US Priorities and Positioning in Central Asia: An Interview with Thomas Simons

In early September we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Thomas Simons, a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, as well as a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador to Poland and Pakistan. Dr. Simons has published extensively on Eurasia and the former Soviet Union, and is the author of four books, the most recent of which is titled Eurasia’s New Frontiers: Young States, Old Societies, Open Futures (Cornell University Press, 2008).

SD: Does the United States have a defined regional strategy in Central Asia, or does it prefer to deal with countries in the region on a state-by-state basis? What commonalities might US policy towards countries in the region have?

Simons: The US has been pretty consistent in defining and pursuing its objectives in Central Asia since its countries achieved independence in 1991 and 1992: it has seen a U.S. national interest in supporting their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their viability as independent states, and that’s a big commonality that hasn’t changed much between then and now.  Of course the political and economic environments have shifted over time, and that has affected the means we’ve used to pursue those overall goals.  Most of the time we’ve worked on a state-to-state basis, because that’s the way these emerging new sovereignties have wanted it – they’ve been much more ready to work with the outside world than with each other – and they’ve wanted it that way more and more as they build up their independent state structures and gain experience at defining interests and setting goals of their own.  But we’ve also encouraged regional approaches where they could match up with our interests, because the new countries have in fact had features in common.  They all have inherited Soviet legacies (for good and ill), infrastructures that were geared to the vanished Soviet economy, anemic civil societies, and security challenges (including radical Islamism).  Maybe paradoxically, there’s also an area-wide desire to assert exciting new national independence and sovereignty.   So we’ve welcomed steps to get beyond exclusive national sovereignty, for instance by joining international organizations (like the WTO beginning with Kyrgyzstan in 1994) and aspiring to leadership roles in them (like Kazakhstani chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010).  In the 1990s we promoted new forms of military cooperation or harmonization in the region (like NATO’s Partnership for Peace or the now-forgotten Central Asian Battalion).  And since 9/11 we’ve depended a lot on their cooperation to support our military efforts in Afghanistan, individually as in the cases of transit and basing rights, jointly as in the case of the Northern Distribution Network.  The New Silk Road we’ve been pursuing since Secretary Clinton announced it in 2010, to boost links between Central and South Asia via Afghanistan, is also an interconnected endeavor, with some regional and some bilateral pieces.  Finally, we’ve never lost sight of our conviction that Central Asian countries will be stronger and more prosperous (and that we will be more secure as a result) if they choose political practices that favor civil society development and that honor international standards for human rights and good governance.  They do get tired of hearing about that from us, and that hasn’t changed either.  Whether all this constitutes a strategy I can’t say, but it’s certainly been comprehensive and consistent.  Admittedly, over the past decade the Afghanistan priority has somewhat overshadowed the rest, and now that it’s fading a bit we should have more of a chance to tailor policies to the five national specifics that are emerging.  But it seems to me that as we draw down in Afghanistan and as shale gas and oil change the world energy picture, the problem now is not whether or not we have a strategy for Central Asia, it’s whether we have the will to pursue policies that have been successful and adjust them for the post-2014 era, and to come up with the means to do so.

SD: Related to the closing of the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan, US CENTCOM has sent several negotiators to Uzbekistan to discuss opening up a new airbase. What is the objective here – is it symbolic or operational? Will the United States government have success negotiating with the FSU republics in Russia’s own backyard, or is it in danger of overreaching?

Simons: Since I’m no longer in government I can’t tell, but if governments are lucky they can successfully pursue both “symbolic” and “operational” objectives together – it’s like chewing gum and walking – and I suspect this is the case here.  We’ll be significantly engaged in Afghanistan even after our combat role there ends, so some support facilities next door in Uzbekistan should still be useful, and politically we should be seeking a predictable and productive relationship with Central Asia’s most populous state, even if it’s difficult uphill work for both of us.  Russia’s attitudes toward our presence in Central Asia have had their ups and downs since independence, but the US been more or less successful negotiating with its new states throughout the period despite those ups and down.  I also suspect Russia will be less rather than more worried about US “overreach” once 2015 dawns without Western combat forces next door in Central Asia’s turbulent neighbor to the south.  Now that China has emerged as the region’s main economic partner, Russia may even join Central Asians in seeing the US as a useful balancing factor in the region.

SD: Security aside, is a greater role for the US in every-day Central Asian affairs possible? China and Russia seem better positioned, both geographically and diplomatically, to forge stronger bonds with regional states that extend beyond curtailing extremism and combating groups like the Taliban. Is the United States ready or even interested in an expanded relationship, or will the status quo suffice?

Simons: I think a major role for the US is possible precisely because China and Russia will be even better positioned to assert their interests in Central Asia in a post-2014 environment, since that should make Central Asians even more interested in having the US around in various ways.  Up to now Russia and China have defined their goals in the region so as to avoid much friction between them, and that could continue, but you can’t count on it (they too can make mistakes).  As weak partners in a crossroads location Central Asians have always been adept at balancing among outside powers, and they’ve gotten even better at it as their state structures fill out and they gain skills for navigating internationally.  So I suspect they’ll continue to see us as useful partners, and that they’ll be willing to take US interests into account to keep us in play.  Chou En-lai is supposed to have once quoted an old Chinese adage that “distant water doesn’t put out nearby fires,” and that may be true, but it can certainly help keep those fires banked.  Of course to play a major role in Central Asia we’d have to define our interests in new concrete ways (beyond fighting terrorism and extremism) that will make us attractive partners for the Central Asians, so I think it’s a question of different rather than expanded relationships.  But your question of whether we’re ready or interested enough to define and pursue them is surely the right one. At this point I don’t have an answer. Right now I don’t see us mustering the high-level policy muscle and the resources such a role would require.  But we can, and we should.  With a different Afghanistan and shale gas and major successions on the horizon in Central Asia, the status quo is after all not an option for anyone, including us.

SD: Islamist extremism continues to be a concern for many in Washington. Central Asian groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have been successfully exiled from their home countries, and have been forced to seek refuge in Afghanistan or Pakistan. If the United States leaves, and indeed does not pursue a military presence in the region, do poor Central Asian nations such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have the wherewithal to fight off and prevent the spread of radical Islam throughout the region? What types of steps might the US take to assist these governments, if any?

Simons: Islamist extremism should continue to be a concern for many in Washington as well as in Central Asia, since the ingredients that produce it exist in the region, and it’s a transnational threat that often targets America and Americans.  But both before and after we came into Central Asia in a big way following 9/11 Central Asians have shown they have plenty of the wherewithal to contain and combat “their” radical Islamists, both foreign and homegrown.  There have actually been some three phases to the struggle: a wake-up phase in the early 1990s, when governments and Islamists were still feeling their ways, and flexing their muscles; a combat phase from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, which the governments by and large won, partly by repression and partly by revamping traditional cooperation with their ‘ulema,’ their mainstream Islamic scholars; and a phase of “Brownian movement” since then, continual multi-vector negotiation among the various forces, so far without set direction.  We’ve helped some, in terms of resources and techniques for counter-terrorism, but it’s been mainly the governments themselves that have done the fighting and negotiating.  And as the processes have unfolded we’ve all learned (or should have learned) that Islamist extremism is just one of the possible responses to political and economic marginalization in these countries, and by no means the most virulent: many more people have been killed in savage ethnic pogroms than by radical Islamists.  The US has learned it faster than the local governments.  They naturally promote nationalism as part of building new nation-states, and although they’ve generally been careful to keep their formal definitions of citizenship inclusive (not based on ethnicity), in a pinch they sometimes play the ethno-national card for immediate political advantage, and that just stokes the fires most likely to burn them.  Probably the best thing we can do to assist them – beyond the technicalities of counter-terrorism – is to keep harping on the need for better, more inclusive, less corrupt, and more just governance that can help drain the swamps where all these radicalisms arise.  Since the Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution and Uzbekistan’s Andijon revolt in the spring of 2005 they’ve tended to read that kind of harping as part of a covert US program to change their regimes, but that (wrong) reading may fade somewhat as we reduce our overall presence in the area, so they may have more of an ear for smart advice.  To get there, though, we’d also need to listen up better when they talk about what interests them.

SD: Kazakhstan is a nation seemingly torn between the opportunities presented by Western investment, and its close historical ties with Russia. Almaty’s accession into the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and simultaneous involvement with American and European oil giants are testimony of this. Will the extent of the American presence in a nation such as Kazakhstan be of a strictly economic or financial nature, or will a more balanced relationship emerge in the aftermath of recent US-Russia disputes?

Simons: Kazakhstan is the Central Asian country that has done best at modernizing its structures and equipping itself to act as an equal partner internationally.  It can afford to, and it’s done it well in a whole variety of areas.  It’s developed its energy resources in partnership with the international private sector, its economic structures are the area’s most transparent and law-based (against an admittedly low standard), and it has systematically trained young professionals abroad and put them to work when they return home.   Partly as a result, it’s also the most skillful Central Asian country when it comes to balancing among its outside suitors.  Joining the Customs Union (or Eurasian Economic Union, as it will become next January 1) is part of that picture; so are the pipelines going through Kazakhstan to China; so are its good relations with the US.  Our relationship has never been just “economic or financial” – remember about chewing gum and walking at the same time – so we don’t have to wait for a relationship to emerge that ranges across the spectrum, from economic through political and security issues to people-to-people exchanges.  With the north of the country heavily Russian-speaking, it’s true the Kazakhstanis are worried about the Crimea precedent.  But any effect of current US-Russia tensions on Kazakhstan’s relations with the US will be at the margin: we already have balanced relations.

SD: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are effectively run by singular leaders – Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov respectively. Uzbekistan threw the US out of the country in 2005 when it criticized its human rights record, at significant strategic expense to the war in Afghanistan, though it subsequently allowed the US to run supply convoys through the country. How should the US deal with the very real issue of negotiating with dictators in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan?

Simons: Throwing us out of the country in 2005 had a lot more to do with fear of regime overthrow than just with US criticism on human rights, and the road back was opened partly by increasing self-confidence.  That said, the US government will always be more comfortable dealing with democrats than with dictators, and the reason is structural: we ourselves are a democracy that has to justify its policies to an electorate that cares about how our international partners are governed, and has tended to believe since the dawn of the Republic that more democracy in the world means more security for Americans.  All the Central Asian countries have more or less authoritarian leaderships, so good relations with them are always going to be works in progress, and that naturally includes Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan too.  But we also have a lot of experience dealing with authoritarians, including the Soviet and post-Soviet varieties that are most relevant here, and we’ve found it possible to advance our national interests in relations with them without sacrificing our values.  In the Central Asian cases I think it’s particularly important to try to do that, since all of them are trying to build new nation-states on top of weak civil societies, and this means that changes toward more modern and inclusive governance are most liable to start within the rather narrow elites running the state rather than from outside them.  “Outside” includes us – and we’ll have even less leverage as we draw down our presence in the area – but we’ll be in a better position to nudge change in the right directions if we have relations of confidence within those elites to start with.  If they (and/or Russia) are in fact settling back into governance with a family resemblance to the late-Soviet status quo, then maybe the formula we developed for dealing with the Soviet Union in those years could still be useful: each side defines the issues it is most interested in, where those overlap they then try to reach agreements of mutual interest, and where they continue to disagree they say so, and keep talking.  Under that formula, unless a major crisis erupts it makes no sense to stop negotiating on issues where you have yourself defined agreement as in your interest because of lack of progress on other issues.  What does make sense is to keep your principles and values clear and backed by muscle, on the one hand, and on the other hand to keep negotiating for agreements that enhance your security (and hopefully your partner’s too).   In other words: keep talking about everything, and keep you powder dry.


One thought on “US Priorities and Positioning in Central Asia: An Interview with Thomas Simons

  1. Pingback: US Priorities and Positioning in Central Asia: An Interview with Thomas Simons | Kenneth Carnesi

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