Sanctions on RAB: Does it reflect a changing US foreign policy?
Does the news of the Biden administration's sanction on the elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and seven officials indicate a changing US foreign policy under the Biden administration? The logic, the context, and the implications of Biden's policy depict that the US has shifted the core ideological spectrum of its foreign policy from counter-terrorism and increasing security to democracy and human rights.
Sceptics may downplay any analysis using ideology as a core tenet of US policy. Still, historical analysis of US foreign policy shows that a value-based ideological pattern has dominated its engagement with the world for years.
After the Second World War, the US established liberal global order. It singlehandedly helped rebuild war-torn Europe through the Marshall Fund and set up the Bretton Woods Institutions to facilitate international cooperation, negotiation, and means of dispute resolution. The Cold War tested the limits of the professed capitalist system against communism, though the US came out victorious by championing the ideas of democracy, free speech, the rule of law, a free economic system and human rights. Even the highly controversial War on Terror was also an ideological war, where the Bush administration's so-called "Freedom Agenda" framed terrorism as an outcome of suppressed democracy in the Middle East. At the time, President Bush infamously said, "either you are with us or with the terrorists."
However, the decline of democracy worldwide in the last decade has caused significant setbacks to the US and its allies. Emphasis on wars as a means to establish dominance over the enemy and resolve conflict did not do the US any favour, as one could see from the case of Afghanistan.The deaths of hundreds and thousands of civilians in the wars of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mass movement of refugees, show the limitations of war.
Meanwhile, there was a stable rise of autocracy as an ideology for governments worldwide, who used brutal force to suppress dissent while championing the idea of "growth and stability."
The Democracy Report 2021 of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Index points out that "autocracies are now homes of (the) world's 68 percent population" while "liberal democracies diminished over the past decade from 41 countries to 32, with a population share of only 14 percent." The V-dem index collects data on "voting rights, clean elections, equality before the law, constraints on the executive, and freedom of association and expression"—one of the largest-ever social science data collection efforts with a database containing over 28.4 million data points.
V-Dem notes that "the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020 is down to levels last found around 1990." In its latest report, Washington-based Freedom House too observed that "democracy's defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes," and that has "shifted the international balance in favour of tyranny."
Against this backdrop, on February 4, 2021, US President Biden, in a speech delivered at the US state department, said: "American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy." Subsequently, the US Interim National Security Strategy Guidance was published in March 2021. This critical policy document claims to chart "a new course of foreign policy and national security."
It placed significant emphasis on "defending the democratic values" and notes that "defending democratic values does not end in the [American] shore," as "authoritarianism is on the global march." It also emphasises alliance-building to revitalise democracy globally. The policy outlined that the idea of democracy is under threat as the promotion of alternative models of authoritarian governance is on the march. While it is made clear that the policy is framed upon defending democracy, it is arguably targeted at China.
Biden's Democracy Summit is a step towards realising this set of national security policy goals, where the current US administration is trying to reinvigorate and defend the idea of democracy. Perhaps that is why the framing of the US treasury sanction on RAB as an entity was tied with the threat to US national security.
The analysis of this highly curious sanction stipulates two powerful messages to analysts. First, this is in conjunction with its national security strategy. The US sees democracies as more stable, richer, and producing fewer terrorists because rampant disregard of human rights violations produces widespread grievances in society. Impunity for human rights violations undermines public faith and confidence in the law and state. However, we should also acknowledge that the US has invited countries with dwindling democracies, like Pakistan and India, to the Summit. These countries are perhaps strategically more important to them.
If people feel they cannot peacefully and safely exercise their democratic rights to dissent and protest, this fuels resentment, anger and can destabilise the state, creating conflict and violence. Bangladesh is a country with a huge population, where the quality of elections remains questionable.Is it possible that US interests coincide with having a stable, functioning state, rather than a state persistently suppressing people through a draconian act like the Digitial Security Act, or through extrajudicial activities?
Second, the sanction seems to be an effort to balance with China, as China is yet to call out widespread allegations of human rights abuse in Bangladesh or raise questions about the quality of elections. Therefore, it is more likely that the US may consider this sanction as a deterrence strategy for Bangladesh so that it does not move towards China. It is undeniable that the US has a lot of leverage over Bangladesh as it is the biggest export destination of Bangladeshi products and the country's most significant development partner, on top of holding significant influence over the UN as one of its top donors.
Does the US expect that this pressure will induce reform in Bangladesh? The previous US policy toward Bangladesh appeared to be courting the country by keeping its criticism on democracy and human rights muted. The Democracy Summit and sanctions are an abrupt shift but, it is also part of the same goal of keeping Bangladesh from China. It is a switch from the "carrot" to the "stick" regarding Bangladesh, in hopes that it will induce democratic reforms, which will in turn keep it from China.
Critics, including the Democrats in the US, have a strong point about the "hypocrisy" of the sanction given the US' human rights record and the allegations that its justice system is racially biased. Police brutality towards Black populations and other people of colour in the US, too, puts a big dent in its image of championing human rights globally. However, one should acknowledge that police officers guilty of committing brutality regularly face courts in the US. By contrast, that record in Bangladesh is close to nil.
While the Bangladeshi government has rightly decided to engage with the US diplomatically, it should also engage in improving the democratic sphere of the country. Today, all the globally accepted indicators for measuring a country's democratic quality have been persistently depicting a regressive image of the nation.
For example, the World Press Freedom Index 2021 puts Bangladesh at 152 out of 180. It ranked 115th out of 128 countries in the rule of law index of the World Justice Project. The Freedom House termed it as a "partially free country", while the V-Dem index has categorised Bangladesh as an "electoral autocracy." A forum of international human rights organisations has been documenting allegations of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the country for many years, although the government has trashed those allegations as a "conspiracy against the state" and perpetrators have enjoyed impunity.
One can see how such an image of Bangladeshi politics and the human rights situation stands at odds with Biden's projected national security strategy, where emphasis on democracy is placed at the heart of US foreign policy.
Mubashar Hasan PhD is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI), University of Western Sydney, Australia.