U.S. FOREIGN POLICY IN CENTRAL ASIA: Risk, Ends, and Means

By Boyer, Alan Lee | Naval War College Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

U.S. FOREIGN POLICY IN CENTRAL ASIA: Risk, Ends, and Means


Boyer, Alan Lee, Naval War College Review


Located in the heart of Central Asia are five weak states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Structural factors such as small populations and geographic remoteness, combined with a failure to provide adequate levels of "political goods," are the sources of their weakness.1 The governments' failures are due in large part to the political and economic development paths they have followed since independence at the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. The governments in Central Asia are largely authoritarian and ruled by former Communist Party officials. The ruling elites of each Central Asian state have gradually consolidated power into their own hands, by repressing political opponents, free speech, and the media, and by funneling the proceeds of their states' economies to their personal benefit or that of the apparatuses that keep them in power. As a result, political institutions are generally very weak, corruption and "rent seeking" are rampant, and economic management is poor.2 The ability of citizens to effect peaceful change is very limited, and economic benefits typically do not trickle down. In summary, the governments of Central Asia have failed to provide for the needs of their people and are sowing the seeds of unrest.3

The general political and economic weakness of all five countries makes them candidates for state failure and conflict. With state failure comes increased criminal activity, corruption, poverty, civil strife, radicalism (of which terrorism is one of many forms), and economic and environmental devastation.4 As a scholar has reminded us, failed states like Afghanistan and "their associated problems simply do not go away. They linger, and they generally get worse." The negative side effects of state failure can and do easily spread in today's rapidly globalizing world and thereby impact U.S. interests.6 The possibility that one or more Central Asian states could fail and become havens for terrorists, international criminal activity, and other sources of instability is a matter of concern not just for Russia, Pakistan, and China but for the United States and the West generally.7

Central Asia's strategic importance is based on three factors: location, human rights, and energy. The first factor, location, is important because of who lies upon the borders. The second factor, human rights, is a major U.S. national interest and an objective of the George W. Bush administration's foreign policy.8 The last factor, energy, is important not because Central Asian oil will free the West from dependence on OPEC oil but because of its impact on corruption and other indicators of state failure.

Central Asia presents several formidable challenges to American policy makers. Foremost among them is the ability of the United States to effect positive change and reform in the region's governance and economic conditions. Progress to date has been limited. The primary reasons have been the nature of the regimes in power, regional geopolitics, resources devoted, and misalignment of ends and means on the part of the United States. Additional factors include the remoteness of the Central Asian states and a general lack of coordination among the many governments, international organizations (IOs), and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are providing assistance. The significance of all these factors and weaknesses is that there is little likelihood that the United States or the West as a whole will be able to stimulate representative governments, free markets, adherence to human rights, etc., in Central Asia in the short or medium term.9 The only real opportunity to effect major change in the next ten to fifteen years will arise when the current leaderships change. If it is to take advantage of this opportunity, the United States (and the West generally) should pursue two courses of action: first, focus on long-term objectives and advance agendas that will set the stage for the eventual rise of new leadership favorable to Western goals and objectives; and second, avoid piecemeal and uncoordinated projects that do not offer rewards for broadly based, sweeping reforms. …

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