“In contrast to the official documents defining Washington’s strategic vision, practices and political discourse, which are formed by White House officials as part of their applications, indicate that the United States has not made a choice in favor of a particular country in the region and are not rushing to designate a priority partner” – Director of the Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies, Anna Gusarova, writing specially for cabar.asia, envisages the policy of the new US administration.
US strategic planning has always been implemented based solely on pragmatic interests. Despite the election of Donald John Trump for US president, this thesis, of course, will remain a key element of US foreign policy strategy, including in Central Asia.
However, due to the unpredictability of Trump, the global information space is inundated with a large amount of guesswork and speculation as to what will be the policy of the new administration, what its priorities will be, and how they will be implemented within bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Clearly, the region does not have much importance in Washington’s foreign policy strategy: policy outlines have been identified though implementation continues to generate questions and confusion. Rather, Central Asia is occasionally an important region for the US. In many ways, Russia in the 90’s was a determining factor in certain formulations of the US agenda in the region – “what is good for Moscow is good for the region”.
In 2001, this principle was sidelined by the US/NATO Afghan agenda and the importance of the Northern Distribution Network. With the formation of the C5+1 format during the Obama administration, attempts by Democrats to readjust their vision, understanding, and attitudes towards the region can be traced. Human rights issues no longer appear dominant, and Washington’s strategy has started to take on a tactical character.
This US strategy in Central Asia, within the framework of the C5+1 format, was aimed at developing a common vision and perception of Afghanistan for the Central Asian, as well as its inclusion in the different spheres of public life. Since the countries in the region have extremely little interaction with each other and Afghanistan, preferring strategic partnerships with non-regional players, the realization of the American format presents a number of difficulties. The main challenge to regional dialogue remains the priority relations with Washington on a bilateral basis.
However, US priorities in Central Asia, indicated in the Talbott doctrine (Nelson Strobridge Talbott, Deputy US Secretary of State during the Clinton administration) and the Silk Road Strategy Act of 1997, remain relevant in regards to energy, security, and democratization.
In order to understand the place and role of Central Asia in US strategy, it is important to pay attention to Trump’s rhetoric as well as his candidates for key government positions (head of Department of Energy, Defense, law enforcement agencies, State Department, etc.).
It is obvious that the struggle against extremism will remain a priority for Washington. Campaign slogans and statements by Trump fully confirm this assumption. In addition, Trump’s decision to appoint James N. Mattis as Secretary of Defense (retired Marine Corps general nicknamed “Mad Dog” and “Chaos” is known for his outrageous statements) shows that the War on Terror (WoT)remains a top priority of US national security.
However, it is not entirely clear how these statements will dovetail with real politics. Trump has refused CIA and FBI daily briefings since his election victory and intends to continue this tradition after the inauguration.
Of course, the Middle East will remain the main theater for the WoT. Despite personal assurances from Trump to continue providing assistance to Afghanistan at the highest levels, it is obvious that the interest in the IRA and, as a consequence, Central Asia will not change significantly. The question is the number of American troops in Afghanistan remains a “wild card” so do not rule out the possibility of its slight increase.
However, if Congress will enable Donald Trump to reduce the intensity of anti-Russianness, which is unlikely, the importance of the region in its broadest sense will remain at the current level. In this regard, we should not expect fundamentally new directions and priorities for the White House’s cooperation with Central Asian countries.
Analyzing the background of candidates nominated for key posts by the Republican administration is advisable, especially noting three main individuals.
First, Rex Wayne Tillerson (engineer, business man, and CEO of ExxonMobil) lacks professional experience as next State Department head. However, his long-standing ties to the Kremlin have generated mixed reviews among the political establishment and significantly complicate Congress’ approval. Second, filling this position will likely see the appointment of the experienced John Robert Bolton, a neoconservative advocate of expansive American foreign policy and confrontation with Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. There are no guarantees that the C5+1 format created by current US Secretary of State John Kerry will continue to exist. But now the American political establishment is preparing for hearings and negotiations on preserving this interactive model with Central Asian countries.
Lastly, this is a bet on the energy sector being one of the most important priorities of US national security. Tillerson could be joined by James Richard Perry (47th Governor of Texas) as head of the Department of Energy and member of the Board of Directors of Energy Transfer Partners, one of the largest portfolios of energy assets in the United States.
In regards to Central Asia, this primarily concerns the CASA-1000 project, in which the United States has invested more than $15 million. The Caspian will also remain on the US-Kazakhstan agenda. Since the country is a leading player in the region’s raw materials, for the US to maintain a strategic dialogue with Kazakhstan in the energy sector is of particular interest. Kazakhstan’s participation in the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline is likely seen by the White House as one of the conditions for achieving economic freedom and energy diversity, enhancing regional stability, and reducing dependence on the Chinese and Russian markets.
It should be noted that mostly representatives of the Republican Party share this position, as they prepare analytical reports to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Republicans have ensured that cooperation in the energy sector with the countries of the region has been carried out exclusively in the bilateral format. Earlier, Congress pushed through the decision to liquidate the post of Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy of the US Department of State.
Since US policy in the region will not change dramatically in the short-term, Washington’s strategy in Central Asia will be more focused on integrating and increasing regional cooperation among the five countries. Resetting US regional policy would involve activating multi-channel cooperation with regards to Afghanistan.
In contrast to the official documents defining Washington’s strategic vision, practices and political discourse, which are formed by White House officials as part of their applications, indicate that the United States has not made a choice in favor of a particular country in the region and are not rushing to designate a priority partner. In the long-term, US investments in other spheres besides oil and gas will help strengthen American influence but will not be competitive in comparison with the Chinese integration initiative.
Nonetheless, State Department funding for Central Asian countries remains at the same level.
Table 1. US financial aid to Central Asian countries ($ millions)
According to the table, the allocation of resources for the socio-economic development of countries in the region hass gradually reduced. Nevertheless, support for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is mainly determined by the presence of common Afghan security challenges and risks. Characteristically, funding to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan has been cut in half in comparison to 2011. This was due to the completion of the military operations in Afghanistan and the lack of a need for the NDN in the long run.
On June 9, 2016, speaking before the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Daniel Rosenblum asked for a slight increase in the budget for support programs in Central Asia. In 2017, the US State Department and USAID would like to receive $164.1 million for programs in the region.
The largest recipient of State Department funding has traditionally been Kyrgyzstan ($51.9 million.), followed by Tajikistan ($41.6 million), Uzbekistan ($11.6 million), and Kazakhstan ($ 8.8 million) respectively. Turkmenistan finishes the list with $4.8 million.
Despite the apparent increase in the requested budget, as a whole, this amount appears paltry. For comparison, the total budget of the Department of State for 2017 is $ 50.1 billion. While safety is the main motivation for the US presence in the region, specific assistance in the field of security is far behind the funding to provide economic support.
Reading through the possible options for US strategy in the region in the short and medium term, it should be noted that Washington’s priorities for cooperation with Central Asian countries remain the same. Moreover, the region is just part of the wider Eurasian strategy where the focus will be on China while reassessing relations with the European Union, Japan, Russia, and India. This disposition is traditionally observed regardless of the positions of country’s leaders (Republican or Democrat).
In this regard, Trump’s administration will be more pragmatic, cost-effective, and business-oriented. Now as never before, the US will be ready to accept China and Russia’s spheres of influence in the region and their rivalry. Consequently, two projects- the Eurasian Economic Union and the “One Belt and One Road” initiative- will not be perceived as contrary to US interests. On the contrary, it is believed that the Chinese project not only meets US interests in the region but also does not require any financial input from the United States.
Of course, Central Asian countries have high hopes for a pragmatic approach on the part of Trump’s administration and to focus on the real issues rather than human rights. But it should be noted that Trump’s promises are very similar to those that were made by Obama before and shortly after his first election though they were largely forgotten and were not implemented in reality. Therefore, hopes should not be overestimated and expect much from the Republicans.
However, it is worth recalling that no US president has ever visited a Central Asian country, including during the Soviet period. Despite the fact that the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, invited Trump to Kazakhstan, there are reasons to believe that the first Central Asian country to be visited by a US president would be Turkmenistan. Here everything is much easier to facilitate, and the statement by the French writer Andre Maurois, “business is a combination of war and sport” fully reflects the approach. On the eve of the Asian Games, Ashgabat this year completed the construction of a golf course. And by tradition, the American businessman visits one every year. Therefore, with the arrival of a Trump White House there is likelihood that he will become the first US president to visit Central Asia.
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Author: Anna Gusarova, Director of the Central Asian Institute for Strategic Studies (Almaty, Kazakhstan).
The position of the author does not necessarily reflect the position of the cabar.asia editorial board