Ambassador Richard Hoagland: US Should Cluster the Caucasus With Central Asia
Author: Caspian Policy Center
Nov 13, 2023
Find the original interview here.
Ambassador Richard Hoagland is a retired career diplomat who has a bird’s-eye view of the evolution of US policy in the post-Soviet space. He was the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs (2013-2015). Before returning to Washington in September 2013, he spent a decade in South and Central Asia. He was U.S. Deputy Ambassador and Charge d’affaires to Pakistan (2011-2013), U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008-2011), and U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan (2003-2006). He also served as U.S. Charge d’affaires to Turkmenistan (2007-2008).
Prior to his diplomatic assignments in Central Asia, Ambassador Hoagland was Director of the Office of Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs in the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Department of State (2001-2003). In that position, he authored and negotiated four of the key bilateral documents defining the Central Asian states’ enhanced relationship with the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. His earlier foreign assignments included Russia, where he was a Press Spokesman for the U.S. Embassy (1995-1998).
Since his formal retirement in November 2015, he has continued to serve on important special missions in the region. In the summer of 2016, he led U.S.-Russian military coordination for the cessation of hostilities in Syria for three months from the American Embassy in Amman, Jordan (June-August 2016). In January-September 2017, he was the interim U.S. Co-Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/OSCE’s Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh.
In a recent article, Ambassador Hoagland proposes a reframing of US policy in the Caucasus, enveloping the region with Central Asia in an “8 plus 1” format. In an effort to investigate the timing and substance of this dialogue, Caucasus Watch initiated contact with Ambassador Hoagland, the Executive Director of the Security Policy programme at the Caspian Policy Centre, who is based in Washington.
In dealing with Central Asia, “5+1” is the dominant format. India, South Korea, Japan, and even China follow that formula. Why add the Caucasus to an “8 plus 1” forum?
I would say that this is a bureaucratic suggestion that resonates with the needs of the US State Department so that the coordination of policy across Central Asia and the Caucasus is in sync.
After the collapse of the USSR, the Department of State created a new office reporting directly to the Secretary of State that was called “New Independent States,” where all post-Soviet states were in one place. But later, for various bureaucratic reasons, Washington split off Central Asia, clustering it with South Asia –which is quite different because of its British colonial heritage – and the Caucasus three into the “Europe and Eurasia Bureau,” which has many important countries, making it harder for the South Caucasus three to gain sustained high-level attention unless they are experiencing a crisis, as recently happened in Azerbaijan’s Karabakh.
This change would reflect new priorities. With the war in Ukraine and the emergence of the Middle Corridor from Europe, via Turkey, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and through Central Asia to China, it would make sense to reintegrate these post-Soviet polities into one bureaucratic element in the U.S. State Department.
So, this reform would be a return to an old practice, not an innovation as such. However, do you feel the Middle Corridor will be at the heart of US foreign policy henceforth?
Absolutely not. We are on the other side of the world. This would be a piece of American foreign policy that, at the present time, makes sense because of the war in Ukraine. The danger is the effects of this war on other countries in the region. So, it is not exactly about a return to the past but more about accommodation to present conditions.
In practice, how would that affect the Caucasus? Would it come with a different quality of monitoring, the “tuning in” of American interests in the region, or change the quality of US diplomatic representation?
To be honest, the governments of the three Caucasus states would not likely be able to tell the difference, but the change would be meaningful in Washington. We have robust diplomatic representation in every one of the three countries. Foreign policy on the ground would not change dramatically. But there would be better coordination between offices, at least for the duration of the war in Ukraine.
Following up on the same question: for countries like Mongolia, engagement with the United States is part of the so-called “third neighbour approach,” the most important being Russia and China. After the war in Ukraine, Turkey’s role appeared more prominent as well.
Does Washington strive for a status beyond that of a third neighbour? Considering the Middle Corridor, how does the United States factor into the revised picture? Does Washington have the political will, the private sector interest, and the geopolitical appetite to engage with the Eurasian space as anything more than “the third neighbour”?
Mongolia is not in Central Asia but is indeed on its periphery. US foreign policy does not exist in the region to compete with Russia or China, or even Iran and Turkey. US policy in that region – in the South Caucasus, in Central Asia – aims to provide an alternative to those governments, if they choose to take it.
I believe it was Kazakhstan that first used the term multi-vector foreign policy. And what they do very effectively in their foreign policy is balance their relationships with Russia, China, the EU, and the United States. And most countries in this post-Soviet space, to one degree or another, try to practice the same multi-vector principle to safeguard their independence.
The five presidents in Central Asia aim to create some sort of association which will not dilute their independence but bolster their ability to act together. And in their most recent meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, they invited a sixth country, Azerbaijan. It makes sense for them to look across the Caspian, and it would make sense for the United States to recognize that development.
Does “plus 8” follow the line of “the Organisation of Turkic States” plus the United States? I realise that Georgia and Armenia are clearly not Turkic States, but overall, is this not the gist of this proposal?
You have to see each country separately, not only as part of a cluster. Georgia and Armenia are, of course, Christian nations by historic tradition and former Soviet republics. Armenia is starting to step a bit away from Russia. Relationships change according to realities on the ground. No, the US is not promoting any unions. What I propose is simply a grouping to ensure that US policy is more unified across the greater Caspian region.
Why include only the Caucasus and not look beyond the Black Sea to include Moldova and Ukraine, in alignment with the EU’s East Partnership? There does not seem to be much coordination between Washington and Brussels over the post-Soviet space.
Anyone who has paid close attention to this region over a long period of time will recognise the main actors, usually referred to as “Russia, China, and the European Union.” In fact, the EU is less important than certain individual states: Italy has oil and gas interests; Germany has political interests in Eurasia; and the Scandinavian countries have a different set of interests. The reality is that the diplomatic ritual does not always reflect changing realities.
I adhere to Realpolitik: policy should reflect reality on the ground. And the current reality on the ground is the emergence of the Middle Corridor, from Europe via Turkey and the Caucasus, through Central Asia, to China.
Leaving aside the question of why Washington is important for the Caucasus, I would like to ask why the Caucasus is important to the United States?
To be candid, the Caucasus is not as important as, let’s say, Canada and Japan. Maintaining peace and security in the world is an obvious answer. Our oil companies have interests in the Caspian Sea and, to a lesser extent, the Black Sea. Interests and their articulation are not a linear affair (A to B) but the truth is this: the South Caucasus is “of interest” but not “of compelling importance” to the United States.
Is there a “spoiler’s interest”? The Caucasus is one of the conduits for the Russian war machine. The Caucasus is the conduit for all goods that no longer traverse Western Europe directly. I wonder how much of this discussion of “reframing” US policy in the region is motivated by this fact. Is this a hypothetical discussion that never occurs?
I would say this is a discussion that takes place daily at the middle or “working level” at the State Department. This is not necessarily a discussion that takes place between National Security Advisor Sullivan, Secretary of State Blinken, and President Biden because their daily interests are usually focused on the global crisis of the day. However, it is at the level of the Assistant Secretaries of State, of Commerce, of Defence, etc. that this conversation about the greater Caspian region as a whole should be taking place.
So, there is no political attention; although the Armenian Diaspora weighs on elections, there has been an unfolding oil crisis, and the relationship with Turkey is not at its historical peak. What does it take to shift priorities?
It takes a crisis. Foreign policy reacts to crises. In the various thoughts you list, there are two Armenian lobby groups, of which one is quite active in Washington, and that’s another layer of an attempt to influence US policy. Sometimes, they are too active, but that is part of the game.
To come back to my list. Traditionally, the Turkish presence in Washington was also quite strong. Historically, people with a prominent role in the Turkish lobby have also held influential positions in U.S. foreign policy. So, we have previously experienced stronger connections.
Foreign policy fluctuates and evolves. True, we are not at the peak of our relationship with Turkey. This can probably be traced back to our policy in Iraq and, more recently, Turkey leaning more towards Russia than it has in the past, or the impression of Ankara taking a neo-Ottoman approach to the greater Caspian region. But the big picture is that we have a very active and useful relationship with Turkey; I can assure you of that.
For years, Georgia was the country closest to the United States as a nation-building project, perhaps as early as during the Presidency of Shevardnadze. How do you read the current tension? As soon as the incoming ambassador landed, there were already certain comments chastising her predecessor. Do relationships exhibit volatility, as was the case with Turkey, or do you perceive a more substantial development?
I would say there is a significant, but not dramatic, change. Russia, after the invasion of Ukraine, finds itself politically, diplomatically, and economically isolated. What Moscow is trying to do is assert itself over the area Putin often refers to “Russia’s special sphere of influence,” meaning the region of post-Soviet republics. In Georgia, we often see the persistent issues of Russian-occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At this current moment, there are politicians in Georgia who want to “balance” their relationship with Russia. Georgia, even if it desires to be part of Western Europe, has a different heritage and would take a long time to build political consensus to move towards one direction.
Did not the identical argument apply to the Baltic States as well?
Not quite. Countries like Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were part of the Tsarist Empire before becoming parts of the USSR. The Baltic States were relative latecomers to the Soviet world, having been annexed by the USSR itself. Western Europe is a different place.
As we are going through the crisis with Iran, do you feel there is a danger of a spillover in the post-Soviet space?
Iran has its own troubles with international sanctions. Behind the scenes, the US and Iran have been negotiating intensely. Look: Iran is a difficult country, an influential country, but it is not a country about to cross a line to cause greater troubles for the rest of the world. At least, that is the way I see it at the present moment.
Interview conducted by Ilya Roubanis