Central Asia: Aral Sea Problem

By Weinthal, Erika | Foreign Policy in Focus, March 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Central Asia: Aral Sea Problem


Weinthal, Erika, Foreign Policy in Focus


Following the Soviet Union's collapse, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan entered an international system transformed by globalization and the emergence of a liberalized economic order. The challenge to integrate into this system was tremendous, since the Central Asian states had only reluctantly embraced independence. Finding themselves cut off from their traditional sources of revenue from Moscow, new Central Asian heads of state had to deal with stagnating economies, collapsing social welfare systems, high levels of corruption, disgruntled populations, and severely damaged environments. Despite these daunting problems, the breakup of the Soviet Union brought great hopes that the successor states would embark on a path toward building free market democracies.

To assist the Central Asian states in meeting these formidable challenges, the U.S. government followed a policy of active engagement through economic, political, and environmental assistance programs. In short, U.S. policy in Central Asia has pursued four objectives: democracy building, free market economies, regional cooperation, and integration into the international system. Motivated by geopolitical concerns, the U.S. has relied upon foreign aid as a means to help the Central Asian states disengage from Russia's sphere of influence while precluding a rapprochement with Iran. Central Asia is considered strategically important, since it borders Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. Moreover, most of the newly discovered oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Basin are located offshore of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

Washington's underlying goal in Central Asia has been the creation of a stable political and economic climate favorable to American business interests, especially in the energy sector. The U.S. sought to gain access to the newly discovered oil reserves in the Caspian Basin in order to lessen its dependence upon Persian Gulf oil. Due to the substantial amount of oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Basin, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott stressed conflict-resolution as "Job One" for U.S. foreign policy in the region. The resolution of conflicts within and between the Central Asian states and in the Caucasus is considered essential to attract the much-needed foreign investment to develop and market these oil and gas resources.

To bring about peace and regional stability in Central Asia for the development of these new energy reserves, U.S. foreign policy has focused its efforts on tangential issues outside the Caspian Basin in order to build trust and confidence among the Central Asian states. Given the broad array of interest in Central Asia due to the above geostrategic concerns, environmental issues presented an obvious opportunity for U.S. international intervention. Indeed, the environment has provided a safe issue-area for intervention, since both U.S. policymakers and the Central Asian leadership recognize the need for help in cleaning up the environmental consequences of seventy years of centralized planning. …

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