International Relations 101
At a recent roundtable on the future direction of Bangladesh's foreign policy, former Ambassador Harunur Rashid said, "There is no consensus or bi-partisanship regarding the country's foreign policy." There was nothing special about the statement, we know it to be true but what was not mentioned is that foreign policy around the world is often dictated in the same manner. It would be deluded to think everyone in the Senate and the House of Representatives agrees on America's foreign policy, it would also be just as laughable to think the Labour Party and the Conservatives unite when mapping out the Britain's foreign affairs. His damning statement was a half-truth and in the end only truly portrayed half the picture. What he should have said was that Bangladesh's foreign policy is close to non-existent and our governments have continued to diminish our role on the international stage.
With elections around the corner, there is a need for our political parties to put forward their foreign policy agendas. Because if one is to make an intelligent decision as to who will next rule the country, that parties proposed foreign policies should be looked into. Elections in Bangladesh have become highly insular affairs; no one ever talks foreign policy and seemingly no one is bothered. Why is that? The answer is that none of the political parties actually plan out their foreign affairs in advance; they seem to believe like Bob Dylan that the answer is blowing in the wind.
Few if any of the idiots we elect have been to university and most of the time it shows. Had they attended even the most introductory international relations course then many of Bangladesh's foreign problems and issues could have been dealt with. As it stands, that is not the case, their lack of education coupled with our silly confidence in their abilities has created a number of problems. The next government has to do more than just deal with the problems, but must steer Bangladesh through choppy international waters and as a nation we must first re-examine our partnerships in multilateral organisations.
The United Nations (UN) is the best case in point; currently Bangladesh is the second largest provider of UN peacekeepers yet within the organisation we are given precious little importance. Our role as international peacekeepers should be highlighted, showing that despite the pathetic political situation in our country and our obvious lack of resources we are able and willing partners in international peace. Currently the UN does not work for Bangladesh and other Least Developed Counties (LDC) we should add our voice to the growing calls for UN reform and push for substantive change. The now faltering organisation must be dragged into the 21st century and brought back to life, more countries must become permanent members of the Security Council and it should move to become more proactive rather that bureaucratic. That is not to say Bangladesh alone can or ever will achieve that, but the effort must be made.
Meaningful international relations for Bangladesh has a one stop regional hub and that is none other than the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The sham of an organization is the only real platform where Bangladesh is treated like a real player and there too we have achieved nothing. It is make or break time, the next government should either take SAARC by the scruff of the neck or do away with it altogether. With India and Pakistan in a constant standoff with each other, they have held SAARC hostage and currently there are no tangible benefits from being part of it. It remains to be seen how and when the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) will be implemented and its potential impact on our economy is yet to be fully researched. SAARC was born out of the bureaucracy of the Sub-Continent and is perfect for providing different ministers a trip abroad with nothing to show for their travels but frequent flier miles. It works more as a cultural platform for exchange, but politically it offers nothing. A few years ago there was even talk of a SAARC passport and reducing the barriers to movement between the nations, but now that seems a distant dream. We are continually told that SAARC was the brainchild of Ziaur Rahman and now quite obviously we have realised that his labyrinthine dream imagery is better suited for Borges short story rather than a common political platform.
Bangladesh's international relations acumen can be summed up by what they achieved at the meeting of Developing 8 Countries in Bali in 2006. While Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey all signed preferential trade agreements, Bangladesh was the only nation not to put pen to paper. While everyone else left with a feel good trade agreement, Bangladesh achieved nothing, and that's what its foreign policy amounts to.
International relations 101 has yet more issues to cover and nothing is a hotter topic now than that of Myanmar. Some time ago there was talk of a highway into the country to help boost trade between the nations, seemingly that will not happen anytime soon. Not at least till we sort out our maritime disputes. The recent show of aggression by Myanmar was surprising because at the 2008 ASEAN Regional forum summit in Singapore, Bangladesh and Myanmar pledged to solve their maritime border disputes as quickly as possible, with Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury even saying, "We discussed issues of common interest including resolving the issue of maritime boundaries at the soonest." Out tepid resolve was tested when Myanmar entered Bangladeshi waters earlier this month. It was an open act of aggression as troops built up on both sides of the border. Nothing came of the issue, a meeting was called and well after Myanmar's surveying work was done, they took their time and left.
Our foreign policy or lack of it let us down yet again. But out of sight is far from out of mind and the issue of Bangladesh's maritime demarcation is still yet to be sorted out and for the next government, it will be the sternest test of their international relations skills. The UN deadline for lodging maritime claims is set to expire in the next three years (well within the next governments exposing Bangladesh to the risk of losing vast territory in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh needs to lodge a claim over its maritime boundary at the International Seabed Authority by 2011 as stated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Under the convention, Bangladesh will be required to submit its necessary documents to the UN to validate its claim on territorial water, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles and a continental shelf up to 350 nm from the baseline.
While these are merely a few of the issues plaguing Bangladesh internationally, next week International Relations 102 will tackle the finer points of dealing with big brother India, our ever growing diaspora and our relations with the Islamic world. Seemingly one class will not be enough to understand and chart out the future of Bangladesh's foreign policy, one hopes the politicians are taking a few more lessons than we are.
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