failed to become strategically important to its “important partners.” The Saudi Arabian government has provided enormous financial support to Pakistan to prevent a foreign exchange reserve shortage but not to Bangladesh. The Indian military donated horses to Bangladesh while it gave Myanmar submarines. The Chinese government has not and will not choose Bangladesh over Myanmar in the Rohingya refugee crisis. Despite having all these foreign partners, we are not strategically or culturally close to anyone of them. Bangladesh’s balancing act makes it impossible to develop the close partnership needed to sustain such a relationship.

The United States is most vocal against human rights abuses in China, Iran, Russia, and Syria—all adversaries of the United States in international politics. In recent years, the United States government has been placing significant pressure on the government of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government’s response has been lacking, confusing and directionless. The United States might be concerned about the deteriorating rule of law and possible threat to regional stability. It might view Bangladesh’s current situation as threatening its regional and international plans.There are many steps available to the government of Bangladesh.

The government should consider making some concessions to the United States. It would be prudent to note that the United States remains our most important trading partner. It is where many Bangladeshis, including children of top officials, move for higher education, some of whom settle down there. The government of Bangladesh can retire the Rapid Action Battalion officers sanctioned by the United States for human rights violations. It can reform or disband Rapid Action Battalion and replace it with an organisation modelled after the FBI. It should be noted that Rapid Action Battalion risks tainting the Armed Forces' reputation. Bangladesh can take steps to improve free speech, including repealing Digital Security Act. It could develop a distance in the relationship with China and Russia to align foreign policy with the United States. At the same time, all these actions would be meaningless if the end game of the American administration was regime change in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh must become a more strategically important country, including developing stronger ties with regional powers like Saudi Arabia and South Africa.That involves increasing its involvement on the global stage. It is astounding that despite being the eighth largest country by population, Bangladesh's profile remains small and obscure.

The government cannot afford to take any action, and standing still would be moving backwards. The Awami League government is in its third term, and there is a sense within the country that it has run out of ideas. The government should introduce some reforms and changes, especially in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has failed to prevent the deterioration of ties with the United States. It needs to maintain good relations with the only superpower in the world. Maintaining that relationship would require making some changes to appease the United States, but that also means becoming a country with which the United States cannot afford to have a poor relationship. 


The writer is a Lecturer, Department of Marketing, American International University-Bangladesh