By Svante Cornell
December 22, 2022
With considerable pomp and circumstance, the Biden administration recently unveiled its signature National Security Strategy. The document, intended as an authoritative expression of the Administration’s priorities in the field of foreign affairs, pays extensive attention to the great power challenges posed by China and Russia, framing them as the greatest threats to contemporary American security.
Yet, in spite of this, the new Biden strategy pays scant attention to the region located between those two Eurasian behemoths – Central Asia – or to the countries that reside in it.
This makes no sense. If the U.S. aspires to answer the challenges posed by Russia and China, how can it ignore the part of the world where those two powers meet? Chinese and/or Russian domination of Central Asia would effectively enable powers hostile to the United States to connect southward and westward to South Asia and the Middle East, and thus shift the balance of power on the entire Eurasian continent. This would empower their partner, Iran, and lead hesitant or wayward American partners (such as Turkey and India) to reconsider their loyalties. Moreover, if it is locked out of Central Asia, America’s ability to respond to crises on the Eurasian continent would be diminished. This would stand in stark contrast to September 2001, when the U.S. was able to rapidly mount a campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan from bases in Central Asia.
Biden, though, is hardly unique. He joins a long list of presidents who have proven unable to approach Central Asia strategically. There are probably many reasons for this dysfunction, but at its root lies a conceptual problem: U.S. policymakers have historically been unable to decide where the region fits in their mental map of the world.
The different iterations of the National Security Strategy, or NSS, provide ample evidence of this. The first NSS to mention Central Asia is the 2006 version, issued by the George W. Bush Administration. Under the novel heading of “South and Central Asia,” an explicit effort to center U.S. policy on Afghanistan, it termed the region “an enduring priority for our foreign policy.” By contrast, the Obama administration’s first NSS, published four years later, did not so much as mention Central Asia. Obama’s second, in 2015, made an oblique reference to the region in a passage on India and Pakistan. Central Asia reappeared in the Trump administration’s 2018 NSS, again under a “South and Central Asia” heading, with the emphasis being on counterterrorism and building a region “resilient against domination by rival powers.” But the Biden administration’s NSS inexplicably puts Central Asia at the very end of the “Europe” heading.
These shifts mirror fluctuations in the U.S. national security bureaucracy. The Bush administration’s National Security Council put Central Asia together with South Asia, paralleling the new Bureau of South and Central Asian affairs at the State Department. But the Obama NSC put Central Asia under the Senior Director for Russian Affairs. Trump then moved it back to South Asia. Biden, like Obama, has again placed Central Asia under Russia. But these changes were not echoed at the State Department. Thus, for most of the past two decades, the NSC and the State Department have treated Central Asia as part of different continents. It’s a small wonder, therefore, that America has failed to develop a coherent approach to the region.
This disconnect has real-world consequences. Most glaringly, Central Asia has been missing from America’s policies to counter nefarious Chinese activities in Asia – perhaps because the Obama and Biden administrations did not even see it as part of Asia. Never mind that Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his flagship Belt & Road Initiative in the capital of Kazakhstan in 2013, and made the region the destination of his first foreign trip after his two-year, COVID-induced isolation.
The Biden NSS emphasizes its support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asian states. But it fails to mention security matters in its policy prescriptions for the region. By contrast, the document’s approach to the Middle East reassures that “the United States will support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, and we will make sure those countries can defend themselves against foreign threats.” Such language would have been quite appropriate for Central Asia as well, signaling a real commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This tepid state of affairs is no longer tenable if indeed it ever was. It is high time for the U.S. government to finally make a lasting determination on how it views Central Asia’s role in connection to America’s interests concerning China, Russia, Europe, and the Middle East. It is time for the United States to finally view Central Asia in its own right, rather than as an appendix to something else. Doing so means engaging actively on security matters in the region, deepening political and economic dialogues with regional states, and more adroitly countering Moscow and Beijing’s overtures there.
Heads of State from Japan, India, Turkey, and South Korea have all visited Central Asia in recent years, showing their understanding of the region’s growing importance. In October, the European Union raised its own level of interaction with Central Asia to the same level. Meanwhile, Central Asia has never been visited by a U.S. President. The sooner this changes, the sooner America will be able to truly confront Russian and Chinese influence in one of the world’s most critical regions.
Svante E. Cornell joined the American Foreign Policy Council as Senior Fellow for Eurasia in January 2017. He also serves as the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. His main areas of expertise are security issues, state-building, and transnational crime in Southwest and Central Asia, with a specific focus on the Caucasus and Turkey. He is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the Joint Center’s bi-weekly publication, and of the Joint Center’s Silk Road Papers series of occasional papers.
One of the main tools of Russian influence across Central Asia remains poorly understood.
S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell
The Diplomat, January 17, 2020
Since Vladimir Putin came to power twenty years ago, much ink has been spent detailing the role of the security services in Russian politics, and it is generally accepted that the Putin regime essentially is a result of the Soviet-era KGB's takeover of the Russian state. But few have connected this to Russian foreign policy in its neighborhood. Meanwhile, many observers have puzzled over the reluctance of former Soviet states to embrace political reform or liberalization. Many have connected this to Russia's active opposition to greater openness and political participation in neighboring states. But few have ventured into specifics – how does Russia make its influence felt? Who is the "enforcer" with the power and resolve to translate Moscow's words into action?
S. Frederick Starr
Kennan Cable No. 46, January 15, 2020
Is there a grand strategy that informs Russia’s activities abroad and, if so, what is it? For years it seemed that President Putin based his foreign policy mainly on his 2005 statement to the Russian nation that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” The task of Russian policy was therefore to reclaim by whatever means necessary as much control over former Soviet territories as possible. This led to his seizure of Georgian territory in 2008, his Crimean grab of 2014, and his armed incursions into eastern Ukraine in 2014-2019. More recently, it has led to his forcing Kyrgyzstan to join his politics-driven Eurasian Economic Union and his current bullying of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to follow suit.
In practice, Russia’s foreign moves in places as diverse as Eastern Europe, Syria, and Africa seem to be guided more by opportunism than strategy. This has not sat well with some members of Moscow’s policy-oriented intelligentsia. Modern Russia, after all, is heir to a half millennium of messianic ideologies that justified and encouraged the expansion of territories under Moscow’s rule. Whether building the Third Rome, destroying the Tatars, placing the Cross of St. Vladimir atop the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople, building a Holy Alliance against future Napoleons, protecting Europe against revolution in 1848, conquering Muslim Central Asia in the 1860s, or aspiring to Sovietize Eastern Europe under Stalin, ideas, not mere opportunism, have driven Russia’s actions abroad. Even as Putin repeated his assertion about the collapse of the USSR, a deficit of theory was forming in Moscow’s foreign policy circles.
Image via Kennan Cable No. 46: Greater Eurasia: Russia's Asian Fantasy
Co-sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Fairbanks Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard; and the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government; and the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the the American Foreign Policy Council
Since its official launch in 2013, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become a topic of intense research and and discussion. While there is no shortage of research projects on the features and implications of Beijing's massive investments in infrastructure connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, our understanding of linkages between China's activities in various geographic regions and emerging interdependencies is limited. This roundtable will gather experts on Chinese investments and policies in Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (the Silk Road region of the BRI) to present a more comprehensive picture of Chinese-designed connectivity in Eurasia.
Roundtable participants will discuss the current responses by policy makers in the EU, the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the US to the BRI and the changing realities that it is producing. They will also propose their visions of what is desirable and feasible, taking into consideration the opinions of American and European officials regarding the importance of environmental standards and the need for a level-playing field for companies. The European Commission recently published the Joint Communication "Connecting Europe and Asia – Building Blocks for an EU Strategy" explaining its own approach to connectivity as sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based and enlisting its plans for raising investment to foster such sustainable connectivity. This promises to be a tall order--what role can (or should) the US play?
Philippe Le Corre is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also a nonresident Senior Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Associate with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. He was previously a Fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, and a Special Assistant for International Affairs to the French Minister of Defense. For the past five years, he has specialized on China-Europe relations, Chinese overseas investments and China's foreign policy, authoring many articles and reports, including the newly published "China as a Geoeconomic Influencer: Four Case Studies" (Carnegie Paper, 2018). His latest book, China's Offensive in Europe, was published by Brookings Press in 2016.
Mamuka Tsereteli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, part of the American Foreign Policy Council, based in Washington DC. He is a Senior Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at School of International Service at American University. He served as a Director, Center for Black Sea-Caspian Studies at AU between 2009-2013, and as an Assistant Professor at School of International Service in 2007-2011. Dr. Tsereteli is a member of the part time faculty at Johns Hopkins SAIS. His areas of interests include international relations and international economic policy, economic and energy security, political and economic risk analysis and mitigation strategies, and business development. Dr. Tsereteli previously served as Founding Executive Director at the America-Georgia Business Council, and Economic Counselor at the Embassy of Georgia in Washington, covering relationships with international financial institutions, US assistance programs and business initiatives.
Nargis Kassenova is a Senior Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, where she leads the Program on Central Asia. She is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Regional Studies of KIMEP University based in Almaty (Kazakhstan) where she launched both the KIMEP Central Asian Studies Center (CASC) and China and Central Asia Studies Center (CCASC). Her areas of research include Central Asian politics and security, Eurasian geopolitics, Kazakhstan's foreign policy, and religion and politics in Central Asia.
Svante E. Cornell is the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. His main areas of expertise are security issues, state-building, and transnational crime in Southwest and Central Asia, with a specific focus on the Caucasus and Turkey. He is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the Joint Center's bi-weekly publication, and of the Joint Center's Silk Road Papers series of occasional papers. Cornell is Senior Fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Military Science, and a Research Associate with the W. Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels. He is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council and an Associate Research Professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Formerly, Cornell served as Associate Professor of Government at Uppsala University.
Philippe Le Corre, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School
Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council
Nargis Kassenova, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
Moderator: Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council
Where: CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Room S354, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
When: Tuesday, October 30, 2018 from 2:00 - 4:00 pm
RSVP: Click HERE to register
More Details: Please call 617-495-4037.
CACI Forum with the Jamestown Foundation
We have learned from Paul Goble that he has experienced medical complications and has therefore been admitted to the hospital for observation. Because of this, he will not be able to travel to Washington for the Forum and associated events on Monday.
CACI will reschedule the Forum as soon as we receive an "all clear" from Paul Goble.
Meanwhile, his many friends send him warm wishes for a quick return to his normal routine.