Balancing US Interests in Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 11/18/2006

At the Heritage Foundation’s website, Ariel Cohen has a policy backgrounder titled “U.S. Interests and Central Asia Energy Security.” In it, Cohen argues that,

What is needed in Central Asia is a policy that allows the United States to continue to diversify its energy supplies, station its military forces close to the most immediate threats, and create a lasting and deep impact by promoting democratic and free-market values in an area that is still undergoing political and economic development.

Policymakers and lawmakers alike should assess how energy issues fit into wider U.S. strategic inter­ests in the region and develop balanced, nuanced policies that allow the U.S. to stay engaged where necessary while distancing itself from the less savory aspects of these regimes.

The $64,000 question here is how to balance competing US interests — “security, energy, and democ­racy” as Cohen summarizes them — in the region. Cohen does not really tell us how policymakers can find that balance, particularly with the Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Sure, he says that the US needs a “nuanced approach.” He argues that common security and energy industry interests should be the foundation on which the US can build its relationships with these two governments. But when he ventures into proposals regarding democratization, it is hard to see how relations would not eventually end up back where they are now. His specific suggestions are:

  • Support secular or moderate Islamic demo­cratic opposition parties or figures (who necessarily must be opposed to any jihadi or terrorist–extremist sponsor states or organizations) without openly pursuing regime change;
  • Examine and encourage possibilities for stability-enhancing dialogue between exist­ing regimes and democratic and moderate Islamic opposition groups to facilitate the opening of the political system;
  • Engage, where necessary, in public infor­mation campaigns to criticize existing lead­erships and expose their abuses; and
  • Guard against Islamist backlash by sup­porting recognition and dialogue between existing regimes and secular opposition groups and other legitimate, non-destabi­lizing political actors.

These policies seem more anathema to these governments than what exists now, or in the case of Uzbekistan, what existed under the strategic partnership. And these policies are entirely subject to the whims of the target states. Successfully pursuing all three interests looks like a nearly impossible order to fill for the US save some sudden change of heart in the regional elites.

Europe faces the same tension with the added pressure of access to Central Asian energy reserves being far more important to its energy security. The EU’s compromise approach to Uzbekistan — extending their sanctions but providing a way forward for negotiations between the two sides to go forward — came as a surprise to Uzbekistan, and it is far from certain that their approach will allow them to achieve any of their goals.

The options available to the US as regards relations with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to a lesser extent are not much better than those Europe has. Ultimately ties will only be robust in the areas that the local governments will allow, and achieving close ties on security and energy will probably require the sacrifice of vigorous and active democracy promotion.

Cohen does seem to recognize this. He says the breakdown in US-Uzbek relations should be a “learning experience” for the US. He says that to achieve progress on human rights and democratization, US engagement with local elites and publics designed to build trust and friendship.

That is all well and good, but there are so many ifs involved that this is not exactly a powerful argument for setting out to quickly rebuild ties.

Cohen also advocates working through allies and encouraging expanded cooperation between local governments and just about everyone except Russia (but only because the states are already closely tied to Russia). Regarding India, he says,

One way for the U.S. to play a more influential role in the region is through the use of partners, such as India. As India is a U.S. strategic partner, a stable democracy, and a growing economic power, a greater Indian presence in the region may be beneficial for U.S. interests. India is refurbishing a former Soviet air base in Tajikistan (Ayni), which is intended as part of an effort to contribute to stability in Afghanistan and to battle Islamist terrorism in Central Asia.[25] Both goals are shared by the United States.

India can also lend its support to increasing export options for Central Asian oil and natural gas. In addition to helping to break up the Russian natu­ral gas transit monopoly, this would contribute to economic growth, stability, and improved relations between the pipeline transit countries of India, Paki­stan, and Afghanistan, which is in U.S. interests.

Given that India itself is a democracy, trust and friendship between Uzbekistan and India may be just as powerful in convincing Uzbekistan of the benefits of democratization and rights reform as would warm US-Uzbek ties. Both are a long shot, but one carries few tangible and intangible costs to the US.

US Central Asia policy need not have close ties with each and every government in the region. It would be nice, but it is not certain that the payoffs would justify the costs. Policymakers would, hopefully, work through allies to make headway with the tough cases.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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