The US Foreign Policy under President Joe Biden centers around Democracy and Human Rights. Hence, Biden Administration’s diplomacy is largely marked by rights-based diplomacy and support for democracy worldwide. The narrative regarding the current foreign policy includes individual sanctions, visa policies, recurring democracy summits, the Ukraine Crisis, and the subsequent emergence of Ukraine as the ‘poster boy’ of democracy and human rights.
Yet, the international community hardly saw any reflection of such policies during the latest visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India’s religious freedom has been a concern for the US for a while now. 70 Senators and congressmen also sent a bicameral letter prior to the visit urging President Biden to discuss the need to protect human rights and democratic values in India as he meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Senators also boycotted Modi’s speech to Congress over human rights concerns. But Biden did not pay heed to the letter and decided to ignore the issue, which leads us to raise another question, whether the senators and congressmen are losing their voice to the state department?
A World Full of Issues
There is hardly any country or nation that does not have issues related to human rights or democracy. The notion of democracy and human rights changes across space and culture, but it was never politicized. For example, the US has a serious gun problem that kills thousands each year. Many Western countries are suffering from racism, hate crimes, and white supremacy. Anti-Immigrant sentiment has also become acute in the West.
Outside the West, many countries are suffering from democratic backsliding, brute force, and denial of rights in many forms. Denial of voting rights, brutal crackdown, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, exclusion of minorities, killing sprees, and political violence are some of the forms of human rights abuse and democratic backsliding persistent currently.
However, under the liberal international norms, global watchdogs and rights activists used to raise concerns and conduct advocacy, and countries and global leaders used to prescribe and offer assistance to solve these issues. Ultimately, the responsibility of solving the problems falls on the state, government, and its people, owing to the Westphalian norms of sovereignty, and the UN declaration of self-determination.
US Human Rights Diplomacy
Since the coming of the Biden Administration, Biden for the first time incorporated Human Rights and Democracy into foreign policy. Perhaps, this is also the first time in the history of mankind when human rights and democracy have become a centerpiece of external politics.
For many, the US is prioritizing these aspects in its foreign relations to restore values that sustain its hegemony and counter the growing influence of Russia and China. Yet, one can often see contradictions and contrasting approaches in US bilateral relations. For instance, the US’s relationship with Bangladesh is largely marked by Human Rights and Democracy. For the last two or three years, the bilateral visits focus mostly on these elements, as the US continuously expresses its concern in Bangladesh. It has also announced sanctions on the country’s elite force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and its seven current and former officials over alleged rights violations. Recently, the US also announced a new visa policy for Bangladesh ahead of the general election. The US is following the same path in Cambodia, raising issues related to free and fair elections and human rights violations to pursue its policy.
On the other hand, even though India has religious freedom issues and the US reports marked the country as a ‘concern’, we hardly saw any dialogue on this issue despite the senator’s letter and several other senator’s boycotting of PM Modi’s speech in Congress. India is not also an isolated event. The US turns a blind eye to countries that have their own geopolitical significance.
Chameleon Changing Color?
The unequal treatment by the US between two South Asian countries- India and Bangladesh suggests that US diplomacy is more focused on interest rather than a public good or sustaining normative values. As it is dependent on the US national interest, it often changes color, from coercive to welcoming. Modi’s diplomatic grandeur in Washington despite human rights concerns is due to India’s geostrategic significance in countering China and Russia, to some extent. The US needs India for its own geopolitical interest in the region in the context of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Hence, the state department and administration made the Senate and Congress voiceless changing the foreign policy priorities from Democracy and Human Rights to geopolitical calculation.
Besides India, democracy and human rights also take a backseat in their diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and many others. Its treatment of other countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia suggest that it has weaponized democracy and human rights for coercion against countries it perceives as ‘China-tilting’. As a result of such classification and interest-driven diplomacy, US diplomacy treats countries based on their significance and classification and treats them unequally. Setting such double standards and ‘chameleon- diplomacy’ is only unfortunate and detrimental to liberal norms. And the core reason is abandoning the ‘Walking Hand in Hand’ philosophy, and embarking on coercive diplomacy.