Influence: The Bogeyman of Simplified Strategic Understanding

by Nathan Barrick on 10/31/2013

Many times I have been asked to assess whether one nation or another is “increasing influence,” usually to categorize as “good” or “bad” developing events for someone with little time or understanding of the situation. Frequently, the right answer – “It depends…” – has to be discarded due to an enforced sense of urgency that limits the ability to explain or discuss fully the individual’s thoughts or concerns.  The next best answer is to highlight the particular situational gain or loss in specific terms, such as economic, diplomatic, or security, and couple it with a caveat addressing another nation’s ability to address the same specific issue.  While it might be reasonable to use such an approach to assist a layman, I have increasingly found those who are supposed to have more nuanced understandings also defaulting to such reductivist understandings of international relations and national security interests.

The language of “influence” as a slidable scale indicating “good” or “bad” ramifications for a country’s national security interests results in a simplistic approach to strategy and undermines true understanding.  It will only be a matter of time before this “Trick or Treat” reductivist, simplistic approach leads to error…

For example:

“Does U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan mean Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia will increase?”

The reductivist starts with a prejudicial premise that “increasing influence” by Russia and China is deterministically “bad” for U.S. or Central Asian interests in this case.  Next, the inherent bias is compounded by the fallacious logic of a “zero sum” impact of mismatched items, that the loss, or decrement, of one nation’s means (U.S. military presence) results in the gain, or progress, of another nation’s strategy or ways (Russian or Chinese influence).  The question omits the trail of causality and risks overlooking numerous variables:

“Was the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan addressing an issue of importance for Central Asian States and does that presence have a particular value for Central Asian States in terms of relationship with the U.S.? Does the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan also mean a concomitant drop in resource allocation, diplomatic effort, and strategic engagement resulting in an inability for the U.S. to address security and stability interests in the region?  Does that drop exacerbate or illuminate security concerns in the region?  Do Central Asian States need to turn to other international partners to address those security concerns?  Will they turn to Russia or China or both?  Will Russia and China be able, or have the interest, to address those security concerns?  Will there be no negative considerations by Central Asian States to the involvement of Russia and China in those security concerns?  Does Russian and Chinese involvement in these security concerns constitute an increase in their influence in the region? And is this a qualitatively good or bad thing for U.S. security interests?  Are there temporal changes to this assessment over the longer term?”

A reasonable person might agree that the first question is merely a summation of the logical question tree presented above.  This is why the first question was likely posed in the first place.  Unfortunately, however, I have seen far too many analysts and experts leap to the end with an intuitive, simplistic approach to answer only the summary question and that arbitrarily assigns negativity to what sounds like a fearsome prospect – “increased Russian and Chinese influence” without a truly analytic approach.  And the problem is that “influence” is a construct of perception, and when reduced to a sliding scale of quality “good or bad”, it is a figment of the imagination – a bogeyman.

The right answer is still – “It depends…”

The scary prospect for responsible professionals is that this problem is not restricted to the Central Asian problem set.  It applies to estimates of Iranian influence in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.  It applies to Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.  It applies to the influence of Middle Eastern Arab states to Arab states in North Africa.  It applies to the influence of jihadist groups in Muslim countries and the West.  It applies to Russian influence in Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East.  It is, unfortunately, a simple error too often innocently, but insidiously, compounded across the breadth of analytic, national security literature and especially in journalism.  With journalism, the problem is not so much professional ethics, but instead due to the marketing need to get to a headline, the bottom line, the sensationalist point – to drive through the tedious detail, the realm of experts, to get to the take-away value for the viewer or reader.  In my view, I would place journalists in the shoes of the question poser.   I want to illuminate the haunts of the “influence” bogeyman that lures professionals away from doing the heavy analytic lifting and daunts the moral courage required to answer, “It depends…”

The most common mask “influence” wears is to be simply disguised as a “Means” something concretely substantive, like currency or a quantity of people or military unit.  It is an error to view “influence” like a value in the stock market going up and down in response to external stimuli or economic activity.  Another costume “influence” dons is that of an “End”, a strategic outcome that is a gain or a loss, a victory or a defeat, a black or white valuation that stands independently.  This is an especially pernicious illusion because by the light of a different day or in different circumstances, “influence” can suddenly, phantasmically disintegrate.  In actuality, “influence” is a “Way”, it is a strategy to be created for a specific purpose.  Just because “influence” is created to accomplish one specific purpose, does not mean it is useful for a different purpose – the scope of “influence’s” utility is actually limited.  To make matters more complex, multiple “influences” can act in concert or in opposition, simultaneously and “influence” can be affected by a nearly infinite number of variables.

In summary, relying on “influence” as a strategy is nearly akin to using hope as a method.

Returning to Central Asia, let’s take a brief analytic approach to the question of whether a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia increases:

Was the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan addressing an issue of importance for Central Asian States and does that presence have a particular value for Central Asian States in terms of relationship with the U.S.?

Short answer, “Yes.”

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the Afghan Civil War when 9/11 occurred.  The international effort against the Taliban and Al Qaeda aligned with their interests.  Turkmenistan was concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan, but elected isolation as a course of action.  The international effort provided Turkmenistan an opportunity to re-engage with Afghanistan.  Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, not bordering the country, had concerns related to the potential spread of the Taliban and other Islamic extremists.  The international effort addressed those concerns, but has not completely resolved them.  Each Central Asian State has arguably had more interaction with the U.S. since 9/11 than they would have otherwise and the scope of engagement has expanded to include the Northern Distribution Network.  While some might argue the U.S. had a minimal relationship with Central Asia prior to 9/11, that was also a deliberate choice driven by the “Farewell to Flashman” approach to prevent, or not participate in, a Great Game (competing “influences”) in Central Asia.  Others might argue the U.S. relationship to Central Asia has been disproportionately skewed towards security cooperation at the expense of democratization and human rights concerns.  Central Asian States would likely argue the opposite, that U.S. concerns about political and human freedom have limited the scope of the opportunity for security cooperation that Afghanistan presented.  The value of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for Central Asian States was to subsidize addressing the security concerns related to Afghanistan and an opportunity value for security cooperation.  But Afghanistan is not the only driver of U.S. – Central Asia relationships.

Does the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan also mean a concomitant drop in resource allocation, diplomatic effort, and strategic engagement resulting in an inability for the U.S. to address security and stability interests in the region?

The short answer is “No.  The expected drop does not have to lead to U.S. interests not being addressed.  It depends on U.S. choices.”

Conventional wisdom suggests there will be less U.S. resources and prioritization allocated to Central Asia.  However, such a drop is always a possible pragmatic economic or prioritization consideration.  The U.S. can address any security or stability interests in the region – if it chooses to prioritize those interests and allocate resources and effort.  Having resource or prioritization constraints must open the door to other ways of addressing the security and stability interests and not relying solely on American ways and means.

Does that drop exacerbate or illuminate security concerns in the region? 

Short answer, “Worst case, yes.  Best case, no.” Any view that leans towards the U.S. as the global guarantor of security will also incline towards a “yes” answer to this question.

It would be illogical to assume that U.S. military departure does not cause a re-evaluation of threat perceptions in the region by all affected parties, state and non-state.  It is possible that some threats may be exacerbated, it is also possible that some may be reduced.  Some state behaviors and strategic perceptions are capable of adjusting, also resulting in increased or decreased security concerns.  Also, as yet unidentified security concerns can arise.

Do Central Asian States need to turn to other international partners to address those security concerns?

Given a range of possible security-related threats as identified in the previous question, the short answer is “Best case, no. Worst case, probably yes.”

This simple question, tied to the summary question about “influence,” assumes a false premise – military withdrawal from Afghanistan results in an abrogation of security interests in the region.  Nothing prevents the U.S. from developing Central Asian States’ confidence the U.S. remains interested and engaged in security in the region – except a choice to not do so.  Military presence in Afghanistan is not the only means to address security issues in Central Asia, nor has it been the only means.

Will they turn to Russia or China or both?

The short answer is, “They already have; U.S. presence in Afghanistan is irrelevant to this question.”

The fact is most Central Asian States are already involved in security partnerships with Russia and China.  All but Turkmenistan are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has a security-related agenda prioritized below its economic agenda.  Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization; and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have sizeable, even significant Russian military presence.  Most Central Asian states, including Turkmenistan, also cooperate closely with Russia on regional air defense issues.

Will Russia and China be able, or have the interest, to address those security concerns? 

The short answer is “Yes, with some possible concerns.”

Both Russia and China have publicly and repeatedly expressed an interest in security concerns in Central Asia.  The question of Russia’s and China’s ability to resolve security problems is debatable. The U.S. considers some Chinese or Russian approaches to resolving security issues flawed,  but, in all objectivity, the feeling is frequently reciprocated and, historical examples suggest, not unjustly.

Will there be no negative considerations by Central Asian States to the involvement of Russia and China in those security concerns? 

Short answer, “There are reservations; China and Russia do not have carte blanche in Central Asia.”

Each Central Asia State has reservations to some degree about Russia and China involvement in their security concerns.  The two seemingly most reluctant to accept Russian or Chinese security cooperation are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  However, both countries continue a cautious amount of security cooperation they feel is warranted and reasonable.  For Turkmenistan, this is likely the same treatment given to the U.S..  Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan appear to have continual discussions with Russia and China over security matters and an inconsistent approach that sustains a low-level of tension between each on security-related matters.  Kazakhstan is much closer to Russia, but once refused Chinese transit across Kazakhstan to participate in an SCO military exercise in Russia.

Does Russian and Chinese involvement in these security concerns constitute an increase in their influence in the region?

The short answer is, “Possible, but unlikely.”

As noted above, Russia and China are already involved in these concerns.  They already influence Central Asia nations and leaders.  There are already checks on how much closer the cooperation or relationships can become.  There are pragmatic and prioritization issues for all seven countries that will impact the future.

And is this a qualitatively good or bad thing for U.S. security interests? 

Short answer, “It depends, but it’s probably a good thing.”

This is really the meat of the question and is, of course, a value-laden question where those with varying frameworks for viewing national security interests will reach varied conclusions.  The question circles back immediately to the debate over withdrawing U.S. military from Afghanistan.  Is that decision, in and of itself, in our interests?  Without going into that debate in detail, let’s consider each alternative from the issue of Russia and China involvement in Central Asia.  If removing U.S. forces is in the U.S. interest, then the extant security problems will need to be addressed by someone else and arguing on the basis of priority, it should be acceptable for anyone else to address the problem.  Presumably, we reserve the right to get involved again should we choose.  If removing U.S. forces is not in the U.S. interest, and the decision is not going to be reversed, then someone else will need to address those problems.  The primary security threats in the region have been identified as threats common to all.  While the U.S., Russia, and China may differ in approaches or in how we characterize or understand the security problem, the only real potential security concerns are in terms of positioning for potential conflict amongst the three major powers.  If the U.S. is genuine in its stated strategic objectives in relationships with Russia and China, then the answer to this question is clearly clouded, but leans towards the “good”.

Are there temporal changes to this assessment over the longer term?”

Short answer, “Yes.”

Unless, in a Hobbesian sense, one believes this Halloween night of international security terrors will last forever, many believe the proverbial sun will rise in the morning.  History shows us that change is a constant.  This situation is as changing as “influence” is a “bogeyman.”


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This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on Registan.net.

Nathan Barrick has consulted on Central Asia and national security issues with multiple organizations, government and corporate, including testimony before Congress. He is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer for Russia-Eurasia and has a Master's Degree from the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University. His views as published are his own and do not represent any other organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Nates_Notes

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