The Center for Strategic and International Studies held a speakers’ panel this week to discuss a recent report they produced last month entitled “The United States and Central Asia after 2014”, by CSIS Deputy Director and Fellow Jeffrey Mankoff. Basically speaking, given that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan the question for U.S. policymakers is “now what?”. The panel engaged in a broad based discussion that covered a lot of ground and still left quite a bit of ground uncovered.
Professor Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins -SAIS posited the notion that Central Asia should not be a playground for great power politics. He also pointed-out that many other nations in the region besides the U.S., Russia, and China, play a role in the region. He specially mentioned a growing relationship between Kazakhstan and India. At the same time, a non-panelist, Andranik Migranyan of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, in a long-winded “question” that lasted about twenty minutes, seemed to question the very notion that the U.S. has any reason for being involved in Central Asia.
Unfortunately, too much of the conversation seemed to assume that what happens in Central Asia is a result of nations acting “in their interests”. Let’s look at Kyrgyzstan. The biggest source of income for the country is a gold mine operated by Canada’s Centerra Gold. Japan is a major source of tourist dollars. The U.S. has a large program to assist the Kyrgyz government in creating everything from a modern parliament to courts and government institutions. China builds roads in Kyrgyzstan and mostly employs Kyrgyz workers to do so. Is all of this happening because the Kyrgyz want it that way or because Canada, Japan, the United States, and China are operating in their “national interests”? A democratic Kyrgyzstan may very well be in the U.S. national interest, but American organizations (governmental and non-governmental alike) would not be able to operate there if the Kyrgyz didn’t think there was value to it. If a government wants to work to improve its court system is it going to look to American, Russian, or Chinese experts?
It is a similar situation elsewhere in the region. Iran has linguistic, cultural, and historic ties to Tajikistan. The Iranians have built the tunnels along the country’s new roads and are contributing to the country’s agricultural sector (which went unmentioned in the discussion). It may all very well be in Iran’s interest, but Tajikistan is also interested in keeping something in the way of ties with Iran. The U.S. is certainly aware of this. At the same time, both Americans and Russians are working to create broadband and cellphone networks in Tajikistan. Dushanbe’s medical schools and hospital is partnered with Boulder, Colorado’s Boulder Community Hospital. The Turks are building roads and so are the Chinese, but, unlike in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese mostly import Chinese workers. Some of these activities are happening with active participation on the part of governments and some isn’t.
I think it is safe to say that a stable and prosperous Central Asia may be more in the interests of some nations more than others, but in this increasingly globalized world there is no way for one nation to completely prevent another nation from having “influence” over another. This is actually what is best for the people of Central Asia. The real question should be what role can various nations play in building a stable and prosperous Central Asia.
I recognize that some people may look at the above paragraph and say that I’m not being enough of a hard foreign policy “realist”. To me, however, this is the real realism. Islamic extremism is fueled by drug trafficking, poverty, cultural isolation, and corruption. Putting an end to all of that requires promoting business, industry, education, and non-narcotics related agriculture. That all requires education, health, and other projects that improve living standards. The United States can not and should not be doing it all in Central Asia. Other nations need to step-up to the plate and do what they can. Multi-lateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are playing their role. That brings us to the question of Russia.
Russia can also play a constructive role in Central Asia. Russian energy and mining companies have technology that can be of use in Central Asia. There may be other sectors where it can contribute as well to the mutual benefit of Russia and Central Asia alike. However, if the Russian government insists on playing a”Great Game” to extend their influence in the region at the expense of others then they will be harming both themselves and Central Asia. The single biggest problem Russia faces in the region is not America nor is it the hangover of Soviet days. It is something else that I never heard the panelists mention – the treatment nationals of Central Asian states receive in Russia these days. Most people in the region have heard the stories of violence, exploitation, and bigotry that their compatriots experience in Russia. Russians bigotry does more to damage Russia’s ability to work with people in Central Asians than anything the U.S. or any other power can do.
My own guess is that the post -2014 Central Asia will look much like the current one. Different state and non-state actors will be doing their own part to connect this very isolated region to a more globalized world. The United States is and will continue to be very realistic about the need for other actors to be involved in the region. The question is whether other powers will see things the same way.