Declaring that the nations of Central Asia "have the chance
to put behind them forever the experience of being pawns on a
chess board," deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott delivered
a comprehensive assessment of Clinton administration policy in
that region in an official policy statement at the Paul H. Nitze
School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
His July 21 visit to the school marked another milestone in the 10-month history of the Central Asia Institute at SAIS, which was established last year to promote understanding and research of issues concerning the region that lies between Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan and Turkey. The deputy secretary began his remarks by publicly commending the institute as a "major source of scholarship and public education" about a vital, though often misunderstood, part of the world.
Once carefully controlled by the Soviet Union, Central Asia's new nation states of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan--as well as the lands of the Transcaucasus to the east--are now experiencing difficulties commonly associated with sudden independence. Although sparsely populated for the most part, the region is rich in oil and other natural resources, and controls the old Silk Road, the east-west overland trading route that links Europe to Asia.
"The United States has a stake in [those nations'] success," declared the deputy secretary in a carefully worded speech that both encouraged and warned the new nations. "If reform in the nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia continues and ultimately succeeds, it will encourage similar progress in the other New Independent States of the former Soviet Union, including in Russia and Ukraine."
Yet success, he cautioned, was far from guaranteed. "If internal and cross-border conflicts simmer and flare," Talbott said, "the region could become a breeding ground of terrorism, a hotbed of religious and political extremism and a battleground for outright war."
Noting that "it would matter profoundly to the United States if that were to happen in an area that sits on as much as two hundred billion barrels of oil," Talbott declared that "conflict resolution must be job one for U.S. policy in the region: it is both the prerequisite for, and an accompaniment to, energy development."
Currently, he said, there are three armed conflicts in the region of particular concern to the United States. The first involves Armenia and Azerbaijan in a war over Nagorno-Karabakh; the second is in Abkhazia, a region attempting to secede from the now-independent state of Georgia; and the third is the five-year-old civil war in Tajikistan. Although all three of these conflicts are relatively quiet now, said Talbott, the United States is determined to work with the governments of the region and other interested parties to bring about equitable and long-lasting settlements.
"We want to see all responsible players in the Caucasus and Central Asia be winners," he said. "An essential step in that direction is the resolution of conflicts within and between countries and peoples in the region. In the last century, internal instability and division provided a pretext for foreign intervention and adventurism. In the last decade, since the breakup of the USSR, several such conflicts have erupted again."
Some have predicted these conflicts will lead to a replay of the "Great Game" in which the major world powers used similar disturbances as a pretext to seize and control parts of the region by military force in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Where once the impetus was to control overland trade routes, today the implied motivation behind such a scenario is the tremendous wealth of oil and other natural resources known to lie beneath the land.
"Our goal is to avoid, and actively to discourage, that atavistic outcome," Talbott declared resolutely. "In pondering and practicing the geopolitics of oil, let's make sure that we are thinking in terms appropriate to the 21st century and not the 19th." The "Great Game" mentality, he said, is a zero-sum game in which some are winners and some losers; the better approach for all concerned, as far as the United States is concerned, lies in mutual cooperation.
Ultimately, though, the region's fate depends upon events in the former Soviet Union, most particularly in Russia, which has traditionally looked to Central Asia and the Caucasus as buffer states guarding its southern flank. The deputy secretary of state sounded a cautiously optimistic note in that regard, announcing that in September, U.S. troops would join their Russian and Turkish counterparts in joint military exercises as guests of the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion, a unit composed of Kazakstani, Uzbekistani and Kyrgyzstani troops.
"The image of American, Russian and Turkish troops participating together--very much on the same side in combating threats to the stability and security of the region--is worth keeping in mind when listening to conventional wisdom about how the region is heading back to the future," he said.
The administration's declared policy of promoting democracy, encouraging the creation of free market economies, sponsoring peace and cooperation within and among countries of the region and assisting with their integration into the larger international community can only be achieved if Russia agrees to respect the national and territorial integrity of the new states, Talbott said.
"Today there are still plenty of questions--and, among Russia's neighbors, plenty of anxieties--about how Moscow will handle its relations with the other members of the CIS," Talbott said in concluding his remarks. "Whether that grouping of states survives will depend in a large measure on whether it evolves in a way that vindicates the name--that is, whether it develops as a genuine commonwealth of genuinely independent states. If it goes in another direction--if its largest member tries to make "commonwealth" into a euphemism for infringement on the independence of its neighbors--then the CIS will deserve to join that other set of initials, USSR, on the ash heap of history."
As if to emphasize the administration's seriousness of intent concerning the Caucasus and Central Asia, Talbott ended with a friendly, yet pointed, reminder to Russia: "One of the watchwords of our dialogue with Russia is integration--the right kind of integration," he said. "Integration means that the doors, and benefits, of international institutions will be open to Russia as long as Russia stays on a path of reform, including in the way it conducts its relations with its neighbors, and that means the way it defines integration in the context of the CIS."
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