Thucydides' aphorism, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must," has become an oft quoted dictum about the orientation of small states' foreign policy, relative to the ability to balance the powers that be.
While such a dictum does explain the current trajectory of policies, it nonetheless fails to outline a future course because of its inherent assumption about the outcomes, namely that countries like Bangladesh will continue to be able to balance as they used to. Thus, such theories fall victim to self-fulfilling prophecies.
Bangladesh has shown remarkable success in terms of balancing its foreign policy choices among contending actors both in the region and beyond.
The aim of this write-up is not to question the remarkable pragmatism and tact that the government has shown in making foreign policy choices. I believe the success of development-oriented policy is evident.
The aim of this write-up, rather, is to provide a reality check and a guiding principle for the coming days.
Small states are often forced to hedge multiple actors in their foreign policies more often than bandwagoning or balancing. This serves as a tool of "realpolitik" in their foreign policy choices.
The term "hedging" originated from financial services and denotes attempts at risk reduction. However, in international relations theory, it has a much more significant meaning: "hedging" refers to the condition where states take a middle position between "balancing" and "bandwagoning."
To simplify, when states do not choose between "opposing rising powers" or "surrendering to the demands of rising powers," but instead make policy choices that maintain a bit of both, it is known as hedging.
In this process, states aim to limit the pressure exerted upon them to align with one power or another.
At a first glance, hedging might appear to be the best possible foreign policy choice because it offers pragmatic flexibility and none of the pitfalls associated with any one of the above. However, a careful inspection reveals the potential caveats.
Hedging depends on a global geopolitical scenario that is loosely consolidated. This entails cross-alliance cooperative behaviour. In such a situation states face much less backlash in their defection, i.e. potential cooperative behaviour with enemies of their respective alliance leaders or allied big powers. Even if any complaints from allied powers arise, states are generally able to sustain their cooperation or defection.
But once the geopolitical rivalry heats up, the scope for such hedging gradually shrinks and states are forced to choose a side. Either they commit to their pre-existing alliances with full loyalty or they enter into a new alliance.
We can see this in recent examples of German foreign policy choices.
In full honesty, Germany does not fall into the category of small states in a purely theoretical sense of the matter. But the situation being discussed has remarkable resemblance to the focus of this write-up.
Before the heating up of geopolitical relations in the European continent, Germany continued a policy of hedging vis-à-vis the USA. On the one hand it maintained an alliance with the USA, and on the other hand it expanded and strengthened its cooperation with Russia.
One may question the accuracy of describing Germany's behaviour as hedging, but within the limits of our discussion, it fits the definition.
Despite the US's multiple expressions of displeasure, Germany pushed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and increased its trade with Russia.
Once the situation heated up, prior to and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany was forced to acquiesce to American demands and prove its commitment to the transatlantic partnership. It was forced to stop the Nord Stream 2 project and support the European efforts to shore up Ukraine's military capabilities.
By examining the media narratives in Europe and America, both during the initial phases of the invasion and later on, we can realise that very few countries faced as much scrutiny as Germany over their commitment to the transatlantic partnership.
One can argue that Germany did not have to acquiesce to American or European allies' demands and that they could have continued to occupy the middle ground, sending symbolic gestures to Ukraine while continuing limited transactions with Russia.
One could also argue that, given Germany's economy and its natural central status in the European economic initiative, Germany could have altogether kept trading with Russia, especially in the energy sector, and no European states would have been able to challenge the German economic power substantially.
One might be right! But one might also appear as short-sighted and sentimental in their approach to foreign policy. And if one thing is certain about foreign policy, it is that sentiments and emotions have no place in it.
One's reputation as a reliable ally rests as much on others' perception of one as a reliable and consistent country, as much as it does on one's objective track record as a reliable ally. Taking any of the above-mentioned foolhardy policies would have diminished Germany's reputation as a reliable European continental power for many years to come.
So, despite having the ability to withstand any potential pitfalls from its continued engagement with Russia, Germany chose to return to the fold of the post-WWII transatlantic alliance that has allowed it to reach its status today.
Thus, we can see the uniqueness of this situation, where, even with capabilities to withstand potential pitfalls, a middle power like Germany had to reorient its policies.
Imagine what a situation of intensified regional competition, grounded in a no-tolerance policy for even the slightest defection among allies and a zero-sum attitude for the competitor, entails for a small country like Bangladesh.
The picture seems dull and gloomy and, in many cases, rightly so. However, the solutions to unique foreign policy challenges may be found through a right combination of academic and pragmatic policy-making considerations.
Md Tanvir Habib is a lecturer for the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.