Saturday, June 15, 2024

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Dhaka Tribune

The paradox of promoting American democracy

Is America’s involvement in Bangladesh’s political system in our best interest, or theirs?

Update : 15 Jul 2023, 03:50 PM

While Washington has a long history of backing non-democratic forms of government, it has also consolidated democratic regimes and intervened to topple democratically elected governments. Promoting democracy has been a significant component of American identity and foreign policy. 

To demonstrate that in today's rapidly changing world, democracy still serves the interests of its constituents, the Biden administration has placed a strong emphasis on strengthening democracy at home and among already-existing democratic partners. However, America's own democracy is under intense criticism, and the promotion of democracy abroad is America's 20th highest priority in terms of policy.

The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and Sanctions Act have all been passed under Countering America's Adversaries in order to impose sanctions against other countries' governments, citizens, and organizations. In 2021, the American government sanctioned 9421 people and organizations for harming other nations' sovereignty, economic prosperity, and security under these Acts.

Across the world, there are disparities in how harshly countries are sanctioned. For instance, America's rhetoric about democracy and human rights does not apply to the Arab nations. Critics claim that America doesn't hesitate to support autocrats or strike hostile governments in order to further its strategic self-interest. The United States has forged alliances with less democratic, but strategically significant, nations in the face of shifting global political dynamics to counter its adversaries. 

America's favourable relations with Egypt, Pakistan, or Thailand cast doubts on its plans to consolidate democracy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are stark examples of how the US was only interested in advancing its counter-terrorism agenda and not in eradicating gender discrimination, human rights abuses, or autocracy in those countries.

Political meddling, regime change, or military intervention have all been used in various countries as part of efforts to strengthen democracy. In this regard, Latin America and the Caribbean serve as excellent examples. The United States had a significant impact on and provided assistance for the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. 

The American State Department acknowledged having a significant impact on numerous regime shifts. In essence, the USA is acting on its own interest by combating human rights abuses or advancing democracy. It is important to note that 50 percent of the almost 80 nations that host American bases are non-democratic or have limited democratic systems.

Westerners regularly decry the lack of democracy in Bangladesh. Yet, the USA supported the military dictatorship of West Pakistan during the 1971 Liberation War, as well as an autocratic government that perpetrated genocide and human rights violations. The failure of the West Pakistanis to democratically transfer power after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League won the election in 1970 led to a nine-month deadly war that cost millions of lives in the fight for Bangladesh's independence. The US, the symbol of democracy, still backed Pakistan, in what was a flagrant violation of its democratic principles.

The strategic geography of the Bay of Bengal is significant to the broader idea of the Indo-Pacific due to shifting geopolitical conditions. The Bay of Bengal region has the potential to develop into the intersection of the Indo-Pacific concept and the interests of the main countries. This affects the US policy for the Indo-Pacific region's aim of promoting democracy. 

Naturally, Bangladesh has developed into a strategically significant nation in the region given its location halfway between South and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh made it plain in its Indo-Pacific view that it desires a free, tranquil, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific for shared prosperity. Bangladesh adheres to the "friendship to all, malice to none" principle as well.

According to Stephen Biegun, America aims to establish effective coalitions in the Indo-Pacific region and wants Bangladesh to be a key player. Although Bangladesh has a strong commitment to non-interference and sovereignty principles, if an approach aims to overthrow the country's democratically elected government by applying sanctions, it would dampen Bangladesh's desire for closer cooperation with the US. 

In the end, the USA may have fewer opportunities to influence future developments. Furthermore, employing sanctions and unethical methods to overthrow a government will only undermine the region's peace and prosperity, and empower fundamentalists and extremists.

Focusing on the will of the people, their active engagement, and their inclusion in the democratic process and outcome is preferable to focusing solely on the institutional framework because democracy encompasses much more than just elections. 

A political party's participation in the election is not an essential demand for democracy. Political parties are not the only participants in a democracy; citizens are also encouraged to cast their ballots in person at the polls. Citizens' interest and involvement in politics are lacking, as evidenced by the declining voter turnout in city corporation elections or by-polls.

This may be for a variety of reasons. A study done between 1960 and 2011 that considered 108 countries found that (1) more electoral contestation lowers voter turnout; (2) turnout is higher under compulsory voting; and (3) coercion against opposition actors and the fear of harsh government retaliation increase turnout. Concerns have been raised about the levels of voting turnout in several developed democracies, including the USA.

A well-informed populace is essential to democracy, but when people are subjected to misinformation and propaganda, the democratic system loses its credibility. Voters influenced by propaganda and false information gradually lose faith in the electoral process. The opposition politics in Bangladesh today are also a barrier to democracy since they are fragmented, self-contained, and lack intellectual cohesion.

A nation's history and context play a role in how its democracy develops. In light of this, a country's political system ought to be decided by its own citizens. Democracy shouldn't be understood as a system where voters cast ballots every five years and are then forgotten. 

In order to assure the democratic process and results, true democracy must have both procedural and substantive democracy. The current priority for Bangladesh must be substantive democracy.

Substantive democracy is a form of government with a set of ideals that cannot be attained in a short period of time, particularly when undemocratic governments have ruled the nation for more than two decades, altering the socio-political structure.

If the United States truly cared about the development of democracy in Bangladesh, it could fund the capacity-building and training of political activists and members of civil society in order to develop well-informed voters. The USA might provide technical support to the Election Commission and civil society to increase voter turnout or make voting booths accessible to people with disabilities rather than sending diplomats to influence the political parties, naming and shaming, and enforcing penalties. America, a developed country, could assist Bangladesh in its goal of achieving real democracy -- if it wanted to.

However, it might remain advantageous for both nations to concentrate on their strategic commitments to develop their bilateral ties and support one another in addressing their individual weaknesses while maintaining mutual respect and trust.

Bangladesh has a unique strategy in the shifting geopolitical landscape that no amount of pressure can change. The people of Bangladesh should autonomously decide the country's political future since Bangladesh has great respect for its sovereignty. 

The USA needs to realize that Bangladeshis are capable of making their own decisions. Bangladeshis don't need a world leader to tell them what to do or choose their country's political system for them, especially not in the guise of democracy or human rights.

Ranajit Mazumder is a political analyst and a freelance contributor

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