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Central Asia as a Case Study for a Multipolar World

Marlene Laruelle

Marlene Laruelle is the Director of the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and a Research Professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

This is one of eight essays in the book review roundtable on Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.



Alexander Cooley’s book Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is a more than welcome read for at least three reasons. First, at a time when the U.S. media is full of stereotypes on the Great Game being played out around the drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014, this work sheds light on the real mechanisms of balance—or of imbalance—between “great powers” and “small countries.” It questions the conventional wisdom of considering the states of Central Asia as mere victims or pawns caught in the game of great powers, dispossessed of means to exert pressure and devoid of autonomy in their foreign policy choices. As Cooley brilliantly shows, the Central Asian governments have rather succeeded in imposing their rules on the major powers, whether one is talking about Russia, the United States, or China. Bilateral relations in large part operate according to modalities decided by the local governments, not by the major capitals, which have no other choice than to yield to the stipulated rules. The strategies of mimetism developed by the Central Asian states allow them to present the particular face that is desired by their interlocutor. When negotiating with Moscow and Beijing, the Central Asian states do not conceal the authoritarian nature of their decision-making. When meeting with Europeans and the Americans, however, Central Asian leaders display concern for democratization and good governance, emphasizing the process of “transition” toward the norms of the Western market economy and democracy. In so doing, they request more time to be able to integrate the requested changes and show a concern to improve their governance. Central Asian states also reiterate Western preoccupations when it is in their own interests. They point out, for example, their secular legislation and refusal to become Islamic states, in particular when dealing with Israel. At other times, they play the role of countries menaced by the “Afghan threat,” so as to ingratiate themselves with Europe and the United States and obtain Western financing.

Second, the book sheds light on the stark realities underlying negotiations between the major powers and the states of Central Asia. Far from remaining content with a superficial discourse on the foreign policy strategies of each of the actors, Cooley analyzes in-depth the mechanisms that underpin these states’ often transactional foreign policies. For example, they engage in tough negotiations with Russia and the United States on the price for obtaining military bases. In the case of China, however, Central Asian states make strategic political concessions on issues such as the cession of territory, Uighur secessionism, and the adoption of China’s language on the “three evils” in exchange for Chinese investment. For external actors, participation in the logics of the Central Asian elites is inevitable: all of them thus become, willy-nilly, the accomplices of strategies for sending Central Asia’s public money offshore. While this situation may not perturb Moscow or Beijing, it is much more problematic for Washington, which has the duty of accountability to its citizens and their representatives. In the end, U.S. policy in the region has a schizophrenic character: on the one hand, it speaks of good governance and rule of law, while on the other, in the name of strategic interests, it is obliged to follow the logic established by the elites in place. Theoretical works such as Great Games, Local Rules that go beyond the diplomatic level and take into account the realities of negotiations taking place in the hallways of power can only be beneficial for international relations.

Last, the book illuminates the transformation of international affairs at the beginning of the 21st century. Central Asia is positioned as a test region, a textbook case of the evolutions underway that escape the post–Cold War framework and portend a more complex era. Military and diplomatic power obviously remain important and must not be underestimated, but they are complemented and rivaled by several other aspects of power: soft-power tools, business diplomacy, the capacity to invest huge amounts of funds in the name of “good neighborhood” relations, a diplomacy of fear and threat, and the current institutional complexity, which gives an institution such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation more legitimacy than it has capacity for concrete action. Western powers thus find themselves weakened not only by the rise of the Asian powers but also by the regionalization of international relations, which can suddenly turn a medium-sized power into an extremely powerful driver or spoiler. Central Asia, which is in many respects a peripheral region, has therefore become central on the strategic checkerboard, not because it is the “heartland” of the Great Game, but because it illustrates the new complexity of international affairs.

Some elements that would have given extra grist to Alexander Cooley’s already very convincing mill of ideas—elements that I hope will figure in one of the author’s future projects—include the following:

    1. The question of how public opinion in the countries concerned perceives foreign policy, or more precisely of the intertwining of domestic and international legitimacies, is central to understanding the strategies toward and within the region. The author rightly evokes Central Asian political legitimacies, but less so those of Russia, China, and the United States, for which nation-branding and control of information also constitute an integral part of the tool kits available.

    2. The diversity of actors within the states themselves is also an essential element of explanation. Just as there exists no single U.S. political line, so too there exists no uniform Russian, Turkish, or indeed Chinese policy. Instead, policy changes depend on whether the central bodies of power, regional bodies, military and security actors, or business circles are involved.

    3. Cooley’s work is too state-centric. Central Asia provides a unique platform for studying the multiplicity of actors on the international stage: private firms, religious actors, and diasporas and migrants are, for example, important elements that change the balance of policymaking both for local governments and for external actors.

In sum, Great Games, Local Rules/ has quickly become essential not only for studies on Central Asia but also for understanding contemporary changes in the international arena. With the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the book highlights the possibility of a post-American Central Asia where the United States seems to have no other real strategy than to offer transactional politics to the strategies of other states and let regional powers and local regimes shape the future of the region.