Bangladesh’s foreign policy compulsions, constraints and choices

Policies are ethereal. Instead of a specific set of instructions, it is a general sense of being and a spatial sense of direction as to where we might be heading as a country, an institution, a society and an individual. Foreign policy sits at the heart of the art of statecraft. Its evolution is non-linear. Foreign Policy deals both with the vernacular and the elite and everything that falls in between.

The birth of modern foreign policy and the international legal regime underwriting it started with the Treaty of Westphalia. The Treaty gave shape to the jurisdiction of a very peculiar form of governance never seen before in the world: The Republic. This was the first time the world was experiencing governance based on mutual recognition amongst established status quos and the sovereign universality of law. The jurisprudence of international law, and thus the formulation of “foreign policy” as a definitive subject of governance further evolved and entrenched itself as subjects of public scrutiny and debate as Hugo Grotius adopted the concept of jus gentium directly as “international law” and Emer de Vattel articulated the droits des gens as benchmarks for interactions at state levels.

Foreign policy is a vast area almost as complex as human psychology. Foreign policy is closely related to the vortex of power – another mercurial construct. It is always a constant struggle to gain and retain power and to be accepted as powerful. All forms of security, sustenance, wealth and wellbeing can be connected to a form of power. A deep understanding of the history, culture and ethnic identities of the human societies – coupled with an ever-increasing understanding of the evolution of the political, economic, social, cultural, technological, environmental and legal nature of the tangible structures that these societies uphold – under the prying eyes of both the mainstream and social media and above all – the people – is what is necessary for contextualising the foreign policy of any country at any given point in time.

Bangladesh started with scorched earth, three million dead bodies and two hundred thousand women who were raped. On 16 December 1971, there was nothing but an indomitable resolve to survive the harsh winters of December. Fifty years have passed since then, and what some “foreign policy” pundits once referred to as a basket case with no hope of survival has now evolved into a “development miracle” and a “land of opportunity” under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the able daughter of the assassinated Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Thanks to a strong agricultural sector; a rapidly expanding RMG-led production and export; an unbroken remittance inflow – coupled with robust structural reforms – expanding and reconfiguring public sector investments into the formation of infrastructure assets; diversification of exports – to higher-value brands and integration of essentially middleware design and software components, have contributed to Bangladesh’s journey in becoming an epic saga of determined and charismatic leadership. The country’s economy has been growing at a sustained rate of more than six percent per annum for the last four decades, and had it not been stifled by the sudden onslaught of the COVID-19 paradox, it would have been lifted to an eight percent paradigm starting 2020. Even after nearly two years of COVID-19-induced constrictions, Bangladesh’s economy grew an astonishing 5.2 percent in 2021.

Bangladesh is located at the cusp of the vast North Indian landscape, particularly of Bengal and the Indian seven sisters, i.e., the North-eastern region, coasting on the frontiers of the Bay of Bengal funnel and touching the northwest tip of the troubled Myanmar territories. Its geo-spatial triangulations make it strategically important for invariably all major powers of the world. Apart from its regional development partners and neighbours, global warming and a rising sea level, Bangladesh also hosts two intersecting strategic “constructs” crossing their tactical pathways across the cone of the Bay of Bengal – and the landmass that is Bangladesh, i.e., the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI). On top, we are blessed with more than 160 million upwardly mobile and highly ambitious men and women whose median age is 27.6 years. As state-level functionaries and government operators, we are continually challenged with finding the right mix of both the head and the heart to keep this population engaged – a part of them globally.

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