Model foreign policy text in a perplexed world!

Bangladesh is practically not far away from the ramifications of Isreal’s barbaric acts in Gaza, protracted civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa, political uncertainties in the central Asia, disputes in the South China Sea or Russia’s war in Ukraine, no matter what the country’s geo-physical distance is from the spots. Wide ranging impacts of these inter-state crises and conflicts are seen in, say, shipping costs, food inflation, exchange rate fluctuation, and even hijacking of Bangladeshi ship by Somali pirates, journey of aspiring migrants through sea routes, and powerful countries’ treatment of Bangladesh as a peripheral country in the current global system.

After an undeclared death of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) initiated by Dhaka four decades ago, we are living in a region which is devoid of multilateralism. Such an environment has been aggravated by superpower rivalry, especially military-economic competition between the United States of America and China in the Indian ocean rim. This region comprising South, Southeast and East Asia, is the latest centre of gravity of the civilization in terms of industrial production, manpower and market size. Thus, we have no scope to live outside of its potentials and risks involved. Bangladesh’s population is half the size of Americaand larger than Russia’s. The next generation of leadership of this country, blessed with sea outlet, may no longer suffer the complex of Bangladesh’s being bracketed as a small state.

Due to the old legacy we have not been able to be freed from the stigma of external interference into our domestic affairs. The complaint usually comes from the government, as happened elsewhere. In our case, the opposition political forces and dissenting groups, too, raise allegations of meddling of outsiders into domestic politics

However, if you want to grow, you need to act as an independent entity and endure the lateral pressure and heat of the surrounding atmosphere.Bangladesh, created out of a bloody war, is rationally expected to be peace-loving country but the owners of this republic need to pay some price to secure stability and progress and assert sovereignty. Because, the world is not run as per our wish and a rule-based international system, if any, has also been more vulnerable these days. As WB Yeats wrote, in The Second Coming, ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…’

Parasite thinkers may not notice that the civil war between the Myanmar forces and ethnic insurgents have brought the ongoing conflict of the global politics to the border of Bangladesh. Already more than million Rohingya people of that country have been given shelter in this country but no fruitful cooperation for their repatriation came from the close neighbours. In a fast-changing world today, it’s been hard to find an ideal friend or permanent enemy among many counterparts.

In the age of massive flow of information, the new polarisation in relations between nations has in some cases bewildered even the experts of diplomacy. They wonder in what context a big neighbour like China could provide supports with arms to the rebels when there was a satellite regime in the capital. The rebel forces were rather supposed to be patronised by the US-led West.

The neo-cold war over the great power attempts to establish hegemony in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, of course, touches us as a nation. For instance, the names of a few global and regional powers have been associated with Bangladesh in various roles they played in the past three national elections. It is a matter of concern that our country has been part of a geopolitical game of chess or at least a troubled spectatorin a volatile scene. In such circumstances, do we know what our tasks are?

University teachers used to tell us that the main objective of foreign policy of any country is to maximise national interests, not to prioritise regime interest. In reality, we have certain deficiency in understanding it. The mindset of certain ideologues does not allow them to admit that the basis for friendship in inter-state affairs is national interest. As a result, they look for permanent friendship with one or two country/ies. After the end of the cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union, each state had to focus on upholding its distinct national position. And following the 9/11, 2001 incident, the pursuit of a prudent foreign policy demanded new thinking.

Unfortunately, due to the old legacy we have not been able to be freed from the stigma of external interference into our domestic affairs. The complaint usually comes from the government, as happened elsewhere.In our case, the opposition political forces and dissenting groups, too, raise allegations of meddling of outsiders into domestic politics. Before and after the 12th parliamentary polls held in January 2024, the ruling party camp was critical of America’s democracy project while the opposition parties accused India of extending overt and covert support to the regime in holding a one-sided election.

Although the interference of foreign powers into internal affairs is more of exposition of their own interests than the policy of the host, its impact on the recipient nation is far-reaching and often dangerous. Also, in today’s world, it is hard to delineate a clear dividing line between diplomatic decency and evaluation of the situation of another country. Human rights and democracy are the issuesabout which external people have scope to talk. Justification: no government on earth has the jurisdiction to kill its own people or to keep them deprived of any fundamental rights.

In the turn of the 20th century, another practice outside of official diplomatic pursuit in the international arena had been visible and that is track-II diplomacy, i.e. people-to-people contact. Revolutionary progress in communications, immigration and migration for higher education, increase in cross-border investment and trade, growth in tourism industry, cultural exchange, civil society movement etc. have played a significant role in shaping inter-state relations.

As a result of globalisation, demographic character of many countries is changing and the concept of conventional national interest is also losing effectiveness. No more has the position of the politicians been so strong in determining foreign policy in countries around the world. Instead, economic demands and aspirations of different pressure groups and interest of the corporate oligarchy are greatly influencing formulation and pursuit of foreign policy. Increase in foreign loans including private commercial loans of Bangladesh by 4-5 times in the past one and a half decades indicates the trend.

The conduct of diplomatic relations has become complicated further, following the leaks of diplomatic documents and evidences by platforms like Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, and spread of misinformation and disinformation by organised groups at the one hand, and limitless intelligence surveillance on the worldwide web, on the other – all taking advantage of the evolution of communications technology. Thus, fickle mindedness in inter-state relations have increased and the entire affairs of the foreign relations within a state have entirely gone to the pocket of powerful statesman and a handful of diplomats and business leaders. It is not the end of history and in fact we are in a historic transition from one phase of politics to another.

The living generation has scope to analyse the matters of foreign relations in the light of the realities, and work for changing the strategies to realise national interests and restructuring the decision-making process.

Now, the question remains as to where these policymaking decisions should be formulated and how. As far as we understand, the way war is not the sole authority of the generals, diplomacy is not either the business of the diplomats alone. Had the objectives of the economic diplomacy, for example, been attained as a result of bureaucratic impetus and exchange of letters by the embassies, the country’s more than 100 special economic zones could have been flooded with foreign investments by this time, and foreign exchange earning from export proceeds and remittances could have more than doubled to US$200 billion and US$100 billion respectively.

Many of the issues of geopolitics critical for the country are supposed to have been discussed at higher educational and research institutions, political conferences, adda (chit-chat) in villages, semi-rural and urban areas, business seminars, diplomatic and military academies, in parliament and on newspaper pages and televisions; all such discussions and criticisms could have contributed to formulating the best policies for the nation. Why won’t this process be irrelevant if we build a thoughtless society? In view of the liability of Hitler in the World War II, a number of generations in the post-Nazi Germany had to prove they are a pacifist and prosperous nation.

On the university campus in the 1980s and 1990s, the subjects of learning activities, political activism, and discussions and debates at dormitories essentially included international affairs that had implications for the country and beyond. We had had serious discussions on Palestinian Intifada (uprising), suppression of student demonstration at Tienanmen Square, the fall of Berlin wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the demise of the Soviet Union, World Environment Summit in Rio de Janeiro, or formation of the World Trade Organisation. In our village during the winter vacation in 1990-91, we witnessed an evening debate between old shopkeeper Babur Ali and his neighbour Halim Bagha. One raised objection to the occupation of an independent country by Saddam Hussein while the other questioned the right of George Bush in sending troops in the Arab land.

Parliamentary debates on the issues of foreign affairs took place in the 1990s, but there had been deterioration instead of progress later on. When a state faces civil war or undergoes political turmoil, its foreign policy weakens. The controversies surrounding the foreigners’ statements and activities in our country increased and the process of taking decisions on state policies got centralised parallelly. It would be hard to provethat the conscious citizens have not become more suspicious about the role of the foreign powers including the neighbours in the past two decades or so. Public opinions about the powerful countries that have higher engagements with Bangladesh on the political and economic fronts are now reflected in the posts on the social media.

Obviously, three main players in this process are the US, China and India. If they want to build long-term cooperative relations with the people of Bangladesh, they can rationally make necessary efforts; if they think what they are doing at present are all right, we have to understand, such standpoints are their well-thought-out strategic policies towards the Bangladeshis.

The future generations of this country would perhaps evaluate the foreigners active in Bangladesh, on the basis of their current activities and the policies the locals would undertake by then would be their absolute discretion. Still, the living generation has scope to analyse the matters of foreign relations in the light of the realities, and work for changing the strategies to realise national interests and restructuring the decision-making process.

In a critical stage of the world order, foreign policy may be defined as the management of international relations and policy of the country towards other countries and international organisations. ‘Foreign policy’ does in no way mean policy made abroad and by foreigners. Pundits often say foreign policy is the extension of domestic policy. If there is involvement of the people with domestic policymaking and sophistication is applied in decision-making process, the national leaders may be more capable of bargaining at the international level for maximising national interests.

Khawaza Main Uddin is a journalist.

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