Can We Change the Rules? External Actors and Central Asia Beyond 2014

Can We Change the Rules? External Actors and Central Asia Beyond 2014

by Alexander Cooley
July 15, 2013

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.

I wrote Great Games, Local Rules in the hope of facilitating a dialogue between observers of Central Asia and international relations scholars interested in the political dynamics of the post–Cold War world. For too long, the latter group has ignored Central Asia, dismissing it as an exotic arena of imperial competition and opaque local tradition that is of little global relevance. Specifically, I wished to flag what I considered important trends of the multipolar regional order—U.S. tacit security bargains and declining normative power, the Russian-led backlash against Western democratic norms and human rights promotion, and China’s rise as a dominant economic player. Most importantly, I wanted to draw wider attention to the statecraft of the Central Asian states, demonstrating how relatively weaker states can still channel, translate, and manipulate external interests and agendas for their own domestic political purposes.

Engaging in an Asia Policy discussion about these ideas is therefore a deeply enriching and humbling opportunity, for the scholars assembled in this forum are all distinguished researchers and long-time observers of the Eurasian political landscape. A short response cannot do all of their points justice so I look forward to engaging with the important issues they raise beyond just these pages.

I have grouped my response to the reviews into three categories of topics raised by the roundtable participants: (1) the appropriateness of my analytical framework for explaining major regional developments and interactions, (2) the relevance of Central Asia’s lessons to other areas of the post–Cold War world, and (3) the implications for U.S. policy toward the region following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

The Analytical Framework of Great Games, Local Rules

My main analytical purpose in the book is to show how the “big three” external powers have sought different strategic goals in the region, but I also illuminate how, in addition to competition, the external powers have cooperated, mimicked, and learned from one another as they interacted in the Central Asian arena. All the while, the region’s autocrats have used these external interactions as opportunities to extract resources to preserve their regimes, feed their domestic patronage machines, and push back against external criticism or conditions that might threaten the political status quo. James Sherr identifies these patrimonial dynamics as the political antithesis of western liberal and democratic institutions, though he is prudent to caution that the region’s patrimonialism is neither pure nor immune from all transformative attempts. Yet the lens of patronage politics provides what I think is a theoretically useful assumption for examining internal-external interactions. Rent-seeking, pseudo-reforms, and competing norms are logical consequences that flow from these political imperatives, rather than an exceptional or even culturally bound set of local behaviors.

Nevertheless, in a bid for parsimony, I do oversimplify. Kathryn Stoner rightly suspects that the different flavors of authoritarianism within the region might also affect their patterns of external engagement. How else can one explain Turkmenistan’s latching onto China so quickly as its main external patron, the close Kazakh-Russian partnership, or the prickly relations of repressive and paranoid Uzbek president Islam Karimov with both Moscow and Washington? Marlene Laruelle accurately notes that societal actors, such as businesses and migrants, are absent from my state-centric account, while Enders Wimbush and Sherr point out that some of the Central Asian states have graduated beyond these elite-led imperatives and are pursuing external engagements with the purpose of both enhancing their international standing (Kazakhstan especially) and influencing the region more broadly (in the case of Uzbekistan). These are fair and important observations. And even competitive patrimonialism has its limits. As Erica Marat observes, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev overplayed his hand when he initiated a public bidding war between Russia and the United States over the Manas airbase.

Although regional elites undoubtedly will be concerned with an increasingly complex array of personal, social, and national agendas going forward, it is worth recalling the region’s political context during the 2000s. All of the regions’ rulers consolidated their grip on power and then proceeded to securitize their coercive organs in response to counterterrorism imperatives and perceptions of imminent transnational regime threats. In so doing, they were supported by all three external security patrons. Perhaps a more productive way of advancing our understanding, to echo John Heathershaw’s earlier critique of my book, would be to think more systematically about how these elites and new societal actors are joined in a number of transnational networks that interpenetrate the region, be it narcotics trafficking, the unofficial shuttle trade, money laundering, and foreign deal-making financiers, or as sites for the dissemination of contested norms and international standards.

The participants also note other important ways in which the analysis might be starting to date itself. Both Andrew Kuchins and Wimbush, I believe correctly, observe a growing complexity and contestation over the region that involves not only the “big three” patrons of Russia, the United States, and China, but several other actors such as Turkey, India, South Korea, Japan, the Gulf States, and Iran. These states too offer the Central Asian governments new opportunities and strategic partnerships; though, as I briefly explore in the case of India negotiating for basing rights with Tajikistan, they occasionally have also overestimated the extent of their own potential for regional influence. Mamuka Tsereteli also points to a looming social backlash against Chinese economic penetration in the region, especially the visible presence of Chinese workers and the asymmetrical terms of trade China has forged with the region. This is an important issue that at some point will surely come to a head, though unlike parts of Africa that have experienced anti-Chinese backlashes, Central Asia’s less vibrant civil societies and weaker organized labor movements may limit the formal political opportunities for such campaigns.

Central Asia and the Dynamics, Institutions, and Norms of International Order

Sherr describes Great Games as a “cogent critique of post-Cold War orthodoxy.” I am not accustomed to sporting the revisionist label, but I will gladly accept it if the book prompts scholars and policymakers to re-examine some underlying assumptions about the extent of Western influence in emerging regional orders in areas such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.

On the U.S. regional role, in particular, Stoner advances an important and powerful counterargument: given the United States’ overwhelming interest in stabilizing Afghanistan, and the resulting instrumentalization of the region for that military campaign, U.S. policy toward Central Asia is sui generis, hardly comparable to its role in other parts of the world. In short, the United States did not fail in its bid to influence Central Asia, mostly because Washington did not actually commit significant levels of resources or political capital to the region.

Many U.S. policymakers share Stoner’s observations, and she is on the mark to say that the United States has not intensively engaged with the region beyond the security sphere. However, her comparative point follows only if we view U.S. strategic interest and focus as the primary determinants of its actual international influence. A cursory look at the political outcomes of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests otherwise.

Here, Marat frames the question helpfully: is diminished U.S. standing in Central Asia the result of U.S. decline or the result of the Central Asian states actively seeking and finding alternative patrons who are less critical of their internal policies? If we analytically privilege how the Central Asian states have become more adept at leveraging alternatives and pushing back against the Western normative agenda, then the mechanism explaining this observed U.S. waning is both beyond the scope of U.S. intentions and more readily transferrable to other regions.

A couple of examples of both “hard security” and “soft power” illustrate the importance of this analytical distinction. For example, the fact that the United States has provided private goods to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments to maintain military bases and access routes in the face of Russian pressure could be, on its own, explained away as an unremarkable and one-off side effect of its Afghanistan-centered engagement. But taken together with other recent failed bargains and contested access agreements—including the Iraqi government’s refusal to grant the United States a long-term status of forces agreement in 2011, Pakistan’s periodic closure of the southern logical routes and demands for more security assistance, and the political turbulence over U.S. military facilities in Ecuador or Bahrain, where host governments have turned to alternative patrons (China and Saudi Arabia, respectively)—it is more difficult to dismiss the Central Asian cases as isolated. U.S. base hosts and strategic partners worldwide appear increasingly willing to invoke exit options for domestic political purposes. [1]

In the soft-power sphere, the U.S. and Western role as the primary providers of public goods—development assistance, investments in infrastructure, rulemaking, and standard setting—is also clearly being undermined. China offers loans and infrastructure financing without the domestic conditions demanded by Western-dominated international financial institutions. However, unlike its role in many parts of Africa or Southeast Asia, Beijing does not usually actively participate in international donor coordination activities in Bishkek or Dushanbe. Thus, Chinese economic assistance has allowed countries like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to avoid turning to Western lenders during the economic crisis, thereby diminishing Western leverage over them. It is worth noting that, as an external donor, China has also seen the mismanagement of its funds as local elites have turned public works projects into private revenue streams.

In addition, the region has spawned its own new organizations that provide novel frameworks for cooperation, alternative normative standards, and legal justifications. Groups such as the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union present themselves as more appropriate regional alternatives to the hegemonic Western counterparts, even as they quite deliberately copy the organizational forms, if not substance, of the Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, and the European Union. These new regional organizations provide legal and normative buffers to member states from external pressures and international criticism.

There is also, I would argue, a sociological dimension at play here: a rising global demand in policy and academic circles for a workable antithesis or model to U.S.-led international architectures. Such analysis, as Laruelle observes, permeates and biases much coverage of the SCO and, I would add, its more global counterpart, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) forum. Why else would there be such international fascination with the SCO despite the gaping mismatch between its ambitious multilateral agenda and its actual meager accomplishments? Similarly, what makes the meme that the U.S. promotes double-standards on human rights when dealing with Central Asian rulers so resonant, when realpolitik long dominated its Cold War policy to friendly autocrats?

It is here that the contemporary global spotlight becomes more damaging. For regardless of Washington’s actual intentions and limited regional ambitions, the United States’ struggles in Central Asia have been publicly aired by global media outlets and international advocacy groups, many of them keen to note the inconsistency between Washington’s value-based rhetoric and its strategic bargains.

U.S. Engagement in Central Asia after the Drawdown of U.S. Forces from Afghanistan

Finally, the roundtable raises the critical question of just what type of engagement the United States should maintain in Central Asia given its drawdown from Afghanistan.

The answer, I think, depends on the criteria that are invoked when posing the question. If the question posed asks what the vital U.S. long-term strategic interests are in the region, seeing none, a plausible case for disengagement could be made. However, abandoning the region would be shortsighted, and the roundtable authors offer some important and forward-looking strategic rationales for maintaining engagement. Looking eastward, Kuchins views U.S. sustained engagement in Eurasia as a logical accompaniment to Washington’s East Asian pivot. Wimbush sees the complexity and layering of the region, and of its different actors, as a compelling reason for why the United States must remain engaged as an arena of global interest. He also advocates that U.S. troops would provide a stabilizing presence in the region, perhaps by maintaining a residual force in Uzbekistan.

Both are important strategic rationales to consider, but both also carry some risks. Chinese and U.S. relations in Central Asia have been relatively cooperative, but the potential for competition certainly exists in areas such as energy politics and some of the global order issues identified earlier. The combination of a more robust Silk Road strategy, an enduring U.S. security presence on China’s western flank, and Beijing’s fear of outside meddling in Xinjiang might make the U.S. presence in Eurasia the target of a future Chinese counterthrust.

Wimbush’s plea for an enduring regional military presence in Uzbekistan may be particularly disconcerting to Russia, which seems to have used the uncertainty generated by the U.S. drawdown to opportunistically reassert itself in its relations with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, concluding deals for new military bases, promising new military assistance packages and investments in strategic sectors, and pressing these states to commit to joining the Moscow-led customs union. In the Kyrgyz case, Moscow has also compelled Bishkek to stick to a public commitment that it will close Manas in 2014 following the expiration of the current agreement.

Given Tsereteli’s observation about the growing disconnect between Russian ambitions and capabilities, the regional fallout of Moscow’s renewed effort to turn the smaller Central Asian states into political clients may become messy if Russian support exacerbates long-standing regional rivalries with Uzbekistan over water rights, disputes about borders and ethnic enclaves, and, as Tsereteli identifies, the uncertainty of looming political transitions in Astana and Tashkent. The potential for regional entanglements by the United States and Russia in local disputes, even in the pursuit of stability, remains ever-present.

On the other hand, a good case can be made that the drawdown from Afghanistan will untie the hands of both Washington and Brussels and allow them to focus on a more balanced portfolio of non-security matters, including promoting international legal standards, campaigning for the whole Central Asian region’s accession into the WTO, bettering the region’s still dismal human rights records, encouraging educational programs and exchanges, and improving governance and transparency. Even in the realm of continued security cooperation and counterterrorism, there is room both to remain effective against transnational threats and to nudge local and regional practices toward greater conformity with emerging international practices and legal standards. And at some point, U.S. and EU officials will need to make a more public case about why their approaches to regional challenges—such as ensuring political stability, mitigating and resolving conflicts, guaranteeing minority and religious rights, nurturing civil society, and insisting on transparency in government—are not just policies that suit the agendas of the West, but actually offer a more sustainable basis for pursuing state-building and regional integration, and indeed for partaking in globalization itself. But the West will be hard-pressed to actually sell these messages unless policymakers can demonstrate a longer-term regional commitment to the Central Asian governments, as well as some humility and self-reflection on the so-called “values issues.”

I fully agree that complexity and uncertainty are likely to characterize the region for some time. In response, the United States must overcome its strategic fatigue, be more pragmatic in its dealings with Moscow and Beijing, and accept that its actions in this region have important, even if unintended, demonstration effects in other venues on a variety of security, economic, social, and legal matters. All the while, Washington must do a better job of listening to local perspectives about the region’s looming challenges and actively defending U.S. principles and norms from regional alternatives that are gaining currency. In short, successful multipolar diplomacy will require considerable multitasking.


[1] I explore this topic at greater length in a forthcoming article co-authored with Daniel Nexon. See Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, “The Empire will Compensate You? The Structural Dynamics of the U.S. Overseas Basing Network,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 4 (2013).

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