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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Status quo ante in Washington’s foreign policy

Dictators and human rights abusers should worry, but not too much yet

Update : 26 Mar 2021, 08:06 PM

As is the case every time a new administration takes office in Washington DC, the chattering classes go into overdrive in most capitals of the world to read the tea leaves to divine what “this means for us.” The intensity of such punditry increases in direct proportion of a capital’s cultural (and sometimes physical) distance from the hallowed environs of America’s seat of government.

The bad news for the perceived perspicacity of many such savants of the inkwell and keyboards and broadcast waves is that when it comes to Bangladesh, very little of substance is likely to change in the Biden administration. 

President Biden campaigned partly on the idea of restoring “normalcy” to the body politic in Washington DC; in foreign policy, that “normal” has been fairly stable since the end of the Cold War until Donald Trump’s presidency shook it in unpredictable ways. With Trump no longer directing foreign policy, we can expect the foreign affairs consensus of Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama to return under a Biden administration.

That consensus centres around keeping America’s strategic advantage as the premier global superpower and maintaining a deterrence against emerging challengers China and Russia while keeping an eye on the ambitions of a volatile Iran and a mercurial North Korea. Playing a support role in this strategy is a strong European Union, a vibrant Anglosphere, and a strong Israel. Secondary support comes in the form of robust trade relationships and stronger international institutions. 

The personnel decisions that President Biden has made for his foreign policy team certainly suggest a greater emphasis on supporting democratic aspirations and pluralism around the world, in stark contrast to the style of Trump appointees whose affinity for boorish foreign actors or servility to Putinist desires often embarrassed even Republican grandees. 

Such an emphasis should not be presumed to be much more than one ingredient in a recipe as the Biden administration’s handling of the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khasoggi has already shown. Human rights will play a part but certainly not the lead role in determining policy development for the State Department, unless there are major strategic issues involved. 

So governments in Riyadh, Dhaka, or Yangon can breathe at ease for now, the occasional irritant of travel sanctions on some bureaucrats as a possibility notwithstanding. Regimes in Tehran or Caracas, on the other hand, may have quite a few more sanctions.

For relatively peripheral countries like Bangladesh, even beyond the policy-making in Washington DC, another well-known phenomenon has always been at work too: The portfolio is considered decided subsidiary to the Big One in the region. South Africa, India, and Brazil are the big lenses, and often interlocutors, through which their smaller neighbours are perceived in Washington. A look at the staffing quantity and quality at the regional and country desks in the State Department and, indeed, commonsensical policy-crafting economies, make such an approach quite reasonable. 

An old joke from my graduate school days was that when it came to policy-making vis-à-vis Bangladesh, the State Department found the brightest grad student bubbling with an enthusiasm for developmental economics and a minor in Bengali to fill the slots.

To put it in starker terms, China is a top threat to the United States’ pre-eminent position in the world and India, even with its troubling human rights record of late, provides a counter-balancing weight; don’t expect the US to overlook that calculation no matter how the regimes in Yangon or Dhaka or Kabul behave. Size matters more than the rights of people in the calculations of geo-politics, as unfortunate as that can be at times.

Such a cold power calculus certainly does not signify an absence of concerns about American values. Au contraire, the prominence of diplomats like Anthony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Samantha Powers in the foreign policy team of President Biden suggests that foreign governments with sketchy human rights records, even tactical allies among them, will face uncomfortable questions on democratic governance and human rights, questions that were deliberately given the short shrift under the previous administration. 

A further policy-making aspect to keep in mind is that the foreign affairs committees of both chambers of Congress are now headed by Democrats who not only belong to the President’s party and thus have access to his ear, but also put importance on the role of human rights in the conduct of foreign relations.

All said, as of now, President Biden’s policies towards the world are neither going to be revolutionary in nature nor radical in their departure from his predecessor. We are likely to simply witness a status quo ante to the pre-Trump bipartisan consensus in Washington in regards to foreign affairs. Dictators and human rights abusers should worry, but not too much yet.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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