US – Azerbaijan Relations: Challenges and Perspectives
Azerbaijan is an important, if often overlooked, country in regard to many of the challenges the U.S. faces such as a resurgent Russia, an emboldened Iran, wavering allies, growing China, and the rise of Islamist extremism. Closer cooperation and partnership between the two countries would benefit both. Sadly, in recent years the U.S.- Azeri relationship has been in somewhat of a holding pattern. The Trump Administration should take steps to improve relations with Baku.
Azerbaijan sits at a crucial geographical and cultural crossroads linking Europe and Asia. This crossroads has proven strategically important for centuries. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is arguably the most important city on the Caspian Sea. It is home to the Caspian’s largest port and serves as the transportation hub for goods shipped between Europe and Central Asia. Ever since the first oil well was drilled just outside Baku in 1846, the city has been vital to the region’s oil and gas industry. For Europe, Azerbaijan provides a significant oil and gas alternative to Russia. This improves Europe’s security and by association the security of the U.S.
These are facts of which that many U.S. policymakers seem oblivious. In recent times the U.S. has chosen to largely disengage from the Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus and Caspian regions. It is time for this to change
U.S. – Azerbaijani Relations
U.S. – Azerbaijani relations date back to the Paris Peace Conference after World War One during the early and short-lived days of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. During the Cold War and the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan the U.S. and the Azerbaijan S.S.R. did not, and of course could not, have formal diplomatic relations. However, on the break-up of the Soviet Union the then U.S. President George H.W. Bush recognized the re-establishment of Azerbaijan’s independence on Christmas Day, 25 December 1991.
Regrettably, by the late 1990s, the U.S. lost much of its eagerness for engaging with the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan. This all changed immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After the attacks the U.S. sought to re-engage with the region to seek assistance against trans-national terrorism and to secure transit and basing rights in the region for combat operations in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan, in particular, was a crucial focus for the U.S. during this time.
In addition to Baku’s support for the mission in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan is also an important U.S. partner for a number of other reasons. Although Azerbaijan is a Muslim-majority country, it is a secular society. Azerbaijan has a very close relationship with Israel, Georgia, and Turkey and this aligns Azerbaijani foreign policy with America’s.
Although U.S.–Azerbaijani relations were probably at their closest soon after the 9/11 attacks three events over the past several years have dampened relations. First was the perceived lackluster U.S. response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. After the invasion, policymakers in Baku started to question American power and influence in the region—and rightfully so.
Secondly, was the Western response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine has further made Baku question of the value of its engagement with the West. Both events, in Georgia and Ukraine, made the U.S. and the West look weak in a part of the world where strength and power are respected.
Finally, the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and the subsequent disengagement from the region has led many in Baku to question the transactional nature of the U.S.-Azerbaijani relationship. The transactional nature of America’s relationship with Azerbaijan was shortsighted for two reasons: First, it created the opinion in Baku that as soon as the U.S. got what it wanted it would move on. Secondly, it has diminished any good will that the U.S. created in the broader region, and regaining trust in the region will prove even more difficult. Considering the importance of the region to a broader U.S. strategy dealing with Russia and Iran, this could have negative consequences for U.S. policy in the future.
Today, the U.S.–Azerbaijani relationship is perhaps the most acute example of declining American influence in the region. It is also an example of a lopsided foreign policy pursued by Washington D.C. utterly counter to U.S. interests. Yes, there are some human rights issues in the region that should be of concern but this cannot be the sole driver of U.S. policy. U.S. engagement with Azerbaijan needs to take a multifaceted approach that involves energy, security, human rights, and geopolitical concerns. One issue alone, such as human rights, should not trump other aspects of U.S.–Azerbaijani relations
Time For Reengagement
The U.S. needs to develop a strategy for engagement with Azerbaijan that promotes friendship and mutual respect, economic prosperity, regional stability, the wise use of energy resources, and is aware of the consequences of increased Russian, Iranian, and Chinese influence in the region.
There is a lot the U.S. can do to help Azerbaijan while simultaneously advancing U.S. interests in the region. If done correctly, U.S. engagement can be a win-win situation for all.
U.S. re-engagement could begin easily and symbolically with just a few high-level visits by U.S. officials. Vice President Pence’s recent visit to the “three seas” regions of Estonia (Baltic Sea), Georgia (Black Sea) and Montenegro (Adriatic Sea) would have been better served if a fourth sea, namely the Caspian Sea, had been included with a visit to Baku. This should be considered in the future.
Also, Azerbaijan is long overdue for a Cabinet-level visitors. The most recent Cabinet-level visit in the Caspian region was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s South Caucasus tour in 2012—nearly five years ago.
With the rise of groups like ISIS, the U.S. should work with Azerbaijan to prevent the region from becoming a transit zone and recruiting ground for Islamist extremists. This could include capacity building in the security sector and better intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Azerbaijan.
The U.S. needs to take a bigger role bringing up onto the international stage Armenia’s illegal occupation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. The U.S. should also keep a close eye on Yerevan’s close ties with Russia and Iran. Peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh have been stalled for years, and sadly, the U.S. can do very little to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. However, remaining silent on the matter offers implicit approval of the status quo. The U.S. should continue to call for a peaceful solution to the conflict that includes the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani territories.
Finally, the U.S. should also provide military and security assistance to all deserving allies in the region. The U.S. government’s decision to provide military assistance to another country should be based on American security interests and not certain pressure groups lobbying Congress. Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act is an unfair impediment to this.
Time For a U.S. Strategy
Today the U.S. sees an Azerbaijan that is more cautious and mindful of its place in the region. Globally, Azerbaijan is trying to keep a balance between its relations with the West and Russia. Regionally, Azerbaijan has sought to keep a balance between Russia and Iran while striving to preserve its autonomy or independence as much as possible.
Azerbaijan will continue to be a regional economic leader in the South Caucasus and an important economic actor in the Caspian region. If correct policies are pursued, U.S.- Azerbaijan relations can serve both countries equally and for the better.
If Washington DC is to have a grand strategy to deal with a resurgent Russia and an emboldened Iran and to improve Europe’s energy security, and fight terrorism policymakers Azerbaijan is too important to ignore.
Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Davis Institute for National Security
The Heritage Foundation
Luke Coffey oversees research on nations stretching from South America to the Middle East as director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Coffey, named to the post in December 2015, is responsible for directing policy research for the Middle East, Africa, Russia and the former Soviet Union, the Western Hemisphere, and the Arctic region. Coffey previously was Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher fellow, focusing on relations between the United States and the United Kingdom and on the role of NATO and the European Union in transatlantic and Eurasian security. Before joining the think tank’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in 2012, Coffey had served at the UK Ministry of Defence since 2010 as senior special adviser to then-British Defence Secretary Liam Fox.