Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Kazakhstan Exposes the Central Flaw of Biden’s Foreign-Policy Doctrine

Lofty democratic rhetoric can’t compete with autocratic boots on the ground. That should make Washington uncomfortable.

By , a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a former consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan.
Russian soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) attend a ceremony marking the end of the CSTO mission in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 13.
Russian soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) attend a ceremony marking the end of the CSTO mission in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 13.
Russian soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) attend a ceremony marking the end of the CSTO mission in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 13. ALEXANDR BOGDANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Kazakhstan is embroiled in crisis. Days after local protests over a spike in fuel prices spiraled into a violent, multicity uprising, Russian and allied troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployed to the country at the request of embattled Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The United States, meanwhile, is “committed to seeing if we can find a way forward diplomatically through dialogue,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of Kazakhstan’s turmoil on Sunday. Asked about Tokayev having ordered his forces to “open fire to kill without warning” while working to quash the protests, Blinken responded that the orders were wrong and should be rescinded and the rights of peaceful protesters be respected.

Many Democrats would agree Blinken’s sentiments are the more attractive of the two. But in practice, Washington’s toothless pleas for dialogue are less effective than Russian boots on the ground.

Kazakhstan is embroiled in crisis. Days after local protests over a spike in fuel prices spiraled into a violent, multicity uprising, Russian and allied troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployed to the country at the request of embattled Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

The United States, meanwhile, is “committed to seeing if we can find a way forward diplomatically through dialogue,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said of Kazakhstan’s turmoil on Sunday. Asked about Tokayev having ordered his forces to “open fire to kill without warning” while working to quash the protests, Blinken responded that the orders were wrong and should be rescinded and the rights of peaceful protesters be respected.

Many Democrats would agree Blinken’s sentiments are the more attractive of the two. But in practice, Washington’s toothless pleas for dialogue are less effective than Russian boots on the ground.

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has consistently framed his foreign policy in terms of a binary between autocracies and democracies, referring to the United States’ democratic values as the country’s “abiding advantage” and calling the defense of democracy “the defining challenge of our time.” Detractors have questioned the utility of this binary, particularly in a world no longer defined by an ideological battle between capitalism and communism. And indeed, a year into his presidency, faith in democracy is wavering at home and abroad.

Ultimately, Washington’s reaction to the Kazakhstan crisis should serve as an opportunity for Biden to reconsider the utility of the autocracy/democracy binary in U.S. foreign policy. The case of Kazakhstan illustrates idealistic words alone are insufficient to advance values-based foreign policy. If the United States wishes to lead with its values, it must first determine what it’s willing to fight for and how far it’s willing to go.


Over the past three decades, the United States and Kazakhstan have enjoyed relatively stable diplomatic relations. Washington was first to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, and since then, the two have partnered on many joint political and security initiatives. As of January 2021, the United States had contributed $38 billion in foreign direct investment to Kazakhstan.

In a pivotal 2018 strategic partnership agreement, the two countries announced their intent to bolster bilateral ties in a variety of areas, including political, security, and economic cooperation. Over the years, the United States has also funded numerous educational and professional programming in Kazakhstan, geared toward promoting such democratic ideals as a free press and equal opportunities. Citing the 2018 agreement, the Kazakh Embassy to the United States noted the United States is one of Kazakhstan’s “most important diplomatic partners.”

But diplomatic platitudes aside, fractures have recently revealed themselves—such as at Biden’s December 2021 Summit for Democracy. On day one of the virtual gathering of more than 100 countries, Biden referred to the participants in attendance as “a global community for democracy” standing in opposition to autocratic powers seeking to expand their influence. This was likely a message implicitly directed at Kazakhstan and other nations excluded from the guest list. The fact that several countries with questionable democratic track records—including four categorized by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House as “not free”—were nevertheless invited to the summit, due presumably to their strategic merit to the United States, only strengthened the blow to Kazakh leaders.

Also telling was Kazakhstan’s apparent decision not to consult Washington before summoning CSTO troops last week. As Blinken stated on Sunday: “We have real questions about why [Kazakhstan] felt compelled to call in [the CSTO,] this organization that Russia dominates. We’re asking for clarification on that.”

As CSTO troops initially prepared to deploy to Kazakhstan, the Kazakh government’s English-language messaging was scant, and its Russian-language messaging was aimed to project strength and, at points, brutality.

On Friday, Tokayev published a Twitter thread containing a somewhat toned down version of events, initially refraining from mentioning in English the shoot-to-kill order and closing with an incongruous call for direct foreign investment. After asserting foreign terrorists were beating and killing young soldiers and police officers, he concluded: “In my basic view: no talks with the terrorists, we must kill them,” then added, “the policy of open doors to the foreign direct investments will remain a core strategy of Kazakhstan.” Shortly thereafter, he deleted the tweet about direct investments, replacing it with: “Kazakhstan will continue to ensure safety and protection of the foreign diplomatic missions as well as personnel and properties of foreign companies and investors.”

Tokayev has made clear via both official and social media statements that his key needs are order and money.

It remains unclear what motivated this edit. Perhaps Tokayev realized the faux pas of calling for foreign funding without addressing the safety of foreigners in Kazakhstan, or maybe he recognized that foreign companies might be concerned about investing in an unstable country. But if the United States is to continue trumpeting “values-based” diplomacy, situations like this bear scrutiny. Tokayev has made clear via both official and social media statements that his key needs are order and money.

For order, he turned to his former Soviet allies in the CSTO. In discussing the danger of autocracies at last month’s Summit for Democracy, Biden noted that a key advantage autocrats boast is being able to “justify their repressive policies and practices as a more efficient way to address today’s challenges.” He then countered that democracy’s superiority lies in its capacity to “unleash human potential and defend human dignity and solve big problems.” Tokayev’s decision to call in the CSTO despite Biden’s assurances illustrated that, in times of crisis, efficiency remains a meaningful point in favor of aligning oneself with autocracies.

After calling in the CSTO, Tokayev’s English-language statement that Kazakhstan will still gladly accept money seemed to be aimed at Western coffers. Here, the key utility of the U.S.-Kazakh relationship for Tokayev may boil down to the tens of billions of dollars that have poured into his country over the past 30 years.

Money, of course, plays a key role in Biden’s foreign-policy strategy. In December 2021, the White House announced the United States will commit up to $424 million to “a significant, targeted expansion of U.S. government efforts to defend, sustain, and strengthen democracy around the world.” Still, in assessing the effectiveness of the democracy/autocracy binary, Biden should consider whether the United States’ efforts to outperform autocracies will ultimately translate to paying potential allies to accept democracy’s superiority—whatever form that recognition may take—and whether that itself aligns with the spirit of democratic values.


Kazakhstan presents Biden with the opportunity to prove, through action, his theory that democratic values can outshine autocratic actions. But it also highlights how few options Washington really has if it remains constrained to the autocracy/democracy binary. Of Biden’s two potential courses of action—a carefully tailored financial carrot-and-stick strategy or a United Nations-led effort—neither appears particularly feasible nor effective.

Recognizing that money talks, the United States could respond to the Kazakhstan crisis by crafting a funding strategy that would make U.S. investment and aid contingent on the country’s success in meeting specific democratic benchmarks related to the rule of law, free assembly, free press, and other core values. Such a system could likewise increase, limit, or halt funding in key areas based on regular benchmark assessments. And as has become increasingly common in U.S. foreign policy, a sanctions system could be put into place for egregious violations of these benchmarks, such as violent retaliation against peaceful protesters.

That said, a program of this sort would be complex and resource intensive for Washington and could backfire in myriad ways—from painful revenue losses for U.S. businesses in Kazakhstan to inspiring Moscow and Beijing to pick up the economic slack, thereby shifting the geopolitical equation in their favor. And though it might produce concrete results, it would hardly be a triumph for democratic values; indeed, paying a country to uphold a set of values does little to reflect their utility or relevance.

If the goal is to demonstrate that democracy is the best way to unleash human potential and defend human dignity, the results should speak for themselves. If they don’t and Washington finds itself countering autocratic action by paying to advance these values abroad, the end result can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to bribery—ethically, if not literally. This point is particularly salient in Kazakhstan’s case, given its current crisis grew out of protests challenging the near doubling of consumer fuel prices in an oil-rich country in the past year. Longtime post-Soviet Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family have amassed fabulous wealth, but the country’s citizens earn a median monthly income of $215, and the bottom 10 percent of wage earners subsist on $71 per month, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. For this reason, it is doubly important that any strategy aimed at demonstrating the strength of democracy in Kazakh society should emphasize the merits of its anti-corruption values.

We have yet to see how abstract notions of democratic ideals can compete with Russian boots on the ground.

Washington could also turn to the United Nations to seek concerted international action by arguing Tokayev’s shoot-to-kill orders—and ensuing efforts to quash the uprising—constitute threats to peace, breaches of peace, or acts of aggression. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has sweeping powers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to issue binding resolutions in response to these matters, with options from mediation efforts to the deployment of armed forces.

In pursuing a binding UNSC resolution, Washington would be relying on the very structure that emerged from World War II to de-escalate global tensions, in line with democratic principles of governance and human rights. Toward that end, this would be a coup on Biden’s binary.

The problem is U.N. action would be a nonstarter. The world needs not consider whether Washington could convince the UNSC that Kazakhstan’s crisis triggers Chapter VII, even if it were interested in doing so. Moscow and Beijing are both permanent members of the UNSC and, given their widely touted concerns over U.S. hegemony, it is impossible to comprehend a scenario where Moscow or Beijing would support a U.S.-led resolution against Kazakhstan. Veto power has rendered the UNSC broadly ineffective in an increasingly polar world

If Biden wishes to prove the “defining challenge of our time” is the conflict between democracies and autocracies, he would do well to demonstrate how democratic values can win out. And if, after examining U.S. options in Kazakhstan, he too finds it is not clear what action Washington could take within the autocracy/democracy binary, some soul-searching is in order.

After all, limiting U.S. reactions to continued calls for peaceful dialogue would add heft to the theory Biden wishes to disprove: that autocracies are better equipped to assert power and control on the global stage than democracies.

Instead, the White House should spearhead bipartisan efforts to determine what values the United States as a whole is willing to put up a genuine fight for. This will, admittedly, be difficult given the country’s internal squabbling. But it is necessary to build up a cohesive foreign-policy strategy that enables the United States to deal with external crises and be a consistent and reliable global partner, regardless of which party is in power. Because as it stands, we have yet to see how abstract notions of democratic ideals can compete with Russian boots on the ground.

Ingrid Burke Friedman is a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the features editor at JURIST Legal News & Commentary. She previously served as a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan from 2018 to 2020. Twitter: @Ing_Burke

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.