The U.S. Needs to Develop a Strategy for Engagement with Caspian Region
The Trump administration will inherit an “In” tray on the Oval Office’s Resolute Desk piled up with foreign policy challenges. Eight years of the Obama administration have left the world more unstable and less predictable. America’s adversaries have been appeased; allies have felt abandoned, and certain regions outright ignored.
One of these ignored regions is the Caspian Sea. Though often overlooked, this region is important in regard to many of the challenges the U.S. faces around the world, such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, wavering allies, a growing China, and the rise of Islamic extremism. The region is a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads linking Europe and Asia and has proved strategically important for military and economic reasons for centuries.
Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. seemed eager to engage with the region. This was especially true in light of the energy opportunities emerging from the region. But by the late 1990s, the U.S. had lost much of its enthusiasm for engagement.
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. sought to reengage with the region to secure transit and basing rights in the Caucasus and Central Asia for operations in Afghanistan. While the countries in the region were looking for a long-term relationship with Washington, D.C., once the Afghan drawdown began and the U.S. pulled back from the region, it became clear that the U.S. was interested only in transactional—not enduring—relations.
The Obama Administration’s preference for a transactional relationship was shortsighted for two reasons: First, it created the perception among countries in the region that, as soon as the U.S. got what it wanted, it would move on. Second, it has diminished any good will that the U.S. created in the region, which will make regaining trust in the region even more difficult.
Considering how important the region is to a broader Eurasia strategy dealing with Russia and Iran, this will have negative consequences for U.S. policy. Unless another unforeseen, game-changing event occurs—like 9/11—nothing suggests that the U.S. will reengage with the region at the level it should.
Today, the U.S. interests in the Caspian region derive primarily from its security commitment to Europe’s NATO members, the war against transnational terrorism, and the desire to check Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Going forward the U.S. should have four primary goals in the Caspian region:
- assisting the Caspian in becoming a stable and secure transit and production zone for energy resources;
- checking Russian and Iranian meddling in the region so the countries in the region are stable, sovereign, and self-governing;
- keeping radical Islam out, and
- resolving the frozen conflicts in the region, because Moscow exerts most of its influence through these conflicts.
None of the Caspian countries is in NATO and therefore none receives a security guarantee. But Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. To varying degrees all have helped NATO operations in Afghanistan: Turkmenistan probably the least, Azerbaijan the most.
A more important consideration for the U.S. is the potential of Caspian oil and gas to offset much of Europe’s dependency on Russia for its energy needs. This, in turn, directly affects Europe’s security and, potentially, U.S. treaty obligations under NATO.
The question of human rights always looms over U.S. policy making in the region. The U.S. should have a frank, open, and constructive dialogue with its allies in the region when and where there are human rights issues—with the goal of long-term democratization.
However, human rights should be just one part of a multifaceted relationship that considers broader U.S. strategic interests and stability in the region. U.S. engagement in the region needs to take a multifaceted approach that involves energy, security, human rights, and geopolitical issues. One issue should not automatically trump the others.
The Caspian Sea is at the heart of the Eurasian continent, and anything that is at the heart of something is, by definition, important. If the U.S. pursues the correct policies, it can help to ensure that the countries in the region are stable, sovereign, and self-governing.
The U.S. needs to develop a strategy for engagement in the region that promotes economic freedom, secures transit and production zones for energy resources, and is aware of the consequences of increased Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence in the region working against Western interests.
The Caspian region has been, is, and will continue to be an area of geopolitical importance for the U.S. If President Trump is to have a grand strategy to deal with a resurgent Russia and an emboldened Iran, confront transnational Islamist terrorism, and to improve Europe’s energy security, he or she cannot ignore the Caspian region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not Caspian Policy Center.