‘Friendship to all’

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addresses the United Nations General Assembly. File Photo
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addresses the United Nations General Assembly. File Photo

“The extension of domestic policy is foreign policy.” This is so far the most precise and the most pointed definition of foreign policy ever. Famous Prussian diplomat and politician Prince Otto von Bismarck connoted the idea of foreign policy in 19th century.

In brief, the foreign policy of the newly liberated Bangladesh led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was quite a bit reflection of Bismarck’s view. The domestic affairs were main determinants behind the formation of Bangladesh’s foreign policy. Domestic realities guided the leaders of the new nation to form the principle of foreign policy aimed at effective international relations.

One may term Bangladesh’s foreign policy ‘neorealistic’ as Bangabandhu persistently tried to come out of the then battling superpowers through ‘common sovereignty’ by joining different international organisations, especially the United Nations and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Organisation of the Islamic Conference [now, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)].

Immediate after Bangabandhu’s home return, he declared, “I would like it (Bangladesh) to become the Switzerland of the East.” (Principles of International Relations, by Md Abdul Halim)

The word Switzerland had at least two meanings – peaceful coexistence and national development. In an article published in Asian Affairs, professor Emajuddin Ahamed explained the ‘peace approach’ of Bangabandhu’s foreign policy. He wrote, “Bangladesh desires peace not only for the sake of peace but also for the strategic consideration of national development and security.”

After the Independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh emerged as a new sovereign element in South Asian politics with very strategic geographic location through very complicated international politics. Bangladesh was born at the time ‘when a global transformation of power was going on with the formation of the Indo-Soviet axis vis-a-vis Sino-American rapprochement which not only had a bearing on the emergence of Bangladesh but also had an impact on the foreign policy of the country that was emerging’ (Banglapedia).

Though each and every prerequisite for being a sovereign country was present in the new South Asian nation, it also needed recognition from outer world. Following the costly war with Pakistan, Bangabandhu attained a Bangladesh whose economy was completely collapsed, whose security was at stake, whose communications was destroyed and whose population was in serious crisis of food. But, Bangladesh had nothing left to rebuild its economy alone to feed the 71 million people, to repair its infrastructures and re-strengthen its security posture. The country even had no leverage in the complicated international politics either. Bangabandhu had to start everything from the beginning.

So, a political space in the international arena and economic assistance from outside the world were very necessary for the country. It was basically the top priority of the war-torn nation. To pursue the goal, Bangabandhu travelled across the world and tried to make everybody understand about the realities of the new nation.

Yet, Bangabandhu did not want any more enemies for the Bangladeshi people. Thus, he retreated from Bangladesh’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmed’s stance ‘not to take aid from any country which opposed our liberation struggle’. So he declare, “We are a small country, we want friendship with all and malice towards none.”

At the same time, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wanted to keep free its foreign policies from any further foreign influence. To pursue the goal and to come out of the then existing superpowers’ rivalry, two year after the independence in 1971, Bangladesh joined Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At the first conference in the same year, Bangabandhu managed to draw attention of the world leaders.

NAM was born to “create an independent path in world politics that would not result in member states becoming pawns in the struggle between the major powers.”

The primary objectives of NAM were “support of self-determination”, “Independent and respect for the sovereignty of all nations”, “resistance against colonialism, neo-colonialism, foreign occupation, and domination”, non-interference into the internal affairs of states and peaceful co-existence among all countries.”

As a member, Bangladesh had to adopt the aforementioned NAM’s principles to its foreign policy along with a few others more.

Attending UN General Assembly on 17 September 1974 for the first time, Mujibur Rahman cleared his throat and said, “Bangladesh has consistently pursued an independent non-aligned foreign policy promoting friendship with all countries of the world on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other' states”(Banglapedia).

As a signatory of the United Nation’s charter, Bangladesh had to act upon the UN’s charter where article 2(4) reads, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

It also complies with the article 2(7) of the UN Charter. “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

As a member state of the UN, Bangladesh had to adopt all the principles of the UN to its foreign policies where it clearly mentioned “respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence, and non-interference in the internal affairs of the state.”

Bangabandhu’s foreign policy was always ahead of its time. Bangladesh still is enjoying the successes of Bangabandhu’s foreign policy.

One of the key successes of Bangabadhu’s foreign policy was attaining access to Bay of Bengal. Back in 1974, just three years into the independence, Bangladesh had to sit with Myanmar to settle down its sea access. Both the nations then agreed to have “delimitation of their respective territorial seas to a distance of 12 nautical miles from their coastlines” (27 March 2012, The Daily Star). After the 41 years, Bangladesh won the negotiation over Bay of Bengal and narrowly escaped sea-lock by Myanmar and India.

The very first success of his foreign policy was earning India’s consent to withdraw its soldiers from newly liberated Bangladesh in a quicker time. Just three months into the liberation war, on 19 March Bangabandhu inked a 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with India and established strong bilateral relations.
*Toriqul Islam is a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]