Biden-Bangladesh: Back to square one

With little leverage to impede Bangladesh’s authoritarianism, US policy towards the country will continue to be primarily transactional.

Biden-Bangladesh: Back to square one
A photo of Joe Biden as Democratic candidate taken in February 2020. He was inaugurated as US president on January 20th 2021. Photo: Julien Kouame/Alamy

When Netra News asked me to write an article on what changes, if any, we could expect in Bangladesh’s relations with the United States under the incoming Biden administration, my immediate reaction was that this would be a happy article to write. Since we expect the Biden administration to be particularly progressive in terms of its domestic policy in the US, aimed at reversing the inept, regressive, and authoritarian policies of the Trump administration, as well as having a foreign policy designed to restore US influence and prestige in the world, why should that not result in as least a more cordial and productive relationship between the two countries?

As I began to think about that question and review some of the articles I have written about Bangladesh in the past decade, however, it dawned on me that while Biden will actually bring a series of radical changes aimed at restoring the US to some semblance of the liberal democracy it was before Trump, Bangladesh has moved in exactly the opposite direction over the last decade, toward an illiberal, authoritarian regime. Why should we expect much improvement between a state trying to shore up and strengthen its democratic system, after a narrow escape from authoritarianism, and a regime in which its leaders seem to believe that it has escaped from democracy and arrived at a sustainable autocracy? In other words, why should relations between two states with no common enemies and political systems moving in the opposite direction suddenly have their relationship become more cordial and productive? I could find no reason.

I am not expecting the relations between the US and Bangladesh to deteriorate, because I do not expect the Awami League government in Bangladesh to actively look for ways to provoke the US; but I do not expect the South Asian country, either, to suddenly become more democratic, to eschew the repressive measures it now has mastered to maintain its tight hold of power, or to suddenly experience a democratic epiphany that would lead it to conduct a free and fair election. That would be so unnatural as to be a pipedream. So, my conclusion is that the relationship will remain pretty much as it is now, a relationship which seems to me to be solidly transactional — agreement to work together on issues that both countries find in their interest (e.g. anti-terrorism policies, certain narrow development assistance programs that transfer resources or technical training, caution with regard to China) while agreeing to disagree on internal political matters, particularly on human rights and the repression that Bangladesh routinely uses to stifle any political opposition and its almost total suppression of freedom of speech.

And, perhaps most importantly, unless some serious crisis erupts in Bangladesh, I do not expect the country itself, even with its present political architecture, to rise any higher on the political radar of the new Biden administration than it was on the Trump or the Obama administrations before it. This is most unlikely, in fact, because of Biden’s very large and ambitious political and economic agenda for the US itself and the equally enormous problems Biden will have in accomplishing it.

I spent a lot of time in 2014 writing about Bangladesh and the political direction it was choosing and spent an equal amount of time trying to convince the US State Department that a tougher policy was needed. This was the Obama administration, and my pleas were politely ignored. The Obama team had bigger fish to fry, which I suspect concerned its growing relationship with India, which was supportive of Bangladesh’s political direction. I was essentially arguing in my entreaties to the State Department at that time that the US should make Bangladesh’s march towards authoritarianism a more important theme of the relationship. The State Department response was, essentially, that the broad spectrum of US interests in South Asia precluded such a change in emphasis in that relationship. Given the rise of terrorist groups and sympathies in Bangladesh in later years, that now appears to have been a forceful argument. However, the policy that flowed from it, particularly in anti-terrorism cooperation, allowed Bangladesh to use counter-terrorism as a cloak for its authoritarian behavior.  

One abiding problem is that many Western and most US policy makers know of Bangladesh only from its impressive economic and social successes. Somehow the glamour of a country which was believed to be a permanent “basket case”, when it was created out of a bloody war, one that we feared would remain in our lifetimes and beyond a supplicant at the trough of foreign assistance and charity, had in the space of about 30 years, by good policies and the energy its people, turned itself into an economic powerhouse in South Asia (at least until the pandemic). During this same time period, Bangladesh had brought its social indicators from near the bottom of South Asian countries to near the top. This romantic narrative has drowned out the ugly tale of its deliberate political march toward authoritarianism as well as its ugly authoritarian methods — with its serial and serious human rights abuses — to ensure that domestic opposition to that retreat from democracy would be silenced.   

Seven years ago, another problem was the Obama administration’s (and I might add, the Democratic Party’s) love affair with India. I suspect this has altered. The Democrat’s view of India has certainly changed with the right-wing Modi government in power, but while India grows more authoritarian and nationalist itself, it remains a bulwark and the chief US ally against a China that is flexing its muscles in the region even more now, and which I suspect guided the Trump administration in its policy toward Bangladesh.

One change that may occur will be the Biden administration’s increased interest in the human rights situation in Bangladesh. Its public statements on human rights abuses, as they occur, will likely be much sharper and more pointed. This will not please the Awami League government, which has managed to ignore, without any discernible penalty from the international community, the barrages of international criticism it has received over the past decade as the abuses have worsened. Yet, I think the Biden government in Washington will soon learn, if it does not already know, that US leverage with the Bangladesh government has shrunk to almost nothing. As a result, the US reaction to Bangladesh will be cautious in order to maintain what little leverage it has to ensure that Bangladesh does not turn even more towards China; the US ability to use resource transfer promises to counter China’s influence will be severely limited.

All this seems to be little different than the relationship that has developed over the last 8-10 years, as the US watched helplessly as the country moved steadily away from a dysfunctional democracy towards authoritarianism and silently witnessed a shamelessly and overtly stolen election in 2018 that locked in and finalised the authoritarian system now firmly in place.

Given the super heavy agenda Biden needs to accomplish his goals, the only thing that might bring on a more active and anti-authoritarian theme in US policy toward Bangladesh is the rise of an active, united, politically attractive opposition. I thought we might have had one in 2018, but it was not strong, united, or politically attractive enough to persuade most of those supportive of an alternative to the Awami League to come out in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the government’s vote-rigging processes. A viable opposition that has any chance of attracting active international support is one that requires the major opposition party to undertake serious reforms, and that starts with fresh, new leadership.●

William B Milam was US ambassador to Bangladesh between 1990 and 1993 and is now a Public Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.