Over the past year, the United States has invested considerable diplomatic energy in an effort to promote free, fair and inclusive elections in Bangladesh as part of a broader attempt to promote democracy and human rights. While the visa policy announced in May has received the most attention, the U.S. diplomatic initiative included a significant effort to engage with Bangladeshi government officials, political parties, and other elements of civil society. U.S. engagement took place in both Washington and Dhaka during the annual structured partnership dialogue and high-level military and economic forums and involved a variety of senior U.S. officials. During these engagements, U.S. officials stressed the multi-faceted areas of bilateral cooperation and joint efforts to deal with regional and global challenges. Throughout, the U.S. emphasized that respect for human rights and democracy in Bangladesh would help create conditions for a further expansion of the bilateral relationship and a more prominent place for the country in an expanding Indo-Pacific partnership. While the U.S. did cancel a limited number of visas in line with the May policy, the strategy to push for free and fair elections involved more carrots than sticks.
Despite these efforts, it is now clear that the U.S. attempt to coax Prime Minister Hasina and her government into creating conditions for free, fair and inclusive elections has failed. The Bangladesh government ultimately rejected U.S. calls for dialogue, and other international partners chose to largely stand on the sidelines as the political confrontation on Dhaka’s street kicked off in late October. The Election Commission has now announced the election schedule, thousands of opposition leaders have been jailed, and the ruling party appears determined to push through with another one-sided election. The success of its efforts will depend on the degree to which Bangladeshi voters turn out at the polls and the extent to which the results are seen as legitimate. Past attempts to hold one-sided elections in Bangladesh have had a range of results-2014 (succeeded); 1996 (failed); and 1988 (partially succeeded). It remains to be seen how the 2024 elections will fare in this respect.
Having invested significant resources in a failed effort to promote dialogue and compromise, it is now time for the U.S. to reassess its relationship with Bangladesh and adopt a different approach to dealing with the regime. Developments in Dhaka are taking place at a time of considerable global unrest, with U.S. resources being spread thin in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel and the latter’s reaction, and the looming Chinese threats to East Asian security. Meanwhile, the U.S. faces a crisis at its borders and significant domestic political and economic challenges. In this light, it is worth asking whether the U.S. should redirect these resources to where they will do more good.
This is a question that the Biden Administration and Congress will have to answer. As a first step, it would make sense for the State Department to recall Ambassador Haas for consultations to help chart the way forward. Ambassador Haas and his team at the U.S. Embassy have done tremendous work over the past year under considerable pressure and the failure to achieve ambitious policy goals should not be laid at their feet. As they review options, U.S. officials (in consultation with Congress) should look at all the options available to influence developments within Bangladesh, including making clear that there are real costs of continuing down the autocratic path. This would include redirecting U.S. development assistance resources, both those provided through bilateral programs and those delivered via multilateral institutions such as the specialized U.N. agencies. U.S. security assistance efforts, supporting Bangladesh’s military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies, should also be placed on hold as long as these entities continue to support the regime’s efforts to stifle dissent. High level diplomatic engagement, such as the annual Partnership Dialogue and subsidiary efforts focused on military and economic talks, should also be paused. In addition, the U.S. should use its voting power in the IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank to make sure these institutions are also not rewarding bad behavior in Bangladesh. Finally, as worker rights continue to come under threat in Bangladesh, the Administration and Congress should look closely at trade policy to determine whether to impose restrictions on RMG imports. At the same time, Washington should continue to look for ways to support democracy and human rights defenders and civil society actors who face increased pressure from the regime.
Of all the strategies that the U.S. has tried in Bangladesh over the past 15 years of the country’s slide to authoritarianism, one of selective disengagement would be unique. It may be that a policy of “business as usual” while pushing for democracy and human rights has sent mixed messages to the regime and observers on all sides. In the current environment, it is not realistic to think that the U.S. will abandon its support for democracy and human rights and fall in line with India, China and Russia. The logical alternative then is for the U.S. to recalibrate its efforts and convince other democratic states to follow its lead. When the pendulum swings back to democracy in Bangladesh, then the U.S. should consider fully reinvesting in the country’s success. Until then, it is time to stop throwing good money after bad and pretending that engagement alone will achieve the desired results.