Public diplomacy in projecting Bangladesh abroad

Badrul Ahsan Syed Badrul AhsanIn an era when foreign policy or the promotion of it has assumed new dimensions, it is only proper that public diplomacy [JB emphasis] insofar as Bangladesh is concerned be focused on, with all the intensity it calls for. Of course, when we speak of public diplomacy, we in essence refer to the new dimensions — the dissemination of ideas relating to a nation’s interaction with the outside world through means that go beyond official means of conducting foreign policy — that Bangladesh can go for or indeed has already gone for to an appreciable degree.The question of public diplomacy, for Bangladesh, is crucial given the dramatic changes which have defined diplomacy on a global scale especially since the end of the Cold War. The salient point here is the decline of stereotypes in the conduct of diplomacy. Briefly, it is a reference to the fact that where diplomacy in the past was confined to interaction between the foreign policy establishments of nations, today diplomacy has taken wider swaths of territory to include a variety of new stakeholders ready and willing to speak for their nations in the councils of the world.It is in line with such changes in diplomacy that in these past couple of decades, perhaps more, public diplomacy has become a significant complement to the conduct of Bangladesh’s foreign relations. The first instance one can cite in this context is the increasingly prominent role which the country’s media, in cooperation and coordination with the media in South Asia, have played in an articulation of diplomacy and its imperatives in relation to Bangladesh. Call it Track-2 or even Track-3. The fact is that such endeavours as, originally, the South Asian Media Association (SAMA) and then its successor organization South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) have certainly played a pioneering role in impressing upon governments in the region the truth that there is a necessity for diplomacy to take people into the loop when country-to-country relations are the point of discussion.From such a perspective, therefore, public diplomacy for Bangladesh has for quite some time now been based on the idea of the links its people can establish with other nations and then carry them forward. With Bangladesh now engaged in the job of raising itself to a new pedestal of development, namely, that of turning itself into a middle income country, the question of how far public diplomacy can go toward articulating its interests abroad becomes important. It is here that one has observed public diplomacy graduating beyond the endeavours of Bangladesh’s journalists in such forums as SAFMA and towards an increasingly loud voicing of the national interest through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Add to that the demands made on the country by questions of national economy, particularly in light of the issues raised in the field of trade. Over the years, such organizations as the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Employers Association (BGMEA) have found themselves rather compelled to step into the scene — and that has been in addition to the task the government machinery has been trying to accomplish on its part — and project before the world an image related to the possibilities marking the economic canvas of the country.Public diplomacy for Bangladesh, therefore, has been a story of increasingly wider dimensions aimed at a more substantive projection of the national interest abroad. In recent times, this aspect of foreign relations has been carried forward through such significant vehicles as cultural activities. Bangladesh has thus seen its interests overseas represented through aesthetic means, those which have enjoyed the support of the government in a number of instances. Such interaction with nations abroad has persuaded people into believing that for Bangladesh, diplomacy today is but a journey outward and away from the formalities which have traditionally kept it hidebound in the corridors of the foreign policy establishment. Indeed, public diplomacy has fundamentally altered the course of diplomacy, to a point where today every act and every interest that serves the national purpose has been laid across the table. Diplomacy is today a priority to be handled within as also beyond the Foreign Office. One has such bodies as the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) in mind.In this context, such issues as human rights and the trials of war criminals need to be dwelt on briefly. Where human rights or their guarantees are concerned, there have been questions raised both at home and abroad. That calls for a two-dimensional approach to the problem, if indeed public diplomacy is to have a bearing on it. In the first place, the government needs to convince people, here at home and abroad, that citizens need not be concerned about a violation of their rights. In the second, and following from the first, human rights bodies can, once they have persuaded themselves that the rights of citizens have been guaranteed, carry the process of Bangladesh’s public diplomacy dimensions forward through drawing global attention to the changed perspectives that the guarantees spoken of can throw up.Nowhere has public diplomacy been more at play than over the war crimes trials issue. With governments and rights bodies abroad voicing their concerns about the trials and with the Bangladesh government addressing those concerns, the issue made an entry into the public domain in a huge way. The results have been encouraging, evocative of the questions that public diplomacy can convincingly answer. At home and abroad, individuals — at the levels of scholars, lawyers, journalists, former diplomats — have gone ahead with their presentations of the realities attendant on the war crimes trials. Such demonstrations of public diplomacy have significantly changed the discourse, to a point where a wrong understanding abroad of the trials has largely been neutralized and where loud criticism of the trials has declined to being a muted affair. Public diplomacy, in association with official projections of foreign policy, has done the job.The future of Bangladesh’s foreign relations lies largely in the domain of public diplomacy. But that entails a widening of the base of public understanding of national issues and of an expansion of the role of civil society in the country. Stereotypes belong in the past. Foreign policy can no more remain confined to Shegun Bagicha and lessons in diplomacy cannot any more be imprisoned in university classrooms. The horizon has broadened. Our public diplomacy must now occupy increasingly larger swaths of the landscape of international relations.(Syed Badrul Ahsan is a political commentator and biographer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani)Original Article

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