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The nation of Kazakhstan turns its lonely eyes to Obama

When Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, visited Washington this past spring to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, he was hoping to go home with a valuable trophy: President Obama’s firm commitment to attend a high-level summit in Astana, the Kazakh capital, sometime this year. He didn’t get it. Obama’s message was, essentially: We’ll get ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, visited Washington this past spring to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, he was hoping to go home with a valuable trophy: President Obama's firm commitment to attend a high-level summit in Astana, the Kazakh capital, sometime this year.

He didn't get it. Obama's message was, essentially: We'll get back to you.

When Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, visited Washington this past spring to attend the Nuclear Security Summit, he was hoping to go home with a valuable trophy: President Obama’s firm commitment to attend a high-level summit in Astana, the Kazakh capital, sometime this year.

He didn’t get it. Obama’s message was, essentially: We’ll get back to you.

Hosting the summit, intended to be a heads-of-state gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is a major priority for the Kazakh government, which currently holds the rotating chair of the 56-nation group and is trying to use its chairmanship to burnish its global image. The Obama administration is sending several top officials for a preparatory meeting this weekend.

The OSCE, which includes countries from across Europe, Central Asia, as well as the United States, traditionally does things like election monitoring but has played an increasing role in security issues, including mediating the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and helping to manage the current crisis in Kyrgyzstan.

But the group, whose origins date back to the 1970s, hasn’t been able to put together a summit at the head-of-state level since 1999, leading some close observers to question its continued relevance in the post-Cold War era.

Kazakhstan is pushing hard to make a summit the centerpiece of its tenure, and is depending on Obama to make it happen.

"His presence is most welcome and will be the most important factor in terms of the success of the summit," Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Washington Erlan Idrissov told The Cable in an exclusive interview. "Issues of European security could not be properly addressed without the full and active participation of the United States."

The main event to try to prepare for the summit begins Friday in Almaty, the former Kazakh capital and its major commercial center. That meeting will bring together 40 foreign ministers. Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will not attend, the Obama administration is sending a robust team, including Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Assistant Secretary of State Bob Blake, and NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul.

Idrissov said that Friday’s meeting will be crucial to determining whether or not to hold the summit at all, based on whether or not the group can agree on the goals of the summit and whether or not the Americans have good news about Obama’s potential participation.

"It is pointless to try to have the summit unless you have a firm and solid agenda agreed on a consensus basis," Idrissov said. Regarding word from the U.S. on Obama’s intentions, he said, "We hope to hear more from Deputy Steinberg on this question."

A White House spokesman declined to comment on whether Obama will attend.

By now, the arguments against attending the summit are well established: There’s not enough time to prepare; Kazakhstan has a poor record on human rights and democracy; the summit is a prestige project; and there are more compelling priorities for the president’s time.

But a recent report (pdf) published by the Atlantic Council’s Chuck Hagel, Damon Wilson, and Ross Wilson argues that this view is "myopic."

"It misses the point of what is happening in the region and the organization and fails to recognize the risk our posture poses to U.S. interests," the authors write. They contend that U.S. influence is waning in Central Asia and criticize the Obama administration for failing to make up its mind one way or the other.

"The U.S. handling of this decision risks undermining our goodwill and squandering our influence in both the OSCE and Central Asia. Indeed, U.S. actions in the short term may make Washington and the OSCE irrelevant in Eurasia at a time when we need more of both in Central Asia, not less."

Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said that Kazakhstan is actually reinvigorating the OSCE and that Washington’s failure to get behind the summit now risks leaving America out in the cold.

"The OSCE agenda for the coming decade is likely to be shaped at this summit," Petersen said. "The U.S. risks either undermining the summit by not participating at the highest level, or it will attend the summit but not be one of the agenda setters. Then, countries that have different agendas will have the upper hand."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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