One of the greatest challenges for diplomats is to remain focused on the most critical issues in a bilateral relationship. Even with the best designed strategy, there will inevitably be frequent distractions that complicate implementation plans. These distractions can vary in both amplitude and duration, and may occur back in the diplomats’ homeland, elsewhere in the world, or in their country of assignment. Diplomats can be certain that those who wish to see them fail in their endeavors will seek to take advantage of these distractions. Recognizing this, the best diplomats will quickly adjust to new circumstances and refocus their country’s efforts towards achieving their highest priority goals.
As the date for Bangladesh’s next general election approaches, there have been significant disruptions in the global environment that have complicated the task of American diplomats who have been focused on promoting democracy and human rights. These disruptions include the ongoing war in Ukraine and the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East. The latter, in particular, has provoked strong reactions around the world, including in Bangladesh and the region. Meanwhile, back at home the political contest leading to U.S. Presidential elections in 2024 is also heating up, with trials against former President Trump proceeding and infighting within both major political parties.
At the same time, the group of like-minded countries who have historically shared the United States’ policy regarding democracy and human rights appears to be more divided and distracted than previously. Canada’s ongoing row with India has not translated into a more aggressive policy in South Asia. Australia, Japan, and South Korea seem to be primarily focused on countering Chinese aggression in East Asia and have not pressed the Bangladesh government on its human rights record. The European Union (led by France) has apparently decided that selling airplanes and expanding trade relations is more important than pursuing a values agenda. Even the special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. does not seem to have translated into a united front pressing for human rights and democracy in Bangladesh.
In light of the changing global environment, and with traditional partners opting to pursue other agendas, it would be natural to question the wisdom of keeping human rights and democracy at the center of the United States’ bilateral relationship with Bangladesh. It would be easy to focus instead on the other elements of the relationship which continue to attract resources and attention from policymakers, to include fighting global climate change and meeting the needs of Rohingya refugees. No doubt, important constituencies at home and abroad would welcome such a shift from Washington.
So, should the U.S. remain focused on promoting free and fair elections as a step towards restoring democracy and respect for human rights in Bangladesh? My answer to that question is a resounding yes, as should be obvious to anyone who has read my earlier writing. At this juncture, I would like to offer some questions that policy makers will need to consider as they approach the coming months. How important is it that Bangladesh avoids a repetition of 2014 or 2018 and its citizens have a real opportunity to choose their leaders? What will happen in Bangladesh if the U.S. changes its policy and the forces of autocracy emerge emboldened? How much support do the pro-democracy forces have? Is PM Hasina as strong as she would like the world to think? What lessons will the region, and the world, take from a U.S. decision to back away from its principled position in Bangladesh? How much does it matter whether or not the U.S. is on the right side of history?
As they ponder these questions, all observers should also pay close attention to the upcoming opposition and government rallies. Ultimately Bangladesh’s future will be determined by its own citizens, regardless of what the United States and other foreign actors choose to do. In the end, the answer that will matter most may be the one that is given on Dhaka’s streets.