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commentary: u.s. policy in central asia needs to be visible

Commentary: U.S. Policy in Central Asia Needs to Be Visible

Image source: Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry

As a U.S. diplomat who spent a significant part of his career in Central Asia, I can tell you that the March 8 written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu is one of the most positive statements ever made by the U.S. government about Central Asia.  Ambassador Lu correctly pointed out that the five Central Asian states, each in its own way, refuse to support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criminal war against the nation and people of Ukraine and, thus, deserve our whole-hearted support.  He mentioned just the tip of the iceberg of U.S. financial assistance to the region, and he listed several positive developments in the field of human rights in Central Asia, even while rightfully pointing out that more needs to be done, just as more needs to be done in the United States.

The five countries of Central Asia generally follow what Kazakhstan first described as “multi-vector foreign policy,” meaning that to maintain their independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity they work to balance their international relations with Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States.  Since their independence over three decades ago, the United States has indeed been a presence in the region with full-scale embassies covering political, economic, military, developmental, humanitarian, and cultural and educational exchanges in each of the five countries.  

However, Central Asia has not ever been especially high on Washington’s foreign-policy agenda.  U.S. foreign policy most often focuses on the global crise du jour, and, to the five countries’ credit, Central Asia has generally been a remarkably stable region since its independence and has not usually required intense U.S. focus.  There have been times when we have needed Central Asia, most significantly during the two decades of U.S. war in Afghanistan when in the earlier years of that conflict Central Asia provided temporary airfield access for the U.S. military at Karshi Khanabad in Uzbekistan and at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, as well as non-lethal military-supply transportation routes through Central Asia into Afghanistan known as the Northern Distribution Network – that is, before Moscow demanded it all be shut down.  And the United States was certainly grateful for that Central Asian support and assistance.

More normally, however, Washington keeps Central Asia on its foreign-policy back burner, if for no other reason than that it simply almost never needs crise du jour attention.  Indeed, when you talk with officials of the region in confidence behind closed doors, they will let loose that in recent years the United States has been increasingly less visible in the region.  In response to that view, U.S. diplomats will usually counter, “But look at our programs in the region!  Look at our military and border-security training assistance!  Look at our humanitarian support!  Look at our exchange programs!”  Every bit of what the U.S. diplomats say is indeed true.  But it’s not all that visible.  And therein lies the perception problem.

How, then, should the United States build on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, during which he met with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states in the C5+1 (Central Asia plus the United States) format and received wide publicity throughout the region?  The very best follow-up would be for President Biden in the coming months to convene a C5+1 summit to maintain the visibility of highest-level U.S. interest.  And it would be logical to include Azerbaijan, given the increasing importance of the Middle Corridor that bypasses Russia from China, through Central Asia, across the Caspian Sea, and into Western Europe.   Perhaps this could be done in New York City on the margin of this year’s United Nations General Assembly in September.  

Even better, however, would be for the White House to convene such a summit in Brussels, the capital of the European Union.  Such a meeting would be visible evidence that the United States and Europe stand together in their support for Central Asia.

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