Can the US Eagle Fly to Bangladesh?
The American bald eagle is known to fly over 125 miles per day during its seasonal migration. Though undoubtedly an impressive distance to travel, this flight range pales in comparison to the astounding 8,214-mile distance between Washington and Dhaka. Perhaps no bald eagle could ever fly across the Pacific to visit our shores, but the nation that the eagle represents now regularly flies high-level diplomats to visit Bangladesh.
The growing presence of the US in Bangladesh's national political dialogue is one of the most interesting trends in the latter's domestic politics today. The Bangladesh government has expressed that it is not the role of foreign ambassadors to make any assertions or opinions about a nation's internal governance and electoral system. On the other hand, we see multiple embassies, particularly from Bangladesh's most important development partners, come together in solidarity to advocate for human rights and democratic values and repeatedly state the need for inclusive elections. This drive to promote democracy is commonly seen as a counterpoint to China's growing power in Asia. Bangladesh is but one of the many nations that fall under this democratisation initiative currently spearheaded by US President Joe Biden.
In the landscape of world power rivalries, Bangladesh has somehow found itself in a dangerous and opportune position. We now have significant commercial relationships with Washington, Beijing and Moscow. We also have significant dependencies on all three. With Bangladesh's economy making dramatic progress over the last decade, such a situation was somewhat inevitable. Bangladesh is now too big and too important in the power balance of South Asia to ignore. However, that is not the only reason behind the US' recent step-up in diplomatic activities in our country. To understand why the current US ambassador is so prominent in the national news cycle, and why high-level US diplomatic officials are visiting the country, we must understand the turbulent bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and the US.
Changing bilateral realities
Over the last two years, both countries have increased their diplomatic engagement. Till now, 19 mid- and high-level bilateral visits have taken place: Bangladesh sent seven delegations to the US, while the US sent 12. Counsellor of the US Department of State Derek Chollet's visit earlier this week was the 12th in the last two years.
These visits are indicative of a big paradigm shift in the way the US approaches South Asia. Under its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the US has tried to move away from its traditional focus on India and towards bilateral approaches with each South Asian nation. The real-time example of this new paradigm is US Ambassador Peter Haas and his words and actions in Bangladesh. The ambassador has been much more outspoken and public about promoting democratic values than any of his predecessors. This unabashed promotion of democratic values is the core tenant of US foreign policy under the current Democratic Party.
A significant portion of Bangladesh welcomes the US' renewed interest in promoting a democratic climate here, but this kind of assertiveness also fuels its biggest detractors. All democracies are flawed, and Bangladesh is definitely more flawed than others. Those who gain the most from the failures of democracy will definitely be the most critical of those who advocate for it. Detractors frequently portray this advocacy as yet another example of American imperialism; this is perhaps the strongest counterpoint to Peter Haas, but this point also falls short in the face of contemporary geopolitics.
Friendship towards all, malice towards none: this is the only way for Bangladesh to survive and thrive in the world to come. Looking at the situation from a purely Machiavellian perspective, democracy and human rights are the US' trump cards in its policy to contain China in Asia. Coincidentally, those two cards are also the ones that the people of Bangladesh desperately need, and which will benefit them the most in the long run.
The inconvenient truth must be accepted that Bangladesh is far removed from the typical notion of sovereignty in the realm of geopolitics. The economy is far too dependent on imports and exports. India, China, the US, Russia, and Japan – all have significant strategic interests in Bangladesh. The nation is economically bound to all these world powers in far too many ways to count. And in this scenario, risking the ire of the most significant trade and development partner is out of the question. Friendship towards all, malice towards none: this is the only way for Bangladesh to survive and thrive in the world to come. Looking at the situation from a purely Machiavellian perspective, democracy and human rights are the US' trump cards in its policy to contain China in Asia. Coincidentally, those two cards are also the ones that the people of Bangladesh desperately need, and which will benefit them the most in the long run.
Of all the world powers, Bangladesh is most linked with the US in economic terms. The US is the single largest importer of Bangladeshi RMG products. It also tops the charts in providing foreign remittances to Bangladesh. However, this kind of one-sided relationship is no basis for mutual cooperation – particularly when the US politically opposed the ideologies and circumstances behind the nation's founding at the time.
Even to date, it would not be amiss to say that no government in Bangladesh had any problem with the US. Now, relations with the US and the incumbent Awami League government are visibly strained. Bangladesh's removal from trade benefits after the Rana Plaza collapse, the multiple expressions of disappointment in both the 2014 and 2018 election proceedings, and the most recent US treasury sanctions against members of Bangladesh's security forces for violation of human rights – all of these acts, though entirely justifiable, have also served to broaden the divide.
However, some people are selectively blind to the enormous amount of US soft power over Bangladesh. Though not as glamorous as the infrastructure megaprojects funded by China, Japan or Russia, the massive levels of intangible and straight-out monetary support the US has been single-handedly providing to Bangladesh since liberation is a fact somehow quickly forgotten. Case in point, the US has contributed the most to the Rohingya refugee crisis so far. The US secretary of state announced USD 170 million in additional humanitarian aid at the last UN General Assembly. Including this new fund, the country's contribution to the Rohingya crisis response has reached nearly USD 1.9 billion.
Added to that are the enormous amounts of vaccines donated during the height of the pandemic, and the other intangible ways the US has aided growth in Bangladesh.
In comparison, the treatment faced by the US diplomatic mission in Bangladesh should be a matter of shame. Previous US ambassadors Dan Mozena and Earl R Miller were not granted audience at the high offices in Dhaka before their final departures after completing their terms. US Ambassador Marcia Bernicat's convoy was outright attacked. And most recently, US Ambassador Peter Haas expressed concerns over his security after he was obstructed by a group of people during a programme.
The occasional tone taken by the incumbent government against US representatives may not be the best in the world of diplomacy. Several not-too-respectful statements have been made against previous envoys and state officials. This tone certainly wasn't missed by the US, as Donald Lu stated to The Daily Star during his visit last month, "We all agreed that we could work a little harder to prevent misperceptions on both sides… That it's important that when friends have concerns or questions that we're raising. But I think we can do that in a friendly environment."
Maybe the best thing that can come out of these high-level diplomatic visits from the US is that the elephant in the room is finally talked about. Due to Bangladesh's steady growth and progress, the US has finally begun to approach the nation on a strictly bilateral means outside of the lens of India. It would be foolish for any government not to see the value of this opportunity presented to us.
Zillur Rahman is executive director at the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) and a television talk show host. His Twitter handle is @zillur