Former advisor to India’s National Security Council, Brahma Chellaney is a professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Nine of his works have been published, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
How can it be that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made Bangladesh the center of its efforts to promote democracy by threatening officials who interfere with free elections with visa sanctions while remaining silent on Pakistan’s undeclared martial law situation where mass arrests, disappearances, and torture have been used as political weapons?
The short answer is that U.S. promotion of democratic rights has long been selective, with geopolitical considerations often dominant. The pursuit of moral legitimacy for the cause of democracy promotion has also contributed to making sanctions the tool of choice for U.S. policymakers.
In the case of Bangladesh, the Biden administration is seeking to leverage two other factors: that close relatives of many Bangladeshi politicians live in the U.S. or Britain, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son who holds an American green card; and that the bulk of Bangladesh’s exports go to the West, with the U.S. the top destination.
The short explanation is that the United States has historically been selective in its advocacy of democratic rights, frequently prioritizing geopolitical factors. Sanctions have been the preferred tactic for U.S. officials due to their pursuit of moral credibility for the goal of promoting democracy.
The Biden administration is attempting to take advantage of two additional factors in the case of Bangladesh: the fact that many Bangladeshi politicians have family members who reside in the United States or Great Britain, including the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has a green card; and the fact that the majority of Bangladesh’s exports are to the West, with the United States being their top market.
Few can object to what Secretary of State Antony Blinken says is the U.S. goal: that Bangladesh’s next election in early 2024 is free and fair. However, his threat to withhold visas from individuals “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process” is hardly conducive to the promotion of this aim. If anything, it is likely to prove counterproductive.
Hasina, daughter of the country’s independence leader and first head of state, contends that the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of regime change in her country. “They are trying to eliminate democracy and introduce a government that will not have a democratic existence,” she told parliament in April. “It will be an undemocratic action.”
Hasina has been the head of Bangladesh’s secular government since 2009, which the country’s Islamists despise. Under her leadership, the nation has had political stability and significant economic growth, however the global economic repercussions from the Ukraine crisis is currently straining the nation’s resources.
The remarkable growth trajectory of Bangladesh contrasts sharply with Pakistan’s ongoing political and economic unrest, which is currently teetering on the verge of default. However, Pakistan was invited to both of Biden’s Summits for Democracy, albeit it did not attend either of them, while Bangladesh was excluded from both of them in 2021 and earlier this year.
The Biden administration has criticized Bangladesh’s democratic regress while continuing to reward Pakistan by giving short-term geopolitical reasons top priority. It essentially frozen all of the assets in the United States in 2021 after designating Bangladesh’s elite Rapid Action Battalion and six of its current and former officials as complicit in, or engaged in, severe human rights abuses related to the nation’s war on drugs.
Insolently demanding that the authorities look into a fatal altercation between police and members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the nation’s main opposition party and an ally of radical Islamist organizations, Peter Haas, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, demanded it in December. More recently, Blinken told Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen of his “concerns about violence against, and intimidation of, the media and civil society,” according to a State Department statement.
Despite the fact that members of opposition parties were also mentioned in the announcement of the new policy, Blinken is obviously targeting Hasina’s government, particularly law enforcement and other security officers, with the use of visa sanctions.
However, punishing foreign leaders usually only has symbolic value and undermines diplomatic efforts. Additionally, it might have unforeseen effects.
Beijing turned down Washington’s request for U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart Gen. Li Shangfu to meet in Singapore earlier this month. Li’s inclusion on a U.S. sanctions list, to which he was added five years prior to his March appointment as defense minister, was mentioned by Beijing.
One could even argue that Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Myanmar military, along with three other senior commanders, were targets of U.S. sanctions prior to the coup that overthrew the country’s civilian government in 2021 because the generals may have felt they had little to lose by carrying it out. Since then, additional sanctions have only made matters worse and brought Myanmar closer to China.
U.S. sanctions haven’t succeeded in bringing about political change anywhere, from Myanmar and Iran to Belarus and Cuba. Sanctions spearheaded by the United States are becoming less and less effective due to the relative decrease of American influence and the gradual transfer of power from the West to the East. However, with the West still controlling the global financial architecture and the dollar remaining the world’s primary reserve currency, sanctions are still an attractive option for American policymakers.
The current strong attitude taken towards Dhaka is absurd. The Hasina administration may play a vital role in enhancing Asian security as well as the American battle on terror. Instead, there is a strain in the bilateral relations. When Hasina visited Washington last month for talks with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, no one from the Biden administration even met with her.
Austin stated that America “will not flinch in the face of bullying or coercion” from China when in Singapore thisBide month. However, using intimidation and pressure to achieve U.S. objectives in Bangladesh is likewise improbable.
In fact, bullying the world’s seventh-most populous country, far from helping to promote a free and fair election, is more likely to revive painful memories of how the U.S. looked the other way in 1971 as the Pakistani military brutally resisted Bangladesh’s efforts to achieve independence from Islamabad, slaughtering up to 3 million people. What is Washington really after now?