Bangladesh: America’s New Partner

The unfamiliar sight of two women from different parts of the World, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni of Bangladesh addressing a joint press conference in Washington are signs of the new smart power being unleashed by the United States under President Barack Obama who wants to use, “the tempering qualities of humility and restraint” to engage the World. In this endeavour Bangladesh could well be America’s new partner.

This is a sharp turnaround for the United States whose Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger had most uncharitably called Bangladesh a, “basket case”, in 1974.

The humbling of the United States in the past few decades and with possible defeat staring in the face in Afghanistan, reconnecting with the Muslim World has been a priority for President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Bangladesh is an important constituent of the Muslim world, a populous, moderate and secular country with a women prime minister. So it was ,“Iftar” diplomacy for Hillary who dined and feted Dipu Moni in Washington with a possible meeting between Sheikh Hasina and the President in the offing.

The US President Obama and Secretary of State seem to be having a similar world view of the country as they see in it a Muslim majority country which is also very secular in its approach. This is the Cairo doctrine of the President unfolding in which Bangladesh and Indonesia are major role players. This was evident in Hillary’s statement during the joint press meet thus, “As a country with a strong secular and democratic heritage, a record of respect for women, a Muslim majority population, Bangladesh embodies the promise that President Obama spoke of in Cairo”.

That the country also has a women Prime Minister, Home and Foreign Minister adds to the image of Bangladesh as a moderate Islamic state even as in other countries as Malaysia, there is consternation over lashing of a young woman for drinking beer in public. The second attraction of Bangladesh to America is democracy ushered in by vibrant, free and fair elections.

Beyond the rhetoric and niceties of diplomacy though a deeper engagement between the US and Bangladesh will depend on how much economic synergy develops between the two. Thus it was natural that the two dominating topics between Hillary and Moni were trade and investment, enhanced economic engagement and creating an atmosphere for U.S. companies and investors to expand their activities in Bangladesh.

Not said as much though were the endemic problems in Bangladesh’s political economy marred by corruption and extortion. The inability of the Awami League government to control the same has been its bane and not much hope lies ahead for many influential members of the party are alleged to be involved in such activities as per Bangla media.

The Bangla foreign minister also sought duty-free and quota-free access for Bangladeshi products into the U.S. market, Hillary assured to look into the same. The Trade and Investment Framework Agreement was also discussed, but with the US Congress having the deciding say in such matters there would be complex negotiations ahead. Dipu Moni also made a strong plea for drawal from the Millennium Challenge Account and provision of debt relief. But here again the US was non committal given the complexity of operating the account and the large number of aspirants for the same.

Cooperation in counterterrorism was another key topic as well as social and human rights related issues. With climate change likely to cause large scale land erosion in Bangladesh this was also said to be a major issue.

Deporting the killers of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, some of whom have reportedly been living in the U.S was one of the principal pleas by the Bangladesh foreign minister. Here again the US State department may not have much say given that it has no capacity to influence the legal processes in the country.

Dr. Dipu Moni also met key Republican Senator Senator Lugar and thanked him for authoring the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA). The Foreign Minister suggested debt waiver under the TFCA and sought Senator Lugar’s personal assistance in this regard.

The United States along with India and Britain played a major role in ensuring that timely elections were held in Bangladesh after a long hiatus of Emergency in 2007 and 2008. It obviously wants to carry this relationship forward to build bridges with the country and through it possibly the Islamic world. How far it succeeds would depend on how much money it is willing to invest in Bangladesh economy by supporting trade and providing aid.

These are complex issues which have no easy solution, but a firm commitment alone will sustain the bond. Else the Clinton- Moni dialogue may be smart paper rather than smart power, for it should be noted that there does not appear to be much interest on Bangladesh in the US media. For the joint press meet there were only two media persons, one from a Bangla daily and another AP reporter who in fact questioned Hillary on the new Japanese government.

So we have to see how far the US can drive the relationship with Bangladesh purely on the smart power agenda of the President and Secretary of State.   


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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