U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY FOR CENTRAL ASIA: A SIGNIFICANT WIN FOR THE REGION
The U.S. National Security Council released to the public on February 5 a summary of the long-awaited National Security Strategy for Central Asia (NSS-CA). Almost immediately, criticism started circulating within foreign-policy circles in the United States – and in some of the Central Asian capitals – that “there’s nothing new here.” I beg to differ.
A close reading of the public text does indeed show subtle changes that take into account the current realities in this strategic part of the world. Even more important, the NSS-CA should be considered a significant “win” for Central Asia because it maintains full U.S. engagement and assistance in an era when the United States is pulling back from its engagements elsewhere in the world.
Before we look at some of the significant elements of the NSS-CA, let’s look directly at a few key excerpts from the public document.
The United States’ primary strategic interest in this region is to build a more stable and prosperous Central Asia that is free to pursue political, economic, and security interests with a variety of partners on its own terms; is connected to global markets and open to international investment; and has strong, democratic institutions, rule of law, and respect for human rights. A stable and secure Central Asia contributes directly to U.S. efforts to counter terrorism, support regional stability, promote energy security, and enhance economic prosperity in the region and beyond.
The new Central Asia Strategy assumes some constants from the previous strategy about key developments in the region: domestic and cross-border terrorism will remain a primary security concern, and Central Asian states will continue to face threats to stability, such as from radical extremism, illicit drugs, and misinformation.
- Support and strengthen the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian States, individually and as a region.
- Reduce terrorist threats in Central Asia.
- Expand and maintain support for stability in Afghanistan.
- Encourage connectivity between Central Asia and Afghanistan.
- Promote the rule of law reform and respect for human rights.
- Promote United States investment in and development of Central Asia.
The effective implementation of this strategy will help ensure that Central Asia is a stable and secure region that is deepening engagement with the United States. Each country should implement reforms that open the region to international investment and strengthen democratic institutions. We will work to ensure the countries of the region are increasingly better connected to Europe through the Caucasus, to Afghanistan and South Asia, as well as to global markets. We will help the countries strengthen their economic and political sovereignty, develop deeper resilience, and improve their willingness and ability to cooperate with each other in areas of mutual interest. Successful U.S. engagement in Central Asia will also advance our own national security interests and contribute to the defense of our homeland, citizens, and interests abroad. Close relations and cooperation with all five countries will promote U.S. values and provide a counterbalance to the influence of regional neighbors. Finally, expanding opportunities for U.S. businesses will enhance economic prosperity in the region, as well as support employment and industry in the United States.
To understand why and how Washington developed this current policy, we first need to acknowledge that U.S. policy for Central Asia has been remarkably consistent since these five countries became independent following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been to support and defend the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the Central Asian nations. At a time when the recent Russian annexation of Crimea from independent Ukraine unnerved Central Asian governments, this bedrock policy remains a crucial statement of support from the United States. But Russia is not the only power that the Central Asian states watch closely. China, too, is on their “watch list.”
A STRONG PARTNER IN THE REGION’S MULTI-VECTOR FOREIGN POLICY
Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian state to enunciate a “multi-vector foreign policy” by which it seeks to maintain positive relations with the four key global powers: Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. The other four nations in the region also generally employ this policy.
Russia is an inevitable partner for the region. Moscow’s presence in Central Asia extends back through the Soviet period and, even earlier, the Tsarist Empire. Indeed, the five Central Asian states were Soviet Socialist Republics until the fall of the Soviet Union. To this day, Russia smarts at the “catastrophe” of the fall of the Soviet Union. President Putin has long declared Central Asia as part of Russia’s “sphere of influence.” At times, he has gone so far as to say “exclusive sphere of influence.” Russian is still the lingua franca of the region, and Russian mass media – especially television and radio – blanket the region with news and information, as well as distortion and disinformation, especially against the United States. Inevitably, each Central Asian state will have close relations with Russia. But, at the same time, they want to avoid the suffocating embrace of The Bear to the North.
Like Russia, China shares a common border with the region, and Beijing certainly would not agree that Central Asia is Moscow’s “exclusive sphere of influence.” Until 2013, the world saw China’s interest in Central Asia as normal and benign as it sought natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, and to rent farmland, principally in Kazakhstan, to feed its massive population. That changed in the Fall of 2013 when Chinese President Xi announced at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan what is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative. In the following years, China deployed massive soft power in the region with infrastructure and industrial-investment projects as well as tens of thousands of scholarships for young Central Asians to study in China. The Central Asian states welcome Chinese interest and investment but are wary because of Beijing’s predatory lending to finance its projects and because of the truism that hard power almost always follows soft power. A point will come when the Central Asian capitals – and certainly Moscow – will have to decide whether they will tolerate Chinese “boots on the ground” in Central Asia.
THE REALITY OF AFGHANISTAN
Since its release to the public on February 5, a consistent criticism of the NSS-CA, both in Central Asia and in Washington itself, is that the United States sees Central Asia only through the lens of Afghanistan. In fact, it’s inevitable that the United States has to factor Afghanistan into its policy for the region. For one thing, Afghanistan itself is geographically and historically a Central Asian nation. The great Silk Road of the Middle Ages wended its way from China to Europe through the territories that now include both the Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the ISIS declaration of its Khorasan Caliphate focuses on Central Asia and Afghanistan. But contemporary U.S. policy in the region is not shaped solely by its involvement in Afghanistan. Washington’s goal is to offer the five Central Asian states a strategic partner and to create, both for individual countries and for the region, the conditions that will enhance their own mutual cooperation and the prosperity of their citizens.
STRONG SUPPORT FOR GROWING REGIONAL COOPERATION
There is one more element of the NSS-CA that is new and truly significant. Look again at the first policy objective: “Support and strengthen the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian States, individually and as a region.” “As a region” is Washington’s recognition of a welcome, new environment in Central Asia. Since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Karimov and the election of President Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan – once isolationist and essentially still Soviet – has worked to implement badly needed political and economic reforms and to open its once-closed doors to cooperation with its immediate Central Asian neighbors. That has led to summits and other high-level meetings in the region without the presence of any outside powers.
It is also understood that the five countries are beginning to explore the possibility of forming some sort of regional bloc, perhaps both political and economic. Should that happen, it would weaken the tendency of Moscow and Beijing to meddle in the region and to try to play off one capital against another, and it would enhance the prosperity of the peoples of the region. Washington does not intend to tell the Central Asian states what to do, but the language of the policy objective is clear: The United States welcomes this development and will find appropriate ways to encourage it.