What is the U.S.'s interest in Central Asia? For the past decade, the answer has been simple: Afghanistan. The U.S. needs the cooperation of the Central Asian states to carry out its war in Afghanistan. But what happens when the U.S. leaves (or at least significantly draws down) in Afghanistan, which is supposed to start happening next year? What will be the U.S. interest then?
The simplest answer is, none. Geographically, Central Asia about as far away as you can get from the U.S. Its natural resources, while substantial, are hardly gamechanging. The security threat represented in 2001 by a group of transnational terrorists who happened to temporarily use Afghanistan as a base seems a fluke unlikely to be repeated. For those trying to promote democracy and respect for human rights, it is becoming evident that Central Asia is a barren desert in which their seeds can find no purchase.
This being the U.S., though, people in the policy community have to come up with some sort of justification to stay involved in the region. And so it was that a large crowd gathered Tuesday at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies to hear a discussion of a new report, The United States and Central Asia After 2014. But the impression left after the thought-provoking discussion was that there is nowhere close to a clear picture, even among Central Asia experts, on what the U.S.'s interests in the region really are.
The report's author, Jeffrey Mankoff, writes:
While Washington will have more pressing interests elsewhere, including in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, it needs to avoid the temptation to turn its back on Central Asia. With Central Asia’s own future increasingly in doubt, the United States needs to—publicly and privately—emphasize that its interests in Central Asia are enduring, and that it will remain engaged at multiple levels even after its combat troops have left Afghanistan.
In the report, the closest Mankoff comes to defining U.S. interests is in this paragraph:
Even though U.S. priorities are shifting at the global level, Washington will continue to have important interests at stake in Central Asia that require sustained engagement. These include preventing the emergence of failed states that could become a staging ground for international terrorism, avoiding regional conflicts that could draw in neighboring powers (many of them with nuclear weapons), and limiting Central Asia’s ability to act as a transit route for transnational threats such as drugs. Moreover, having entrée to Central Asia enhances U.S. ability to influence developments in Afghanistan—as well as Pakistan—which both face worsening insurgencies and the growth of radical forces.
But elsewhere in the report, he also alludes to other U.S. interests in Central Asia like promoting regional integration, maintaining good ties with Russia and promoting good governance.
Other members of the panel took stabs at defining U.S. interests as well. Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, referred to the two longstanding U.S. policy interests: ensuring the countries' sovereignty (i.e., not allowing one country to dominate them) and free access to the global economy. And he posited two additional interests: making sure competition over the resources in Central Asia doesn't lead to war between outside powers, and ensuring that the region doesn't again become the base of transnational terror groups. (For whatever reason, Graham didn't mention the third of the three interests that U.S. policymakers habitually cite, the promotion of democracy and human rights.)
Another discussant, S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, identified three major U.S. interests in Central Asia: resources, promotion of transcontinental trade, and preventing conflict over resources.
To look at these a little more closely: the idea of "sovereignty" has always been thinly veiled code for prying these countries out of Russia's sphere of influence, and U.S. trade promotion schemes in Central Asia have, at their root, also been aimed at reducing Russia's share of trade flows (especially oil and gas pipelines) from the region. At its inception, the idea of promoting democracy and human rights in the region also was related to moving these countries into the Western geopolitical sphere. (It's since become something between a talking point and an afterthought, and Russia doesn't seem to see it as a threat any longer.) All of that may have seemed to make sense in the 1990s, when the U.S. first articulated these policies. But then Russia was weak. It's stronger now, and as Mankoff correctly observed, without Russian cooperation it's very hard for the U.S. to accomplish anything in the region. Mankoff's report really focuses on ways in which the U.S. and Russia can cooperate in Central Asia, but if that is a priority, some of the fundamental assumptions under which the U.S. has been operating in Central Asia will have to change.
With the passing of the Afghanistan war (or at least the passing of the U.S. involvement in it), the region will have far less military significance to the U.S. It's intriguing that all three of the panelists mentioned the prospect of a proxy resource war in the region. While the U.S. would certainly be interested in preventing such a thing, it's not clear how likely that scenario is. And I don't recall it being discussed much before, much less as a priority for U.S. policy. So that is interesting.
The question of what the U.S.'s interests are in Central Asia is inseparable from what its interests are around the world. And the notion the U.S. has of what role it should play in the world seems to be undergoing a slow, tectonic shift. Should the U.S. promote democracy, or good governance? What should be the conditions for U.S. military intervention abroad? Is the U.S. ready to no longer be the world's sole superpower? Those questions are obviously bigger than scope than this blog.
Those who believe that the U.S. should promote democracy all over the world will see that as an interest in Central Asia. Likewise for those who believe the U.S. should focus on wiping out any excrescence of militant Islam around the world. But after the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, there doesn't seem to be any inherent U.S. interest in Central Asia, one that is unique to the region. Or, if there is, it hasn't yet been identified in Washington.