Monday, 12 June 2017 14:57

What The Trump Administration Might Mean for Azerbaijan

Visions of Azerbaijan

Spring 2017

 

By Svante E. Cornell

 

Predicting the future of US relations with any country under the Trump Administration may appear a fool’s errand. The new president has little political background, especially in foreign policy; and he has explicitly made unpredictability a mark of honour. Can anything, then, be said about the Trump Administration’s likely approach to Azerbaijan and the Caspian region? At this early date, only several preliminary conclusions can be drawn.

However, to appreciate the prospects of America’s approach to the region, it is useful to briefly examine the history of the past 25 years. Simply put, for the first half of the quarter-century since independence, there was a bipartisan consensus that held that the Caspian was an important region for American national security interests, and both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued balanced foreign policies that sought to advance security, trade, and democratic development. Yet in the second half of the period, this began to change, and an American disengagement from the South Caucasus and Central Asia has been very visible. This disengagement was most visible in the areas of security and trade; whereas the normative agenda of supporting democracy and human rights remained in full vigour, creating a lack of balance in US policies.

Looking at bilateral US-Azerbaijan relations, these developed rapidly during the Baku oil boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but gradually deteriorated from 2003 onward, reaching a bottom around 2014. This is not the place to examine in depth these processes. However, several observations are relevant. First, the relationship was at its strongest when the United States had a clear and identifiable strategy in the Caspian region. This was the case in the second half of the Clinton Administration, when a task force was created to support the extraction of Caspian energy resources, and realise the multiple pipeline policy, which succeeded in building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus pipelines. Indeed, this task force involved numerous agencies of the US government in a coordinated fashion – something that has since occurred only once for any issue of relevance to the region: the fight against terrorism and particularly US operations in Afghanistan, which mobilised the entire US government, and in which Azerbaijan was an important and valued participant.

Gradual deterioration

Yet since 2004, this relationship has gradually deteriorated. There are numerous reasons for this, and Western commentators frequently mention Azerbaijan’s purported deficiencies in the area of human rights and democratic development as the lead factor. Yet a close look suggests that this is at best a very partial aspect of the problem. Much more important were two developments of the mid-2000s: the war in Iraq, and the enunciation of the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda.” The war in Iraq led the US to gradually lose attention to the Caspian region, while it also dealt a considerable blow to America’s image and power in the world. The Freedom Agenda, which sought to rapidly spread democracy in the wider Middle East, was enunciated following the Iraq war, and had direct application to the Caucasus: post-factum, the Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003 was held up to be a beacon for the entire region, and was followed by revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. This shook the entire geopolitical situation across the region, as America came to be seen as a supporter of regime change, leading previously friendly Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to run for Russian and Chinese cover.

Azerbaijan did not follow suit, instead gradually diversifying its foreign relations and reducing its dependence on the West. Yet suspicion of American intentions grew markedly. More significant was the Obama Administration’s initiatives upon being elected: the Russian “Reset” and the Turkish-Armenian normalisation process. The “Reset” for all practical purposes ignored the Russian invasion of Georgia and sought to rebuild a positive relationship with Moscow, in the process subordinating American relations with other former Soviet states to the relationship with Moscow. While this was disheartening, the Turkish-Armenian gambit was, from an Azerbaijani perspective, lethal: it implied that the Turkish-Armenian border would be opened without Armenia making any prior concessions to Azerbaijan, such as withdrawing from occupied territories.

From Baku’s perspective, this meant that Azerbaijan’s two key allies – Turkey and the United States – would entirely ignore Azerbaijan’s key national security issue, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Predictably, Baku fought tooth and nail to torpedo this process, a goal in which it actually succeeded. Yet the episode had, figuratively, pulled the rug from under the feet of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. Remarkably, dashing Russian hopes, Baku did not respond by embarking on a dramatic foreign policy shift; instead, Azerbaijan continued to diversify its foreign policy to maximize its independence and reduce reliance on any foreign power.

Yet the episode generated considerable bad blood between the Obama and Aliyev Administrations. Influential figures in Washington blamed Aliyev for killing one of the President’s key foreign policy initiatives; many in Baku felt betrayed by America’s disdain for Azerbaijan’s vital interests. A campaign against Azerbaijan began in Washington, which saw the country being singled out for criticism on its human rights record; yet Baku grew increasingly intolerant of such criticism, hitting back with strong rhetoric against what it perceived to be encroachments into its internal affairs. This gradually led to a marked deterioration of relations, which bottomed out in 2014. Since then, a mutual outreach has repaired part of the damage and restored a more cordial atmosphere. Yet US-Azerbaijan relations leave much to be desired.

Changing mood

Even before the Trump Administration took power, the Republican presidential campaign had shown a change in America’s mood. Candidates that could be identified with the Freedom Agenda – in other words, those that made support for either military intervention or the export of democracy a cornerstone of their foreign policy – did not go far. By contrast, the two finalists, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, both embraced a foreign policy that would be focused on American interests, and highly skeptical of the Freedom Agenda. To illustrate, Ted Cruz’s foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates, who later gained a prominent position on Trump’s National Security Council staff, was known to distribute copies to campaign associates of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 seminal article Dictatorships and Double Standards, which vigorously defended America’s relationship with authoritarian regimes deemed amenable to long-term positive change.

What had changed? The most obvious answer is that America was tired of war after the 7,000 killed and 50,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. But events in the world, particularly the fallout of the Arab uprisings, were arguably more salient. The “Arab Spring” had degenerated into an Islamist winter, bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, where it proceeded to grab power through unconstitutional means, being removed only by a military intervention with considerable popular support. Libya and Syria were far worse: regime change in the former brought chaos and anarchy; efforts to achieve the same outcome in the latter led to a debilitating civil war. Even in the post-Soviet space, revolutionary fervour had calmed considerably. The revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan brought little positive change but much unrest, failing to solve the problems of mismanagement and corruption that had been their chief drivers. Only Georgia was in many ways a success story.

As a result, a broader shift appears to be underway in thinking about democratic development, in which support for regime change and an almost exclusive focus on election is distinctly going out of favour; by contrast, support is growing for strategies based on evolutionary change and support for governance. This is coupled with a shift in thinking on the causes of Islamic radicalism. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the mix of poverty and authoritarianism was believed – without serious evidence – to be the main culprits behind radicalisation. In the years following 9/11, considerable research on radicalisation has failed to show any meaningful linkage between these phenomena. More to the point, the stream of European Muslims to jihadi groups such as the Islamic State has dented the credibility of that assumption – as has the fact that it is the least authoritarian Muslim states – such as Tunisia and Jordan – that amount for large contingents of fighters in Syria, rather than authoritarian ones such as Egypt or Uzbekistan.

Early days

As the Trump Administration takes over, all of these changes have potentially important implications for the way Azerbaijan is viewed by Western leaders. To this should be added one more significant factor: the past 20 years have shown clearly that the Armenian Diaspora in the United States exerts far more power within the Democratic party than in Republican circles. In this particular election cycle, Armenian Diaspora groups not only strongly endorsed Hillary Clinton, but strongly denounced Donald Trump. This means that the incoming administration is much less exposed to, let alone beholden to, the hostile approach to Azerbaijan that many Democratic politicians appear to have internalised. By contrast, the Trump Administration’s National Security team is dominated by former military officers – the very constituency in the US government that is probably the most positively disposed towards Azerbaijan.

But is the Trump Administration not favourably disposed towards Russia, as the media reports? The facts suggest that while President Trump harbours hope of a rapprochement with Moscow, he has appointed a national security team that is decidedly skeptical, if not hawkish, on Russia. Moscow’s own policies – such as its tight links with Iran, and its newfound infatuation with the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan – also make it extremely difficult to expect a sustainable warming of US-Russian relations.

What this will mean in terms of practical policy is, of course, too early to say: the main officers that will be in charge of day-to-day relations with Azerbaijan and the Caspian region have yet to be nominated as of this writing. Yet the discussion above would suggest, at least, that there is a considerable opportunity for the return of American involvement in the affairs of the Caspian region, and for a new spring in US-Azerbaijan relations.

Whether this happens will depend on a number of factors, only some of which Baku can influence. Will the United States take the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict seriously, for example? The appointment of Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the post of OSCE Minsk Group co-chair suggests it might; but high-level attention will be crucial for the US to be taken seriously in the conflict. Will the United States see Azerbaijan, a secular Shi’a nation, as an asset in its struggle against Islamic radicalism? Will Washington once again see the region in view of the strategic East-West Corridor connecting Europe to Asia, as was the case a decade ago, or will the lack of focus concerning the region continue? These are all key questions that only time will answer.

About the author: Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden.

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  • ASIA Spotlight with Prof. S. Frederick Starr on Unveiling Central Asia's Hidden Legacy
    Thursday, 28 December 2023 00:00

    On December 19th, 2023, at 7:30 PM IST, ASIA Spotlight Session has invited the renowned Prof. S Fredrick Starr, who elaborated on his acclaimed book, "The Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane." Moderated by Prof. Amogh Rai, Research Director at ASIA, the discussion unveiled the fascinating, yet lesser-known narrative of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment.

    The book sheds light on the remarkable minds from the Persianate and Turkic peoples, spanning from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China. "Lost Enlightenment" narrates how, between 800 and 1200, Central Asia pioneered global trade, economic development, urban sophistication, artistic refinement, and, most importantly, knowledge advancement across various fields. Explore the captivating journey that built a bridge to the modern world.

    To know watch the full conversation: #centralasia #goldenage #arabconquest #tamerlane #medievalenlightment #turkish #economicdevelopment #globaltrade

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Some Lessons for Putin from Ancient Rome
    Thursday, 04 January 2024 17:01
    By S. Frederick Starr 
    American Purpose
    January 4, 2024
     
    Vladimir Putin, having sidelined or destroyed all his domestic opponents, real or imagined, now surrounds himself with Romano-Byzantine pomp and grandeur. The theatrical civic festivals, processions of venerable prelates, cult of statues, embarrassing shows of piety, endless laying of wreaths, and choreographed entrances down halls lined with soldiers standing at attention—all trace directly back to czarism, to Byzantine Constantinople, and ultimately to imperial Rome. Indeed, Putin considers himself as Russia’s new “czar,” the Russified form of the Latin “Caesar.”
     
    But besides all the parallel heroics, Roman history offers profound lessons for today’s world. All of America’s Founders saw the Roman Republic as the best model for their own constitution. Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler, by contrast, found in imperial Rome a stunning model for their own grandeur. True, some of Rome’s ancient chroniclers, including the celebrated Livy, so admired specific politicians that they saw only their good sides and ignored the problems and failures. Yet there were others, notably the pessimistic Sallust, who not only wrote bluntly of history’s painful issues but delved deep into their causes and consequences.
     
    Is Putin likely to delve into the history of Rome for insights on his own situation? Unfortunately for Russia, Putin is not a reader, preferring instead to engage in exhibitionist athletic activities, preside at solemn ceremonies, or offer avuncular obiter dicta. However, if he would study the Roman past, he might come to realize that that model presents more than a few chilling prospects that he will ignore at his peril.
     
    To take but one example, a glance at Roman history would remind Putin that self-declared victories may not be as victorious as he and Kremlin publicists want to think. Back in the 3rd century B.C., when Rome was still a small state in central Italy, it was attacked by a certain King Pyrrhus, a rival ruler from Epirus, a region along today’s border between Greece and Albania. In his first battles Pyrrhus routed the Roman legions, and celebrated accordingly. But matters did not end there.
     
    Like Pyrrhus, Putin’s army scored some early victories in its war on Ukraine. As recently as December 1, Putin’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu was still claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Russian forces “were advancing on all fronts.” Pyrrhus made similar false claims, only to discover that his own soldiers were no match for the determined Romans. As the Romans drove Pyrrhus’ army from the field, he groused, “If we win one more such victory against the Romans we will be utterly ruined,” which is exactly what happened. Pyrrhus’ statement gave Romans the term “Pyrrhic victory,” which we still use today. Putin should apply it to his “victories” at Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
     
    Another crisis in Rome’s early formation as a nation occurred when a peasant uprising threatened Rome itself and, according to the historian Livy, caused panic in the Roman capital. In desperation, the elders turned to Lucius Cincinnatus, who was neither a military man nor a professional politician, but who had earned respect as an effective leader. It took Cincinnatus only fifteen days to turn the tide, after which he returned to his farm. George Washington rightly admired Cincinnatus and consciously emulated him, returning after the Battle of Yorktown to Mount Vernon. By contrast, Putin’s “special military operation,” planned as a three-day romp, is now approaching the end of its second year. Putin, no Cincinnatus, doomed himself to being a lifer.
     
    Roman history is a millennium-long showcase of motivation or its absence. In this context, Putin might gain further insights by examining Rome’s centuries-long battle against the diverse tribes pressing the empire from the north. For centuries Rome’s legionnaires were well trained, disciplined, and committed. The list of their early victories is long. Both Julius Caesar and the philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius succeeded because they motivated and inspired their troops. But over time the Roman army was increasingly comprised of hirelings, déclassé men who fought not to save the empire but for money or a small piece of the bounty. Inflation and rising costs outpaced pay increases. Punishment was severe, in some cases including even crucifixion. In the end, Rome’s army eroded from within.
     
    This is what is happening to the Russian army today. Putin attacked Ukraine in February 2022 with what was then an army of several hundred thousand trained professional soldiers. But after the Ukrainians killed more than 320,000 Russian troops, their replacements were unwilling and surly conscripts and even criminals dragooned from Russia’s jails. Putin quite understandably fears such soldiers. Putin’s army, like that of the late Roman Empire, is collapsing from within.
     
    By contrast, Ukraine’s army at the time of the invasion was small and comprised mainly Soviet-trained holdovers. Both officers and troops of the line had to be quickly recruited from civilian professions and trained. Yet they quickly proved themselves to be disciplined and resourceful patriots, not tired time-servers. True, Ukraine is now conscripting troops, but these newcomers share their predecessors’ commitment to the nation and to their future lives in a free country.
     
    Sheer spite and a passion for avenging past failures figured prominently in Putin’s decisions to invade both Georgia and Ukraine. Roman history suggests that this isn’t smart. Back in 220 B.C., Rome defeated its great enemy, the North African state of Carthage. Anticipating Putin, the Carthaginian general Hannibal sought revenge. Acting out of spite, he assembled 700,000 foot soldiers, 78,000 mounted calvary, and a force of war elephants, and crossed the Alps. Though he was a brilliant general, Hannibal’s war of spite turned into a disaster.
     
    Why did Hannibal lose? Partly because of his sheer hubris and the spite that fed it, and also because the Romans avoided frontal battles and simply ground him down. They were prudently led by a general named Fabius Maximus, whom later Romans fondly remembered as “the Delayer.” Today it is the Ukrainians who are the Delayers. By grinding down Putin’s army and destroying its logistics they have positioned themselves for victory.
     
    The Roman Republic fell not because of any mass uprising but because of the machinations of Julius Caesar. A victorious general, Caesar looked the hero as he was installed as imperator. As was customary at such ceremonies, an official retainer placed behind the inductee solemnly repeated over and over the admonition to “Look behind you!” Caesar failed to do so and underestimated the opposition of a handful of officials and generals who feared the rise of a dictator perpetuus. Even if Putin chooses not to read Cicero, Plutarch, or Cassius Dio, he could productively spend an evening watching a Moscow production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.
     
    Turning to a very different issue, Putin seems blithely to assume that whenever Russia defeats a neighboring country it can easily win the hearts and minds of the conquered, whether by persuasion or force. This is what many Roman generals and governors thought as well, but they were wrong—fatally so. Speaking of the impact of corrupt officials sent by Rome to the provinces, the great orator-politician Cicero declared to the Roman Senate, “You cannot imagine how deeply they hate us.” Does Putin understand this?
     
    Finally, it is no secret that Russia today, like ancient Rome, is increasingly a land of immigrants; its economy depends on impoverished newcomers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in Central Asia who fled to Russia in search of work. Yet Moscow treats them as third-class citizens and dragoons them as cannon fodder or “meat” to die by the thousands on the Ukrainian front. Rome faced a similar problem and wrestled with it unsuccessfully over several centuries. Over time the despised immigrants who poured across the Alps from Gaul demanded a voice in Roman affairs, and eventually took control of the western Roman Empire.
     
    Sad to say, neither Putin himself nor any others of Russia’s core group of leaders show the slightest interest in learning from relevant examples from Roman history or, for that matter, from any other useable past. Together they provide living proof of American philosopher George Santayana’s adage that, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” In Putin’s case, though, he seems never to have known it. 
     

    ABOUT THE AUTHORSS. Frederick Starr, is a distinguished fellow specializing in Central Asia and the Caucasus at the American Foreign Policy Council and founding chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

    Additional Info
    • Author S. Frederick Starr
    • Publication Type Analysis
    • Published in/by American Purpose
    • Publishing date January 4, 2024
  • CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr comments on "Preparing Now for a Post-Putin Russia"
    Friday, 03 November 2023 18:30

    Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.

    Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.

  • Central Asia Diplomats Call for Closer Ties With US
    Monday, 26 June 2023 00:00

    REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
    By Navbahor Imamova

    WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.

    Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.

    He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.

    "I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.

    Key issues

    In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.

    Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.

    "Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.

    The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."

    During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.

    That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.

    Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."

    "The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.

    "This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."

    Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.

    'Possibility of positive change'

    Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.

    In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."

    This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."

    "Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."

    "Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"

    Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."

    Read at VOA News

  • Read CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr's recent interview on the resurgence of Imperial Russia with The American Purpose
    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

    Click to continue reading...