Daniel W. Drezner

On forfeiting the Great Game

FP‘s own Steve LeVine has an essay at The New Republic that notes the Obama administration’s efforts to dial down U.S. intervention in Central Asia. LeVine is clearly ambivalent about this policy shift:  President Obama’s public rationale for this shift is clear. He wants arms control agreements, victory in Afghanistan, and the denuclearization of Iran ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

FP‘s own Steve LeVine has an essay at The New Republic that notes the Obama administration’s efforts to dial down U.S. intervention in Central Asia. LeVine is clearly ambivalent about this policy shift: 

President Obama’s public rationale for this shift is clear. He wants arms control agreements, victory in Afghanistan, and the denuclearization of Iran — and Russia has a role to play in all three. Reset has lubricated new agreements with Russia that enable, for example, the speedy overflight of U.S. military planes across the North Pole and on to Kyrgyzstan, in support of the war in Afghanistan; the sale of Russian military helicopters, to be paid for by the Pentagon, to the Afghan government; and a tighter financial squeeze on Iran. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, absent any other fulfillment of Obama’s campaign vow to win hearts and minds abroad through civility, the "reset" is Exhibit Number One that good manners work.

In addition, Obama officials believe that, while the great-power-rivalry strain of geopolitics in the region may have been necessary in the 1990s, it is now obsolete. When Heslin’s policy was initially drawn up, its concrete objective was to provide the Caucasian and Central Asian states with a financial channel independent of Moscow’s grip. That meant the construction of energy pipelines to alternative markets, especially the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caucasus to Turkey. But that policy has largely succeeded: The full flow of oil Baku-Ceyhan began in 2006. The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not linked in — and given their cautious nature, they are unlikely to risk Russia’s ire by agreeing to be connected by pipeline with the West — but they have also developed alternate export routes through China, which has constructed its own pipelines that serve precisely the same function….

President Obama must realize that his new policy ultimately represents a trade-off. While the geopolitical gains from deemphasizing the Great Game have been substantial, the local costs of America’s hands-off approach have been quite high. In Kyrgyzstan, which is still embroiled in ethnic strife, deferring to Russia has meant leaving a largely powerless government to its own devices. Azerbaijan has nervously struck up negotiations over natural-gas with Russia’s Gazprom in order to forestall any possible trouble of its own with Moscow. And the United States has adopted a far different approach toward local leaders, swallowing Kazakhstan’s backsliding on what they believed was the country’s private commitment to release imprisoned opposition political activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, and deepening relations with Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, probably the most brutal leader in the former Soviet Union. In other words, the reset has a serious downside: By deciding that the politics of Central Asia are what they are, Washington risks losing its justly earned reputation as the region’s protector of political and economic independence.

From a U.S. perspective, this is fine. Let Russia and China jockey for influence. Geographic proximity and the ‘stans’ own geopolitical interests will prevent either great power from establishing hegemony over the region. This will allow them to maintain as much political autonomy as possible when bordering two civilizational entities. 

I can’t get too worked up about this. First, Central Asia is about as far away from the United States as one can get — if there was any region in which a low U.S. profile was called for, this is the region. 

Second, Central Asia is not being left to Russian hegemony. Indeed, my official U.S. sources tell me that the Russians don’t care about the U.S. influence in the region. What freaks them out is China’s growing regional influence. That’s understandable. With a rapidly growing and energy-thirsty economy, China has a compelling interest in the ‘stans.   

Third, I’m not sure that the U.S. is sacrificing all that much. LeVine argues that the U.S. has played a constructive role by fostering human rights and political autonomy. I don’t think the latter is going away. As for the former, to be  blunt, the U.S. doesn’t have all that shiny a track record. With the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan, the countries in this region have ranged from mildly authoritarian (Kazakstan) to wacky totalitarian (Turkmenistan). U.S. human rights interventions accomplished little in the 1990s, and have been even less effective since 9/11 — indeed, Kyrgyzstan has backslid pretty dramatically. 

There are a lot of regions in the world where I think a robust U.S. presence is a good idea. Central Asia is no longer one of them. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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