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21st century Bangladesh-US relations: 45 may be more than a number

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: December 15, 2016 19:51:49 | Updated: October 25, 2017 01:21:57


Bangladesh celebrates its 45th victory anniversary just as the 45th US president is poised to sit in the Oval Office - ' the official office of the President of the United State'. Is that just a numerical coincidence, or some sort of a twist of fate?
To be sure, on our 45th we stand as sturdy a country as ever. Yes, sure the country has problems, but what is inside that half of the glass that is filled may shed more light as to how the remainder of that glass may be substantively filled, than if we look at the half that is empty, since that offers no lead. What it says is the stuff of pride: a new middle-income country with a growth-rate better than over 90 per cent of the rest of the world, not just now, but consistently around that figure for a generation or so; now that so many more war criminals have been brought to justice, a string of war heroes may now rest in eternal peace finally, or be relieved of the last burden of history; and even more reassuring, the country mustered as much unflinching resolve to battle Islam-bound terrorism in 2016 as it did the butchers of 1971. We stand tall not just because of our low-wage RMG (ready-made garment) magic and peacekeeping UN troops flying our neutral flag the world over, but mostly because, as a Muslim country, we have identified the threat, vowed to eliminate it, and joined the global crusade engaged in a similar outcome against the same foe. When the dust settles, it will not be a question of how or why, but the end-result that will matter the most: and, through thick and thin, our leadership, no matter what, has stood like a rock on that.
On a different pathway, the United States has not had a passage it can embellish. The problem is not necessarily the most divisive and abusive presidential election one can recall, but that the country is so uncharacteristically out of tune: the economy has been sagging for long, its growth rate fights a race-to-the-bottom, morale is down where it is needed the most, that is, with students and the military, and mostly, debate, that feature that alone underwrites democracy, is yielding to dictatorial, unilateral approaches, instincts, instruments, and outcomes. It still seeks to do what it would in 1971 and before, that is, preach to the rest of the world on how to reinvent every wheel, what is going off-track rather than on-track, and why listening to the US message inevitably means snatching the carrots dangled to outright opportunists. The only difference is that leaders of fewer and fewer countries and the public care to listen any more: President Barrack Obama is not the cause of this twist of fate through his foreign policy approach of restraint; but even as one of the most popular US presidents as far as sunset-years go, his inheritance was too combustible for even him to handle.
Back in 1971, the United States adamantly dismissed Bangladesh; and though rapprochement has been in the works for quite a while, in 2016, the gaps between the two countries still speak louder than the bridges. Chief among them is the GSP (General System of Preferences) and sine qua non TICFA (Trade and Investment Comprehensive Framework Agreement) bargaining chips: both the U.S. Ambassador Marcia Bernicat and our Commerce Minister Tofael Ahmed disagree wholeheartedly about the GSP malaise, indicating much more dissonance at the bone level than on an official's face. It may perhaps also be one reason why Bangladesh applauded first and aloud from that breed that Trump describes as "terrorist supporters":  Muslim countries.
At stake is the Democrat Party's frustrating position on everything about labour, from wages to welfare, a stance that would have torpedoed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 had not President William J. Clinton strong-armed the ratification through. Though the Trump position on these issues is not far different, Bangladesh hopes that a different wine in that same old bottle may be more titillating than the previous concoction: that is, with a new negotiating team, Bangladesh might find some loopholes that it could not with the previous team over the past eight-odd years.
As it stands, the GSP saga exposes the lack of a golden rule, or at least lack of policy consistency: Myanmar, for instance, was cleared on this front without ever demonstrating enough compliance with human rights (let alone labour rights), as the resurging ethnic-cleansing drives blatantly expose today. Any GSP malaise becomes a TICFA ghost: for the very same reason, the TICFA negotiations have not broken any ground whatsoever. True Bangladesh owes its workers a lot more than they have gotten, but to have to comply with the rules of the largest market in the world does not rattle policymakers because of many offsetting conditions.
First, the United States is not the largest RMG export destination for us, and the European Union, which is, seems more satisfied with the reforms already being made, sluggish though that pace has been, than the United States is with its own. Second, other countries make less noise over the issue than these two, and especially, China, thus mitigating the pressures while also suggesting alternatives may be found, if we are pushed aside by the United States. Third, the prospect of China's uncompetitive RMG industry, the world's largest, beginning to explore off-shore production, thus opening huge potential markets Bangladesh and other more competitive countries can fill with fewer non-trade barriers and other facilitative conditions. Fourth, other, non-RMG and non-labour issues may demand more attention in Bangladesh-US relations as to make the labour and other GSP-related issues an unnecessary stumbling block.
Those comments are not all aimed at belittling the value of work and labour: they are increasingly important for Bangladesh, and will one day reflect the best welfare conditions found anywhere else. Yet, how they have catalysed development elsewhere should not be ignored by putting Bangladesh under greater pressure than any of those other industrialised countries faced when they were also spinning wheels with raw labour to fill their own banks with foreign cash.
Over the past 45 years of Bangladesh-US relations, at least two gravitational pulls have been evident: one tugging at the heart (the emotional), the other spinning off the mind (rational policy-making). The former was best illustrated by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in whose memory there now stands a centre eternally bearing his name. We associate a lot to this symbol, including the growing number of expatriates: whether policies befriend the people or not, this stream of non-governmental linkages is strong, growing, and capable of producing more bilateral relations than a GSP, TICFA, and other unnecessary speed-bumps.
On the other hand, should we connect well with the Trump administration, we cannot avoid exploring policy-based opportunities as they arise. If bad comes to worse, our commercial relations can find the alternatives as alluded to, leaving us confident we can override any initial setbacks. Should we move in the other direction, for example, the emphasis on labour and other GSP irritants dissipating, we can go with that flow and boost our ties, both substantively and substantially. This would supplement the growing positive emotional attachments just discussed, and continue blurring the "basket-case" label once pinned upon us through the policy-determined Cold War lens. That was a bitter pill. We gulped it in some very tough times. As atmospherics improve, we feel determined to reverse it fully.
Presently, however, the "heart" and "mind" options are not fully in tandem; but since we have come a long way in placing them in a playing-field where they once had no credentials to enter, it would be foolhardy to close shop just because the 45th US president is arriving with such a repulsive reputation. We can stand up to the 45th US president, play ball with him, and still try consolidating those other, emotional attachments simultaneously. The "heart" and the "mind" can be blended, if needed by our expatriates stepping up to the plate, much as Ted Kennedy had shown how to do to a reluctant US administration and perhaps a large unaware population through his 1972 "bot-tola" platform in Dhaka University. Under such circumstances, no Trump, GSP-denial, or any other impediment can get in the way.
Long-term planning is not something politician or policy-planners are good at, often for obvious reasons that so many uncontrollable variables can distort the playing-field constantly. Yet, it would be in the interest of them all, in this country and that, to note how the tectonic plates of Bangladesh-US relations have been configured. If they do, they will see how, over the next 45 years they might find an agenda littered with more and more common interests for which the appropriate seeds must be sown now, and which no rational policy-making or other national interests can continue quashing: they must be positioned to become the vital interests of both countries.
In no particular order, these include marketexpansion in both arenas, for us a logical extension of what has long been underway, for the United States to partly break out of the economic doldrums it is apparently in right now, wherefrom the Trump movement sprang. Security considerations in the Indian Ocean may be fast outweighing the Atlantic counterparts, if not from the growing Chinese adventures, then certainly to curb spiralling smuggling, piracy, and possible terrorism. Of increasing concern may be the climate-change baggage, an arena where we could profit from the technologically advanced methods and modus operandi of the United States, not just to protect our vulnerable coastal frontiers, but also to shift from pollution-loaded energy sources, like coal, to environmental-friendly alternatives, such as solar energy. Last but not least, we could put up the real graceful face of Islam, as opposed to the fabricated terror-laced portrait we have been confronting so blatantly since those despicable 9/11 events: it would help us demonstrate our tangible global peace contributions, such as supplying peace-keeping soldiers to an expanding list of trouble-spots, are for real and forever. If we do, in short, we would be enhancing our credentials (a) as a viable future partner-country nourishing the same ideals that the United States has posited; and (b) as a valuable partner for any country hoping to steer those ideals through the grim 21st Century realities without altering the tone, goals, and commitments one bit.
For 240 years, the United States has carried principles more consistent with these goals than any other we can think of, give or take France. Our 45-year transformation puts us in line to help those ideals resonate better, rhythmically, and louder. It is up to not just the 45th US president to arrive at such a thinking-point, and ourselves, from the eager expatriate viewpoint of going into over-drive to promote mutual relations, but also our policymakers whose infrastructure-building thresholds may just coincide with similar presidential pledges turning into policy-making imperatives in the United States. If ever there was a marriage of convenience acquiring a romantic glow, surely a Bangladesh-US fling can eventually match the heat of any other pair anywhere.
So here's to the next 45 years, built, as it must be from seeds that have already been sown but also from stones that must be turned, knowing that if the bridges between the two sides ever get burned again, life must still move on regardless: we too have too much invested in the global order to shelve them for any uninterested US president or legislature. If our principles and purposes mirror each other so much, surely a rendezvous with destiny must be in store. 
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
inv198@hotmail.com
 

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