While everyone wants to be seen as acting in a “strategic” manner, the definition of this term varies widely as it is applied in different fields—from war, to business, to sports, to politics. At its core, strategy deals with the linkage of means to aims. Just as there are many different definitions of strategy, there are a variety of ways in which these can be assessed. It is also possible for a good strategy to fail in its implementation or for a bad strategy to succeed despite its flaws. All of this provides ample grist for pundits who talk about strategy. At the risk of opening a debate about terms or metrics, I would like to briefly look at strategies being employed during Bangladesh’s current political crisis in the wake of late-July’s street clashes.
Like the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, I think any discussion of strategy needs to start with the objective. For the two major political factions in Bangladesh, their clear objective is retaining (Awami League) or obtaining (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) power. I don’t think we should kid ourselves into thinking that either party has any higher-minded objective. For the two parties’ leaderships, the only definition of success is whether they ultimately end up sitting on the throne. As recent events have demonstrated, there is little in the parties’ strategies in this round that differs from those employed during their previous conflicts. All that has changed over time is their respective positions. In sum, neither party has been very creative in developing or implementing it’s preferred strategy.
For the United States, the clear objective is for the political conflict to end with a government in Dhaka that can be an effective regional and global partner, and which will implement domestic policies that advance the goal of a stable and more prosperous Bangladesh. Given the recurring cycles of violence and instability in Bangladesh over the years, another U.S. objective is for the current crisis to be resolved in a manner that will provide a more durable solution to the country’s political dysfunction. The U.S. insistence on free and fair elections is predicated on the belief that a more democratic Bangladesh is key to achieving its objectives. Other international actors have a variety of objectives, some which overlap with the United States and others which differ markedly.
Recently, the United States has signaled that its strategy for achieving its objectives in Bangladesh will include both carrots and sticks. In the former category, the U.S. has dangled the prospect of a closer future partnership. In the latter, the U.S. has indicated its willingness to sanction individuals undermining the democratic process while limiting the growth of other areas of the bilateral relationship. Given its reaction to a recent flawed election in Cambodia, the U.S. appears ready to make good on these threats. It is unclear, however, whether the Biden Administration is prepared to go further-either with offering incentives for Bangladesh to hold free elections or in terms of broader bilateral or multilateral sanctions against those undermining the democratic process. Ultimately, U.S. decision making will depend on the level of resources Washington is willing to invest in influencing the outcome in Bangladesh and on it’s assessment of the likelihood of success.
While it is too early to assess whether any of the players have adopted the right strategies, it is not too early for them to evaluate their success thus far. With only months remaining before anticipated general elections, it is an appropriate point for leaders in Bangladesh and the United States to assess the likelihood that they will achieve their objectives and if not, whether they are prepared to revise their strategies. This would include looking at their objectives, the resources they are prepared to invest, and the alternatives available to employ those resources to achieve their goals. This willingness to reassess and change strategies is often what separates history’s winners from it’s losers.