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.

Read 6400 times Last modified on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 15:02





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.