The successful diplomacy is always based on clear and strong strategy. A Clear strategy is a choice of routes with partners for protecting own national interests, demand security for economy and prosperity. Today the United States is changing its foreign policy approach as the country has suffered much from spoiled relations with important partners in Eurasia.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar system of international relations in 1991 caused a radical change of geopolitical realities on the European continent. First, this event favored the return of Central and Eastern Europe states to the European affairs. Second, the collapse of the USSR reshaped the territory in the European neighborhood by the appearance of newly independent states. Third, the Yugoslavian conflict and the threat of destabilization of its neighboring regions increased the attention of the EU towards post-social block and post-soviet states.
The question of EU enlargement to the East became immediately one of the most important on the agenda. On the one hand, it was perceived with a great enthusiasm by Germany and Great Britain, who called for further integration and inclusion of newly independent states to the common European processes. From the other hand, the perspectives of CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) states to enter the EU were skeptically assessed by France and Mediterranean countries. Paris didn’t want to allow the strengthening of Berlin’s positions by the eastern enlargement, and the Mediterranean countries worried about the possible reorientation of common aid to the East. Despite these disputes the EU started cooperation with CEE states in order to create necessary conditions for the integration.
On the ground of Association agreements, a large-scale reform process was launched. As a result, in 2004 and 2007 the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria became the members of the UE. According to Dmitry Trenin, it should be underlined that while the close cooperation with CEE states was in process, the post-soviet countries on the European borders were never considered as potential candidates. Six newly independent states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) were included instead to the European Neighborhood Policy. As we can see, the EU didn’t take advantage of weakened Russia to install closer cooperation with these states and involve them to common European integration process.
At the same time the EU eastern enlargement lead to the strengthening of USA positions on the continent. First, the entry to the EU was preceded be the entry to NATO. Second, CEE states were never optimistic on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), considering NATO as the main guarantor of their national security.
This factor was used by the neo-conservatist administration in Washington D.C when US military presence in CEE was increased and Ukraine along with Georgia entry in NATO came to the agenda.
Current realities in Eurasia region tell to us, that the raise of US power on the Eastern borders of Europe, the strengthening of Russian during the presidencies of Vladimir Putin along with the incapability of the EU to elaborate efficient mechanisms of common foreign policy made EU the object of Russia-US relations. That’s why the decision of the United States to reduce American presence in Europe displeased CEE states. Washington buck-passed the Ukrainian crisis to Europe and preferred to stay the offshore balancer in the European – Russian relations. But the fact that Moscow perceives the EU only as an American influence agent doesn’t let Brussels become the sustainable actor. But what about Central Asia?
In July and August 2016 Central Asia once again could become the focus of growing attention from the United States. At the July NATO Summit in Warsaw, the Alliance reaffirmed its support for the current government in Afghanistan, a nation that continues to be a potential source of instability in the region, a magnet for radical Islamists and a crucial link to Central Asia. Today it is lower than it was during the active phase of the military operation in Afghanistan. Central Asian countries are largely responsible for the fact that the region remains on the periphery of American interests. One of the reasons for that is weak lobbying on the part of Central Asian immigrants living in the U.S. Even though the number of Central Asian diaspora in the U.S. is quite large, it is disintegrated and often acts contrary to the interests of their motherland.
Not willing to cede influence in Central Asia to either Russia or China, the United States is quietly ramping up efforts to build direct relations with the five Central Asian states, all of them former Soviet republics.
During Obama Administration Washington implemented new format for own foreign policy in Central Asia. This new format was interesting for the U.S because it allowed interaction directly with Central Asia without Moscow’s mediation.
Situation during US – Russia confrontation
U.S. foreign policy in the post-Soviet space has changed considerably in just the short period that strategic limited confrontation emerged between Moscow and Washington. The policy towards Central Asia stands out particularly against this backdrop. A new dialogue platform, the C5+1 Ministerial Meeting, which includes the five countries of the region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and was established during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in November 2015, demonstrates the shift in Washington’s stance on Central Asia.
In situation where Russian-American relations are in crisis, this is very important for the White House. It is also significant that C5+1 brings together all countries of the region and the U.S. makes efforts to discuss all regional problems with them. At the same time, one should not overestimate the level of U.S. interest in the region. The worsening of situation in Afghanistan might change the format of C5+1 to quite significant, but there is perspective for pessimistic scenario and partners will forget about this platform.
On one hand, some experts say that the U.S. policy is aimed to decrease Russian influence in the region. They observe any calls upon the Central Asian countries to “choose its pole, either siding with Russia or the West” as potentially destabilizing. Some even present the opinion that the Americans are planning to stay in Central Asia for a long period of time and have a definitive long-term strategy in the region. Yet the reality shows that revitalization of the U.S. foreign policy in Central Asia was contextual and strictly limited in time, meaning the U.S. presence in the region would decrease thereafter.
For a long time, Washington attempted to combine two approaches: promoting democratic values and attempting to establish cooperation in the field of security with the key countries in the region. Trump Administration tries to limit own focusing Human Rights Issue and imposing a democratic agenda.
Americans do not consider Central Asia to be a unified and monolithic region, but Washington is ready to adapt its ideology to the realities of the region and new security challenges.
The most important thing for the United States to remember is not to compete with Russia in Central Asia, as this region should not turn into an arena for competition, but rather, become a ground for cooperation. It would be virtually impossible to build an alliance of Central Asian countries based on opposition to Russia. Countries of the region themselves would hardly be willing to do so.
Washington essentially accepted this new configuration, where parties are skilled at bargaining, trying to draw the maximum benefit from the proposals of non-regional states. The states of the region are more interested in an efficient cooperation platform. The problem is that Washington often gives its approach in the region different names while in reality many of those do not go beyond mere initiatives of good intentions that are never implemented.
How U.S. confrontation with Russia affects its policy in Central Asia
Current strained relations between Washington and Moscow affect the revitalization of U.S. policy in Central Asia. In the beginning of the 1990s, the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton saw Russia as a locomotive of the democratic transformation of post-Soviet countries, which meant that the newly democratic Russia was supposed to be actively contributing to the establishment of civil institutions in the former Soviet republics.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001, Russia-U.S. cooperation in Central Asia once again grew stronger. Washington actively coordinated its efforts in the region with Russia. For instance, with the support of Moscow the United States obtained the permission of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to use their military bases and airfields for military operations in Afghanistan.
Today, the United States is rethinking its entire policy in the post-Soviet space: from now on Washington is going to engage directly with the regional states. This approach is fostered by the confrontation between Russia and the United States as well as the deterioration of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, which led the White House to postpone the withdrawal of its troops from the country.
The United States is essentially reducing the number of issues in the region that require coordination with its Russian counterparts. The new C5+1 platform on Central Asia serves as yet another proof of it, but during the Trump`s Administration this platform cannot work effectively, because there is no any interest from Washington D.C.
Why Washington doesn`t take efforts to develop infrastructure project in the region? This sphere can give big opportunity for American interests, and if United States can cooperate with China. Central Asia is a region, where all economic integration projects failed. Moreover, there is no pragmatism in economic cooperation. For example, there is so called – “Asia paradox” in East and South – East Asia, where political mistrust hinders economic cooperation between the states. However, Central Asia lacks pragmatic cooperation between regional countries. Instead of it we witness non-regional forces driving their own transport and logistical projects. In this context, it is very interesting to study the phenomenon of the connection of some economic projects in Central Asia.
US New Silk Road project is a signal and opportunity for the industrial development and the diversification of its transport corridors with access to water routes. The more transport corridors go through Central Asia, the better opportunities and alternatives they will bring.
Another transport project, Chinese-backed idea succeeded and Road Initiative (BRI) has been implemented since 2013. The main reason for this project is that the Chinese need to get rid of dependence on the sea transport routes. For external parties participation in transportation and infrastructure projects to reorganize into an opportunity, not a curse. Central Asian countries need to carry out economic reforms and discover mechanisms of pragmatic cooperation among themselves. However, reforms are often simulated and regional cooperation falls apart due to political differences. The result is economic stagnation.
It is necessary to evaluate the effect of the SREB project and American New Silk Road projects for assessment of possibilities for future interaction. Both projects have equal goals on transportation and logistics platform and strength in their economic and political aspects in the region. All projects will be succeeded when regional states carry out economic reforms and discover mechanisms of pragmatic cooperation among themselves. The key thing in this area is developing regional connectivity, which is the best way to provide economic integration in the region.
Rafael M. Sattarov is a political analyst. He is a graduate of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He has a Master’s degree from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He is a columnist of several editions in Russia and Kazakhstan and has edited articles on economics and politics in Forbes Russia, Lenta.ru, and Russia Beyond the Headlines. He was a delegate of the Young Educational Leaders Program of NATO. His research interests include reforms of the socio-political and economic systems in the post-Soviet space, U.S.-Russia relations after the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy in Central Asia, international relations in Eurasia and the geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus.