The post-cold war era has seen a significant shift in the foreign policy of the USA. Earlier the USA used to follow military intervention to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Examples of those interventions have been seen in the cold war era. But gradually, with the growing importance of geopolitics and geoeconomics, the US follows a tool to pressure countries to meet its foreign objectives: sanctions. Especially economic sanctions are increasingly being used to promote the full range of American foreign policy objectives.
To accomplish the objectives of the USA's foreign policy sanctions take the form of arms embargoes, foreign assistance reductions and cut-offs, export and import limitations, asset freezes, tariff increases, revocation of most favored nation (MFN) trade status, negative votes in international financial institutions, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, visa denials, cancellation of air links, and prohibitions on credit, financing, and investment.
With the growing geopolitical significance of South Asia, India and Bangladesh have seen the same policy from the USA. For instance, On December 10, 2021, the USA imposed sanctions without any prior information on Bangladesh's elite paramilitary force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and seven of its current and former officials accused of human rights abuses and abductions. The sanctions mean the RAB will neither be allowed to own properties in the US nor engage in any financial transaction with a US body or personnel. The sanctions also ban seven current and former top officials of the RAB, including Benazir Ahmed, the inspector general of Bangladesh Police, from entering the US.
On the other hand, the US Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions against an Indian petrochemical company Tibalaji for allegedly “purchasing millions of dollars’’ worth of Iranian petrochemical products for onward shipment to China. Not only that, they threatened India to impose a sanction for buying Russian missiles. So why is this imposition of sanctions in the era of cooperation?
A geopolitical ploy to create pressure?
It is none other than a geopolitical ploy to create pressure on the two geopolitically important countries of South Asia to align with the foreign policy objectives of the USA. The USA didn't go to strict action against any of the countries. Not only that, the USA waived the sanction from India for buying Russian missiles because their economic interest lies with India.
US sanctions show that the country has made a “significant policy shift” not only over Bangladesh and India, but in the US foreign policy in general, by placing electoral democracy and human rights at the heart of its foreign relation. The USA often uses the catchy words "democracy" and "human rights" in serving its foreign policy interest against the 'targeted' nations. The country shows its double standard in imposing sanctions in those places where its interest lies. For instance, the USA is silent on the gross human rights violation of Israel to the Palestinians, the authoritative rule of Saudi Arabia, or the failure to address the fatal police violence by race and state. Not only that, it didn't even bother about Myanmar for the persecution of Rohingyas. But, they are too much voiceful on the human rights violations of China, Russia, North Korea, and Bangladesh. The double-standard attitude on country-specific human rights violations questioned the credibility of the sanctions.
Whenever it sees any country's alignment with its chosen competitor, the USA weaponizes sanctions to create pressure on them. The case of India and Bangladesh is a prime example of that. Whenever India started to maintain close bilateral relations with Russia, the USA threatened them by subtly imposing sanctions.
Why the US is using sanctions as a foreign policy tool?
Basically, sanctions are a way to signal official displeasure with a certain behavior. They can reinforce a commitment to a behavioral norm, such as respect for human rights or opposition to proliferation. American reluctance to use military force is another motivation. Sanctions provide a visible and less expensive alternative to military intervention and doing nothing. The greater reach of media is still another explanation. The CNN effect can increase the visibility of problems in another country and stimulate a desire on the part of Americans to respond.
Previously these sanctions helped the USA to achieve various significant foreign policy objectives. Sanctions introduced in the aftermath of the Gulf War increased Iraqi compliance with resolutions calling for the complete elimination of its weapons of mass destruction and diminished Iraq’s ability to import weapons. In the former Yugoslavia, sanctions were one factor contributing to Serbia’s decision to accept the Dayton agreement in August 1995. With burgeoning geopolitical interest, China's deep engagement with Bangladesh had made the country a victim of the USA's double standard sanction.
Nonetheless, Washington is guilty of double standards. When President Ziaur Rahman railroaded the trials of hundreds of rebel soldiers in 1977 and secretly hanged an undisclosed number of them, America did not publicly chastise him, let alone impose sanctions. Only Jane Coon, then deputy assistant secretary of state, blocked his visit to the White House, ignoring Ambassador Ed Masters’ push.
Washington’s sanctions strategies often carry hidden agendas. When America imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union after it invaded Kabul, they were billed as part of a mission to rescue Afghanistan, but they were actually intended to warn Moscow not to march into Iran.
There are growing rights abuses in the West itself, given the rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and a history of violent racism against the black and indigenous population. The main issue is China's rising geopolitical dominance in South Asia through BRI and the fear that Bangladesh might officially join the mega project. And for India, it is burgeoning defense and economic cooperation with Russia. The main issue is Western insecurity and a concern that the world might shift from unipolarity to multipolarity. In all, the main objective is geopolitical, and the USA doesn't want China or Russia to dominate the Indo-Pacific Region or even South Asia.
So, at the end of the day, Bangladesh’s core foreign policy is similar to India’s. The “Friendship to all, malice to none” policy wants to diversify its engagements with multiple actors to bolster its ability to act independently and on its own terms. Suppose the USA understands this basic reality. In that case, they will be more successful in strengthening relations with and achieving their broader goals in the Indo-Pacific region as well as South Asia.
PhD Candidate, International Relations, University of Bucharest.