What Does The Caspian Want From Washington?
Flying the U.S. Flag in the Caspian Region By Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland
For the past three decades, the U.S. government’s focus on the Caspian region has waxed and waned. When the formerly Soviet-dominated Caspian Sea was thrown open to the world for hydrocarbon-deposit development, U.S. companies rushed in and played a major role. And by the end of the 1990s, the U.S. government had played the leading role in encouraging the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that delivered the Caspian region’s hydrocarbons directly to Europe, bypassing Russia’s existing pipeline structures and, thus, strengthening the sovereignty of the countries in the region.
When the 9/11 terrorists struck the World Trade Center in New York City, once again the United States very much needed the countries of the Caspian region for temporary military facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and, more broadly, for the Northern Distribution Network to supply U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Both of these examples – hydrocarbon development and distribution and the international fight against terrorism – make clear the strategic economic and security significance of the Caspian region. Nevertheless, a faction of Washington’s foreign-policy community has long looked down its nose at these countries because of their very real problems with political pluralism, human rights, and corruption. The tension between acceptance and disdain is never far beneath the surface in U.S. foreign policy for the region; internal government factions and external interest groups do not hesitate to lobby for their positions.
Since 2013, the emergence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made Beijing a major player in the region. At the same time, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has continued to declare the independent countries that were once Soviet Socialist Republics as Russia’s “special sphere of influence.” To their real credit, all of these countries, to one degree or another, have practiced what Kazakhstan first called “multi-vector foreign policy,” meaning that they seek to cultivate and balance the interests of Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States.
During the past four years of our atypical presidential administration, a perception developed in some of the countries and among foreign-policy analysts that Washington’s interest in the region had waned. In fact, that isn’t really true. We have full-scale embassies in every single country, and – most important – our wide range of programs for bilateral relations has not been reduced significantly. We have continued our diplomatic, military-to-military, economic development, educational exchange, and humanitarian assistance programs as always.
However, during my diplomatic career, I specialized in public diplomacy, and I can assure you that perception is reality. If there’s a perception that American interest has waned in this strategic region, the crossroad between Asia and Europe, then we have a clear task before us.
The best way that the Biden Administration and the Blinken State Department can repair the image of the United States in the Caspian region is with regular – not just one-off – high-level visits. I would strongly urge President Biden to visit the region, as well as National Security Adviser Sullivan, Secretary of State Blinken, and other appropriate cabinet secretaries like Commerceand Energy. More than anything else, it’s the headline reports of such visits in the mass media and electronic media that raise the profile of the United States in this highly strategic region. It’s not just the countries themselves that pay attention; it’s also most definitely Russia and China.
But let’s be realistic. Any U.S. presidential administration’s foreign policy covers the entire world, and inevitably certain bilateral relations and on-the-ground developments have a way of claiming the lion’s share of attention; the Caspian Region is not likely to be at the head of the line. For that reason, I would strongly urge you who are reading this article – the officials in the region, representatives of U.S. companies with major investments in the region, and foreign- policy analysts, both here and abroad – to make a concerted and persistent effort to lobby the Biden administration to make regular, high-profile visits to the strategic Caspian region.
After all, our flag flies highest when all can see it.