U.S. Foreign Policy in the Caspian Region
For the purposes of this view of U.S. foreign policy, we will define the countries of the Caspian-Sea region as the independent states on the south-western rim of the former Soviet Union – the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In the future, when Afghanistan is more settled and secure, it would likely become a member of this group.
From the beginning of their independence, these eight countries, to varying degrees, have practiced a policy of what Kazakhstan calls “multi-vector foreign policy” – i.e., they work to balance the bigger powers of Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union to protect their own national interests. They also must pay attention to the interests and intentions of regional players Iran and Turkey, as well as of non-state actors seeking to implant an ideology of Islamist extremism on their territories. For example, ISIS has proclaimed the Khanate of Khorasan that includes a significant part of western Central Asia. Also, these countries are keenly aware of the decades of instability in Afghanistan.
Russia is a natural and essential partner for these countries because of its long history in the region. Russia has declared the region its privileged sphere of influence. The United States has never recognized this declaration but neither has it ever spoken out firmly against it. By not refuting this view in public, the United States appears to accede to President Putin’s view.
China has generally had only benign economic interests in the region. But since September 2013 when it announced what has come to be called its Belt and Road Initiative, it has significantly increased its presence and interests in the region. The United States has never formulated a clear policy to recognize its common interests, which are very real, with China in the region. Despite our current complicated relationship with China, we should seek to make China our realpolitik partner in the region.
The European Union’s main interests in the region are to ensure that Islamist extremism does not take hold and become a threat to the individual states of the EU and, especially, to maintain access to the significant natural-gas resources of the region so that it has real alternatives to Russian natural gas.
From the beginning, the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy for the region has been to support the countries’ independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. To show this basic commitment, the United States has established full diplomatic relations with all the countries and, in recent years, has built large, new embassies in the vast majority of them to support a full range of political, economic, commercial, military, and people-to-people programs.
However, the Caspian region of Central Asia and the South Caucasus has never been a foreign policy first-priority for the United States for two primary reasons.
First, and ironically, the region is relatively stable, despite the so-called “prolonged conflicts” of Russia’s occupation and slow-motion integration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Second, the United States has long tempered its relations with the countries of the region because of their Soviet heritage that makes their systems of social organization and governance significantly different from the West’s, and specifically because of their less-than-stellar human-rights records.
Human rights and democratic development issues, perhaps more than anything else, has constrained the United States from building stronger relationships in the region. The U.S. penchant during its past two administrations for “calling out,” “finger wagging,” and “naming and shaming” has constrained its relations in the region. The U.S. commitment to its own democratic values of democracy and human rights is indeed admirable and is a bedrock definition of the United States, but it should not be the sole determining factor in determining the quality of its strategic relations with individual countries.
In fact, there was a period in the 1990s when the United States engaged deeply in the Caspian region, even setting up new U.S. government entities in the State Department to ensure that the historic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines were built to transport Caspian hydrocarbons directly to Europe, bypassing the traditional routes through Russia. While this had a degree of benefit for U.S. and other international (primarily European) oil companies, it did not significantly and directly benefit the United States: it was simply the right thing to do from a commercial and geopolitical realpolitik point of view.
The time is now ripe for the United States to implement, once again, a realpolitik foreign policy in the Caspian region.
The time is especially ripe for the United States to formulate a policy of heightened engagement with the countries of the Caspian Basin because of a significant development in the region.
For the first time since its independence, Uzbekistan, under the leadership of its new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is embarking on fundamental economic and other policy reforms, including – significantly – in the field of human rights, that will bring it into alignment with the generally progressive family of nations since the first time since its independence. Further, President Mirziyoyev is working to improve Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors that often were strained in the past. The United States should employ every possible diplomatic option to encourage this historic development.
In summary, what should the United States do?
The United States should implement a foreign policy of realpolitik and significantly increase its diplomatic and commercial engagement with the countries of the region. A new commitment to greater U.S. private-sector engagement in the region will have a positive impact because U.S. businesses work hand-in-glove to support U.S. policy. Encouraging greater U.S. investment and trade in the region will pay off handsomely in the strategic sphere, too.
The United States should stand firmly, as it always has but even more overtly, with the Caspian Basin countries to ensure that Russia, and even China, do not threaten their sovereignty and independence.
The United States should strongly and openly encourage the five countries of Central Asia (initially, although others would eventually be welcome to join across the Caspian ) to form their own political and economic association. If they do that, they will enhance their independence and sovereignty, and – eventually – their prosperity. This will benefit their own citizens, and it will benefit the entire region. In the grandest scheme of things, it will contribute to world peace.