US diplomacy in Central Asia must adapt to a drastic shift in underlying assumptions, a leading American expert on the region contends. Two decades ago, when the five Central Asian states gained independence, regional leaders welcomed Washington’s diplomatic involvement. But today, this is not necessarily the case.
“US engagement in Central Asia is no longer a given. It's not something we can take for granted, nor is it something that is necessarily desired by the states of Central Asia – specifically, by the leadership of these countries,” said Roger Kangas, professor of Central Asian Studies at the National Defense University.
American diplomats, above all, should no longer assume that Central Asian leaders see US-style market/democracy as a development model worth emulating, Kangas indicated. “We're not going back to the 1990s, when the attitudes towards Americans were overwhelmingly positive,” Kangas said during the Nava’i-Nalle Lecture in Central Asian Studies, given at Georgetown University in late November. He emphasized during the lecture that he was expressing his personal views, and was not necessarily reflecting the thinking of the US government.
The United States’ best hope, he suggested, is “to prepare ourselves mentally that we can be a balancer in the region – perhaps not the most dominant player in Central Asia – that time has passed – but we're not going to be irrelevant.”
“What I've heard repeatedly from officials in a number of countries, while they're looking at a range of concerns, the very thought of us departing upsets a symmetry and a balance in the region that they find disturbing,” Kangas continued. “Without us there to balance out some of these powers [namely Russia and China], it could be very problematic for them. It's a role we may not be comfortable playing – we're used to being the lead.”
A series of US policies and missteps contributed to Washington’s diminished position, Kangas said. Those include the war in Iraq, which in Central Asia “was viewed as a challenge to national integrity and state sovereignty, and the sovereignty of a particular leader.” The perceived US backing for the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet space, and the related “freedom agenda” also generated mistrust in Central Asia. In addition, US officials didn't devote sufficient resources to the region, treated policy toward Central Asia as an extension of its policy toward Russia, and tended to lump all the Central Asian states together. “We've used the word 'Stans,' which is like nails on a chalkboard to those of you who are Central Asia scholars and students,” Kangas said.
Despite past mistakes, the United States still has an important role to play in the region, Kangas suggested. “What we can do is present ourselves as a force in the region that represents a certain set of core values,” he said, singling out education exchange programs as an especially effective and cheap means of doing that.
Speculating on elements of US policy in Central Asia in the coming years, Kangas cautioned that a US decision to grant American military equipment currently being used in Afghanistan to Central Asian states could become a sore point. “It's going to result in some tensions between and among the countries in the region,” said Kangas, who has held a variety of policy positions in the US government related to Central Asia.
Kangas also expressed skepticism about the New Silk Road initiative, which the State Department has promoted as the cornerstone of policy in the region following the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. ”The devil is in the details, and logisticians will tell you: 'there ain't no details yet,'” he said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the editor of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.