The United States State Department has laid out a new policy vision for Central Asia, with a greater focus on "countering violent extremism," harsh words for Russia, and a newly conciliatory line towards Iran.
The new vision was explained by two senior diplomats in speeches in Washington this week: one by Richard Hoagland, a longtime diplomat in Central Asia and now Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and another by Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In terms of details or specific new policies, the speeches contained little new: there was still an emphasis on the New Silk Road vision of promoting regional trade and transportation, still an focus on promoting security while also pushing for greater respect for human rights.
Perhaps the most newsworthy part of the new policy is that such a high-ranking official as Blinken laid it out; Central Asia's profile has markedly decreased in Washington over the last few years as the U.S. has begun to wrap up the war in Afghanistan.
And while there weren't new policies laid out, the speech did signal some new emphases for the U.S. in Central Asia, which may be reflected in new initiatives in the future. The essence of Blinken's speech was probably these two paragraphs:
Our security is tied to a stable Central Asia, and at the same time we see a region of enormous potential, a region that could act as an economic bridge from Istanbul to Shanghai and provide opportunities for our own businesses, technologies, and innovations to take root; a region that could offer goods and energy to the booming economies of South and East Asia; and a region that could serve as a stabilizing force for Afghanistan’s transition and an indispensable partner in the fight against narco-trafficking, terrorism, and extremism. To help unleash this dynamic potential, the United States stands committed to investing in the region’s people and its political and economic stability.
So what I want to do today is lay out a little bit of the vision for our policy in Central Asia that’s founded on two distinct ideas: First, that our own security is enhanced by a more stable, secure Central Asia that contributes to global efforts to combat terrorism and violent extremism; and second, that stability can best be achieved if the nations of Central Asia are sovereign and independent countries, fully capable of securing their borders, connected with each another and with the emerging economies of Asia, and benefitting from governments that are accountable to their citizens.
That is, the New Silk Road strategy is to be combined with a new focus on terrorism and violent extremism. This is unlikely to change the minds of the many skeptics who believe the U.S. lacks a coherent rationale for its policy in the region. The New Silk Road has, even by fairly generous judgments, been foundering; and the focus on extremism -- an issue that has generated far more heat than light in Central Asia -- will align Washington with the fear-mongers (ironically, led by Russia) who take advantage of ISIS's aggressive rhetoric to justify an excessive securitization of politics in the region.
Unsurprisingly, Blinken had plenty of harsh words on Russia: "Russia’s actions on its periphery, including its violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, threaten the very foundation of international order – not only in the region, not only in Europe, but beyond and around the world."
But he also emphasized that the U.S. didn't see Central Asia as a zero-sum game between Moscow and Washington and that the U.S. respects ties between Central Asian countries and Russia, Blinken also didn't offer any specifics about what the U.S. might be doing to lessen the effects of Russian policy in the region.
Intruigingly, in contrast to Russia the line toward Iran appears to be softening: While in the past the State Department vision for the New Silk Road has excluded Iran, Blinken now welcomes closer ties between Iran and Central Asia:
As we gather today, I know a lot of focus is on the talks in Switzerland regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and Secretary Kerry and Wendy Sherman and other colleagues are there as we speak. And I know that no one is watching more closely than the countries of Central Asia.
Iran’s historic and cultural ties to the region are deep and longstanding, and for countries that are increasingly focused on their connectivity to the rest of the world, Iran stands as a potential gateway to Europe as well as a maritime route to Asia.
And Hoagland made similarly conciliatory points toward Iran:
Central Asia’s geography also places it in close proximity to Iran, a country that shares many ancient cultural and economic ties with Central Asia.
We are aware that there are areas on which Iran's Central Asian neighbors need cooperation, such as water conservation, desertification, and countering the trade of illicit narcotics.
So we hope that Iran finds a productive way to work with its Central Asian neighbors.
Does this really signal a new emphasis for the U.S. in Central Asia? And what will all of this mean for how U.S. policy looks on the ground? We'll have to wait and see.