Why Central Asia Should Matter

by Joshua Foust on 2/7/2007 · 1 comment

As a follow up on Nathan’s post: Hugh Pope made the case for an increased, rather than decreased focus on Central Asia. It generally echoes the various arguments we’ve made here, but serves as a useful summary.

So was the West wasting its time playing the new “Great Game” for Central Asia? No. The stakes remain high: This is a moderate-minded Muslim region that has a strategic expanse equivalent to Western Europe, a young population of 55 million, and natural resources ranging from 4 percent of the world’s energy reserves to 20 percent of its uranium. But the West has to become more realistic about how fast and in what way monopolistic states will move toward the rule of law and democratic rights…

There are plenty of reasons why the West should work harder, especially Europe. Right now, Russia and China are busily gaining ground, new oil and gas developments are pointing east rather than west, and in 2005 the US lost one of its two air bases used in support of its troops in Afghanistan. Since June 2001, a regional security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has deliberately excluded the United States and privileged Russia and China. Turkmenistan’s existing gas exports are mainly to Russia’s Gazprom, but the recent change in leadership has provided an opportunity for the West to try for new fields; the likely new president – elections are scheduled for February 11 – is a Turkmen nationalist, and can be wooed. Europe, in particular, can no longer count on this kind of work being done by the US. In Kazakhstan, the regime is prickly because of a US court action accusing the president of bribe-taking. Central Asian states in general are convinced that the US “freedom agenda” aims at regime change along the lines of popular revolutions-cum-coups since 2003 in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Throughout the region, this independence has allowed new national cultures to put down roots. Apart from the Persian-speaking Tadjiks, these cultures are mainly Turkic. As they look forward, policymakers should consider parallels with the development of Central Asians’ ethnic cousins in Turkey. Since 1923, the Turkish model has moved from one-party state to clumsy democracy to broader freedoms. Along the way, prosperity, stability and interaction with the outside world have been the most important inputs, not high-minded and under-informed sermons from afar.

I think that list bit is key. Finger-wagging rarely produces any positive results, and so far that has been the majority of the political interactions between the U.S. and Central Asia. The clear U.S. involvement in Kyrgyzstan’s revolution presented the possibility of a PR boondoggle, and that is exactly what happened. Similarly, the U.S. reaction to Andijon proved counter-productive, as Karimov’s reaction essentially shut out further diplomatic overtures for a long while. Last month in a TCS column I noted the geopolitical opportunities presented by Mukhammedov ascension in Turkmenistan, but so far any kinds of outreach are difficult to see, if they exist at all.

Indeed, mapping out the New Great Game has been something of a hobby of mine, both in school and after, and one thing has struck me: though some private companies, almost all petro-corporations, have seen the enormous potential in Central Asia, most western governments have not. In the mid and late 90’s, the U.S. tended to see influence in the region more as a “beating back” of Russia (itself a dangerous thing, as a fenced-in Russia is not a kind Russia) rather than the pursuit of any specific American interests. Even after September 11, the extent of U.S. focus seemed focused entirely around easy access to Afghanistan and little else, neglecting the larger possibilities of keeping the region relatively open.

No one can deny the strategic value of Central Asia. Yet U.S. policymakers seem not to care, E.U. policymakers only slightly less so.

It reminds me of a curious disconnect in American foreign policy. Engagement with China is supposed to improve the liberalize the country, through rising incomes and increased exposure to western ideas. Its long-term efficacy can be debated (especially in light of western complicity in censorship like the Great Firewall), but very few people can doubt that even in the still-poor countryside, in general life is much better than they were under Mao. Similarly, the suddenly open trade relationship with Vietnam was meant to improve conditions within the country, and eventually liberalize its society. At the same time, the best policy the U.S. can come up with to deal with recalcitrant regimes like Iran, North Korea, or Cuba is complete and total isolation.

I see a disturbing parallel in Central Asia. It certainly is not as stark as, say, Iran. And none of the countries pose any direct threats to American interests, like North Korea. But the total lack of attention, on a trade, policy, and diplomatic level, is appalling. The region should be at the forefront of future policy: as a region of mostly non-fundamentalist Muslims it could put to lie the idea of “America is at war with Islam.” As a major source of oil and natural gas it could provide an end-run around more prickly energy suppliers. As a major source of uranium it deserves attention. And as the heart of Asia it offers a tremendous strategic advantage, not in some MacKinder-esque “control the world” way, but as proof that working with the United States should be good for a country.

That message has been lost. And it is to the U.S.’s tremendous detriment.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Laurence February 9, 2007 at 3:51 pm

Thank you for this interesting post…

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