- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Finding Balance: The Foreign Policies of Central Asia's States

Svante E. Cornell


This chapter studies the evolution of the foreign policies of Central Asia’s states, focusing on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Main Argument

The newly independent states of Central Asia are institutionally weak and surrounded by larger regional powers. Foreign policies in the region generally aim to maintain balance among great powers and to ensure regime security. Russian and Chinese influence is strong and supportive of the latter, but the quest for balance spurs the development of ties to the U.S. and other powers. Pressure for democratization accompanies these relations with the West, which need to be treated with care by U.S. policymakers.

Policy Implications

  • Promoting security, reliable supplies of energy, and good governance are the primary U.S. interests in the region. Though widely viewed as mutually contradictory, these objectives are only achievable in the long term if pursued in concert.
  • Informal politics is a key element in the domestic and foreign policies of Central Asian states. Strengthening formal institutions is, therefore, a compelling priority for the U.S., as is seeking a better understanding of informal power structures.
  • The "color revolutions," though beneficial to the countries that underwent them, have had negative consequences both for U.S. interests in Central Asia and for broader democratic reform. By injecting an ideological element into regional politics, these revolutions have increased Russian and Chinese influence and weakened the U.S. position. Uzbekistan stands out as the primary example.
  • Strategic thinking and long-term policies toward the region that inspire confidence and predictability would restore U.S. influence. Calibrating the democracy promotion agenda to the strategic realities of the region would help state-building efforts and dialogue on a wide range of issues.