U.S. Engagement in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Staying Our Course along the Silk Road

By Jones, Beth | DISAM Journal, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

U.S. Engagement in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Staying Our Course along the Silk Road


Jones, Beth, DISAM Journal


[The following are excerpts of the remarks presented to the "Central Asia: Its Geopolitical Significance and Future Impact" Conference hosted by the Title VI Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program Directors, University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana April 10, 2003.]

Acknowledgements

We have colleagues waiting to go into Iraq to launch a new relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. We have other United States Agency for International Development (USAID) colleagues, members of Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) already in Um Qasr and Basra to survey the humanitarian situation. My specific goal this evening is to discuss where we are and where we want to go in our relations with the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Opening

In recent months much of the world's attention has understandably been focused on the transAtlantic relationship, and the differences that emerged with some of our European friends and allies over Iraq. What has received relatively less attention has been the steadfast support the United States has received from a number of countries in the former Soviet Union. Clearly, one of the reasons we enjoy such a close and supportive relationship is our intense engagement, through diplomacy and foreign assistance, during their difficult transitions from Communism toward democratic political systems and market economies.

The United States has important interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus beyond supporting the transition of formerly Communist countries. After September 11, 2001, global interests such as combating terrorism, weapons proliferation, and trafficking in narcotics and other illicit goods also came to the fore. Despite the relatively small overall Department of State budget, we have undertaken some effective policies and programs in the region. We are successful because we work closely with a number of partners, such as non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and other U.S. government agencies. I want to highlight how our political engagement and assistance directly support our national interests. I also want to give concrete examples of how our assistance actually works.

Strategic Importance

It is no coincidence that the Caspian region has been on the edge of recent international conflicts. History shows that the Silk Road was not only a trade route but also a strategic bridge for Alexander's armies, the Mongols, the Moghuls, the Ottoman empire and more recently the Soviet empire. Today, it is a region surrounded by key competitors for energy and for military and ideological power Turkey, Russia, China, Iran and India.

Our disengagement from Afghanistan in the 1980s taught us a harsh lesson, one that we do not want to repeat in other countries. We learned that we must engage the region's governments and people to promote long-term stability and prevent a security vacuum that provides opportunities for extremism and external intervention. This is particularly true in Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where terrorist groups have threatened our own national interests.

In contrast to Afghanistan and Iraq, we engaged in Central Asia and the Caucasus well before the situation reached a crisis. We were among the first countries to open diplomatic missions in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We have a continuing interest in stopping the transborder movement of terrorist groups, weapons of mass destruction and other weapons traffic, illegal drugs, and trafficked persons. We have an interest in resolving and, where possible, preventing violent conflicts that threaten regional stability. And we also have an interest in seeing all countries of the region become democratic, market-oriented states, the best long-term guarantee of regional stability and of positive, mutually beneficial relations.

Finally, the Soviet legacy of weapons of mass destruction, weapons infrastructure and expertise remains a critical United States security interest in the region. …

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