Foreign policy sans Foreign Ministry and diplomacy

Foreign policy sans Foreign Ministry and diplomacyBangladesh was born and baptized in blood in those nine months in 1971 when 75 million people followed a dream lit by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They fought as a nation in a trance and won a liberation war where many did not give them much chance. It was after the brave freedom fighters had delivered freedom that the real test of establishing Bangladesh as a nation begun. The odds for establishing statehood were as tough as the one on the battlefield. In fact, it was tougher as Bangladesh was pitched against the most powerful nations on earth led by the United States and China.  Between President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, there was no love lost for Bangladesh. Dr. Kissinger made that dislike well known when he made his infamous statement that Bangladesh would be an international basket case when US’ efforts in favour of Pakistan to stop Bangladesh from emerging were doomed.

It was successful foreign policy and astute diplomacy of the first AL government that proved Dr. Kissinger’s doomsday prediction utterly wrong. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Foreign Ministry’s successful foreign policy and diplomacy earned Bangladesh recognition of all members of the United Nations, even those who had openly opposed Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Bangladesh fought its war of liberation and earned its independence at a time when territorial integrity and sovereignty of a member nation of the UN was considered inviolable. In the wake of decolonization after the Second World War, many nations had emerged that were vulnerable to secession. Therefore, in those days, the right of self determination was not favoured in international politics. In fact, at about the same time when Bangladesh fought for right of self-determination, the Biafrans also had arisen but their war of liberation was ruthlessly crushed with not a word of support for them from the international community.

Successful foreign policy and diplomacy also made Bangladesh not just a member of all the major international organizations; in many of them it also played a leading role. During the tenure of President Ziaur Rahman, Bangladesh became a member of the UN Security Council in 1979-80 by defeating Japan. President Zia also conceived the idea of a regional organization for the nations of South Asia that eventually became a reality in 1985 in the First SAARC Summit in Dhaka when HM Ershad was the President. Bangladesh also cut for itself a niche in international politics by becoming the leader of the Least Developed Countries and was a leading member of the Group of 77, the NAM, the Commonwealth, and the OIC. During the regime of HM Ershad, Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury was elected the President of the 41st session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1986.  Bangladesh also entered the UN Peace Keeping Missions during his term, emerging eventually as a leading peace keeping nation of the world that helped tremendously in the country’s image building through the initiatives of the Foreign Ministry.

Both Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman accepted the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as crucial to establishing Bangladesh as a successful country. They allowed diplomacy to be conducted by the professionals where they gave the political directions to the country’s foreign policy. Under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the MFA and the Prime Minister’s Office always worked in a spirit of cooperation, with a hand in glove approach. The Prime Minister was in the habbit of calling officers of the level of Director-General for discussion/explanation on foreign policy issues and he knew most of them by their names. During the tenure of President Zia, one of the President’s closest associates was Foreign Secretary Tobarak Hossain who could reach and approach him without having to go through his personal staff.

The standing of the Foreign Ministry in governance started to decline under the tenure of President HM Ershad who did not like the professional diplomats. The members of the erstwhile CSP who dominated the civil administration took full advantage of the President’s dislike in pushing the MFA into a corner. They helped take away powers of the MFA such as those related to economic and other areas of diplomacy. They were also instrumental in dividing the Embassies/High Commissions into compartments where diplomats working in defense/economic/commercial/labour wings could literally ignore the head of mission in case the latter happened to be a professional diplomat. Nevertheless, HM Ershad did not sidetrack the MFA completely because his regime needed legitimacy and recognition in international affairs that only the MFA among the Ministries could deliver. As his Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud made an attempt to put the MFA in charge in the conduct of foreign policy. The demise of the Ershad regime ended his attempts.

Sadly, the return of democracy to the country did not have any positive impact on the way the MFA was being marginalized under the regime of President HM Ershad. Globalization that removed barriers among nations made foreign policy and diplomacy more important everywhere. In Bangladesh, the trend towards globalization did not have any impact on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was however an attempt by the Prime Minister’s Investment Adviser Morshed Khan to follow up on the initiatives of Anisul Islam Mahmud. He submitted a paper called the Morshed Committee Report to the Prime Minister in which he recommended a strong role for the Foreign Ministry in line with realities and developments in international affairs. His report collected dust and was soon forgotten as the Foreign Ministry continued to lose out to the other Ministries the powers and responsibilities of formulating and implementing the country’s foreign policy through the professional diplomats.

The successive democratic governments remained oblivious to the need of providing the country a proactive and powerful MFA. In fact, these governments did not feel that the MFA should have a special place at all in formulation and implementation of the country’s foreign policy. As a consequence, foreign policy and the conduct of foreign relations entered into many grey areas where it was often difficult to distinguish what the policy was, who was formulating it, and who was conducting it. Under the first AL government, the key work coined, more for publicity than anything else, was ‘Economic Diplomacy’. The BNP Government in its second term coined what it called the “Look East” Policy. Neither government left even a concept paper of these policies. Thus the BNP’s “Look East “ policy vanished when it lost power. And the present AL-led government, surprisingly, has not been even mentioning the much touted “Economic Diplomacy” in its present term.

In fact, in its present term, the AL led government has shown an approach to foreign policy and diplomacy that is difficult to comprehend. Upon assuming office with a massive electoral mandate, it chose to place Foreign Ministry under a relatively new face. Additionally, it gave two Advisers to the Prime Minister significant power over foreign policy and conduct of foreign relations. Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman were given the power to lead Bangladesh in a major thrust to improve relations with India. The former was also given the power to deal with the United States.

It is not just this triumvirate-style of leadership in conducting foreign relations that was unusual; this government took a number of other steps in the area of conducting foreign relations that has set it apart from the previous governments of Bangladesh. It appointed non-cadre Ambassadors in key capitals that sent the wrong signal to the professional diplomats. Washington, New York, London, New Delhi, and Moscow all went to non-cadre diplomats, although in case of Washington and New Delhi, the Ambassadors/High Commissioners were retired career diplomats. To the Ambassadors/High Commissioners in Washington, New Delhi and London, the government bestowed the status of a State Minister. A State Minister for Foreign Affairs was soon sent to another ministry but no one replaced him. These major initiatives in the conduct of foreign relations were ad hoc, without giving us any sense of direction.

Against these rather un-coordinated initiatives, the government took major foreign policy decisions. It placed improvement of bilateral relations with India on top of the agenda. In fact, the Prime Minister’s first act upon assuming power was to assure India that her government would do its best to ensure that India faces no threat from Bangladeshi soil. Subsequently, Bangladesh handed over to the Indians 7 top ULFA terrorists who were hiding in Bangladesh. On a trip to India, her first one overseas as Prime Minister that was upgraded to a “state visit”, she negotiated on a series of additional commitments that included land transit from the Indian mainland to its fragile northeast.

The Prime Minister sought a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations. Her negotiators comprising Advisers Dr. Gowhar Rizvi and Dr. Mashiur Rahman gave the Prime Minister’s vision of such a shift as one that would make Bangladesh the connectivity hub of the region. They placed faith in India’s fairness and tried to convince the people, many of whom had doubts about India based on the past, that time was ripe with the opportunity of breaking with the past and looking forward to a new beginning. They referred to India’s promise of a US$ 1 billion in soft loan as proof of India’s good will. Apart form this, however, there was not much talk of reciprocity on behalf of Bangladesh.

Sadly, in these initiatives, the Foreign Ministry was not in the loop. For the first time, the conduct of the major issues of the country’s foreign affairs were taken away from the MFA and given to individuals who had minimum experience in conduct of such affairs, and most importantly, those who had no institutional support to carry out the onerous responsibilities that were entrusted upon them. The Advisers were inclined to carry out their tasks in the media forgetting one of the cardinal rules of diplomacy at state level; that it is best served when carried out of public and media glare. It did not need a crystal ball to predict the outcome of the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy the way it was carried out in the case of India. The Prime Minister’s decision towards a paradigm shift in bilateral relations was a bold and visionary move. Her decision to allow the Advisers to by-pass the MFA was not. In their eagerness to achieve quick results, they made another cardinal error in diplomacy; they counted the chickens before they were hatched and that too in public.

The net result was that it was the Prime Minister who was caught on the wrong foot when India failed to deliver the Teesta agreement deal. If diplomacy was conducted the way the country had conducted it in the past, the Prime Minister would have known of the “Mamata factor” ahead of time and dealt with it as she is no doubt capable of it. Instead she was delivered the “Mamata shock” at the eleventh hour when there was little she could do. She was not even given the time to play any role in the way her vision for Bangladesh-India relations was struck down. In response,  she was forced to withdraw the land transit that was given to India earlier on a trial basis and was supposed to be extended permanently during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, which was expected to put the two countries firmly on course for the paradigm shift that Sheikh Hasina wanted.

Thereafter, the hope of improvement of Bangladesh-India relations was shaken at its roots. The invitation to the leader of the opposition Begum Khaleda Zia although explained by India as its policy of reaching out towards the “democratic multi party polity of Bangladesh” is in reality a direct aftermath of the way New Delhi and Dhaka had conducted diplomacy till the ill fated visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Bangladesh. The much heralded US$ 1 billion soft loan that India gave Bangladesh more than 3 years ago has also run into trouble with practically no forward movement.

If the way the Government conducted diplomacy with India has been a disappointment; its way of conducting bilateral relations with the US has been even remarkable. The US Government had played a major role during the last Caretaker Government to make the way for return of democracy in the country. The US Government that was unhappy with the BNP led government because of its indulgence with the Islamic fundamentalists was ready to do business with the AL led government proactively. Yet for reasons that have not yet been explained fully, the Government chose to take on the US Secretary of State over the issue of Dr. Mohammed Yunus.

The US Secretary, a close friend of the Noble Laureate, requested the Government of Bangladesh to allow Dr. Yunus an honourable exit from the Grameen Bank (GB). Later, when the Government decided to make fundamental changes in GB, the US Government made appeals in favour of Dr. Yunus. Requests for a fair deal for Dr. Yunus came not just from Hillary Clinton, the US President, and leading members of the Congress also made appeals to the Prime Minister. World leaders whose support is critical for Bangladesh also joined the appeal led by the United States in favour of Dr. Yunus and the GM but to no avail. Dr. Yunus has been sent out of the GB and the government is determined to change the GB the way it wants ignoring the requests and appeals from world’s leading powers and individuals.

Apart from other stated reasons, the Government also started its move against the Noble Laureate after charges of corruption were brought against him by a Norwegian private TV channel. But, so far, the Government has not been able to establish anything. In fact the Norwegian government itself absolved the Noble Laureate fully of the charges of corruption involving NORAD funds. The government probed the documents of the GB but failed to find any discrepancies to put any blame of Dr. Yunus of wrong doing.

For a country in Bangladesh’s position and predicament, Dr. Yunus could have been a heaven sent gift to open doors for it in the international arena for pursuing its foreign policy goals. Instead, the Bangladesh government has used his international standing, network and connections to close doors for the country to pursue these goals.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its weakening powers notwithstanding, failed to alert the Prime Minister about the consequences of going against powerful countries and individuals on Dr. Yunus and GB that it must have surely known. Even when the government failed to substantiate any of the accusations against Dr. Yunus and found that the fund of support and goodwill for him was on the rise internationally, the government carried on with its actions to humiliate Dr. Mohammad Yunus. The Foreign Minister added fuel to the fire and championed the case against the Noble Laureate and the GB with determination and vigour.

The conduct of foreign policy in the last nearly 4 years of the present term of the AL led government thus showed marked contrasts to the way foreign policy was conducted by the AL in its first term after independence. In the first term, foreign policy and diplomacy matched like the hand in the glove, where the nation’s interests were the goals of the country’s foreign policy and the professional diplomats were given the responsibility to achieve these goals. The MFA fell out of grace slowly under the successive governments after the change of August 15, 1975. Nevertheless, the Ministry hanged on to the responsibility of handling foreign affairs and professional diplomats to pursuing foreign policy goals till recently.

Under this government, foreign policy and diplomacy are running on different tracks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs with its professional diplomats does not appear to be seriously involved with foreign policy formulation and implementation. For instance, India has been the bread and butter of the MFA in all past governments. Under this government, the Prime Minister has entrusted her Advisers to deal with India. It is not just that the MFA has been bereft of its important powers and responsibilities; its diplomats also have been sidelined under this government. Important stations have not been given to career diplomats. Many stations have been kept vacant for long while career diplomats have not been considered. The appointment of the new Foreign Secretary is a case in point. He has been in an international organization for over a decade having left the MFA as a Director. To make someone Foreign Secretary who has not even been a Director-General let alone an Ambassador is a decision that would need rational explanation that is not forthcoming. It will have a negative impact on the cadre where there were quite a few whose legitimate right to become the Foreign Secretary has been bypassed.


Clearly there is a major mismatch between foreign policy and diplomacy under this government. There does not seem to be any well thought out approach to the way it is managing the country’s foreign policy. It is of course a great idea for a head of government to take charge of the country’s foreign policy. It was done effectively by the Bangabandhu Government in 1972-1975. It is done in most countries today. However, what is happening in Bangladesh in the area of foreign policy is not anything like what is happening elsewhere where the President or the Prime Minister acts as the country’s number one diplomat with the Foreign Ministry and the career diplomats as part of the same team. In Bangladesh, the foreign policy team is un-coordinated and fragmented where the Foreign Ministry has become a minor player and the Prime Minister also not seemingly holding charge. It is a classical case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.  In the process, the career diplomats who in all other countries are at the forefront of implementing their respective country’s foreign policy have been marginalized and made powerless in Bangladesh. A country’s interests cannot be served by managing foreign policy this way and it is not being served.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary to the Bangladesh Government

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