Central Asia Program Series Policy Insight

“The Art of the Deal”: A New American Approach to Engaging Central Asia?

By Roger Kangas, Academic Dean and a Professor of Central Asian Studies at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University. Dr. Kangas has advised numerous government agencies on issues relating to Central and South Asia, Russia, and the South Caucasus.

Presented at the Central Asia Security Workshop, George Washington University, March 6, 2017

CAP Papers 189
July 2017

The purpose of this essay is to offer some thoughts on what a future US policy toward Central Asia might be. Given that we are today (March 2017) less than three months into the administration of Donald J. Trump, such an undertaking is fraught with uncertainty and guesswork. In short order, the following points will be examined: (1) what are current U.S. interests in Central Asia?; (2) are there any guidelines we can follow when assessing President Trump’s policy toward Central Asia?; (3) what are the current foreign policy priorities of the Trump administration at this point in time?; and (4) what limitations and constraints might appear in the actual execution of any policy toward Central Asia, once it is actually articulated? It is important to move away from the hyperbole that often appears in discussions of this administration, both for and against, and see if there are logical points that can be made. What words we use matters; using the wrong ones can be misleading and, ultimately, counterproductive.

What Are the Current U.S. Interests in Central Asia?

This is a fairly easy question to answer, as it has been a topic of regular conversation among Central Asia experts and policy officials who carry out such efforts. More to the point, there is a healthy track record of documents and official statements that articulate such a policy. American interests in Central Asia over the past 25-plus years have several consistent themes:

  • Political stability and democratic development within the five states;
  • Economic stability and growth through the opening of local economies and the ability to create open and diverse economic markets;
  • Periodically, the energy sector gets special attention, with respect to diverse pipeline routes and the opportunity for the Central Asian countries to exploit this resource;
  • Social stability and adherence to international human rights;
  • Security development that ensures regional stability and an active effort to combat transnational crime, trafficking, and terrorism, with a particular emphasis on combatting violent extremist organizations.

The above concepts have been articulated in security documents and speeches across a range of political administrations—from George H.W. Bush (1991–1993) to Bill Clinton (1993–2001), George W. Bush (2001–2009), and Barack Obama (2009–2017). One can debate how effective American efforts to address these issues have been, but they all have been mainstays of U.S. policy toward the region. Perhaps efforts have been only partially successful, or have even outright failed. Likewise, the prioritization of these points has changed over the years, depending upon the leadership in office and the circumstances in the region. In the mid-1990s, energy development and security was a high priority, and after the commencement of military operations in Afghanistan in late 2001, security matters took on a greater importance.

More often than not, the United States has looked at the region instrumentally, articulating policies that assist our broader objectives vis-à-vis Russia, Iran, or (most importantly) Afghanistan. Indeed, this Afghanistan-centrism has vexed our ability to articulate a clear and coherent “Central Asia first” policy since 2001. It also has resulted in persistent misperceptions by the Central Asian countries themselves as to U.S. objectives. The ill-fated “Strategic Partnership” between the United States and Uzbekistan in 2002–2005 is a good example of this.

U.S. policy has also been program-focused. Some programs, such as the Peace Corps, had defined objectives. However, political factors resulted in the discontinuation of even this simple, clear-cut effort in the region. Energy development, as a case in point, was more about getting the Central Asian oil and gas producers to consider alternative routes for the successful export of their products and not rely solely on Russia. However, this required U.S.  corporate investment. Other than the rather well-publicized Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan route, which only marginally involves Kazakhstan (and that is strictly shipping oil across the Caspian), actual U.S.  money was never really forthcoming for Central Asian energy development. There have been alternatives to Russia, but of late these have almost exclusively been China’s initiatives.

The “New Silk Road” is an example of a good idea that failed to gain substantial U.S. financial commitment or strategic clarity. This was not for lack of trying, but American companies, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, were skittish about putting money into projects that have dubious rates of return and questionable legal regimes that may or may not protect investors. Indeed, for this project (and others), the United States hoped that other outside powers, or the Central Asian countries themselves, would ultimately invest and bring it to life.

At the end of the Barack Obama administration, an interesting development did take place: the C5+1 initiative, under Secretary of State John Kerry. In previous years, there were Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABCs) between the United States and specific Central Asian countries, most notably Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The C5+1 enabled the U.S.  government to speak with the five Central Asian countries in a regional context. Curiously, the C5+1 is not seen in conflict with, or contradiction to, the efforts of other countries in the region (Russia and China, in particular), but simply offers ways in which the United States can help the Central Asian countries address specific matters where it might have a comparative advantage, such as creating legal frameworks for trade, exploring ideas of conflict resolution, and crafting cross-border cooperation mechanisms. Regular meetings have taken place and five joint projects with funding of up to $15 million in support are being carried out. While this pales in comparison to the massive financial commitments of China’s “One Belt One Road” project, the projects appear to have specific end-states that ought to be of value to the region.

Indeed, were one to have seen a continuation of the Barack Obama administration, I would surmise that U.S. policy toward Central Asia would ultimately have become one of limited, selective, but effective engagement. It would not satisfy some, for sure. Experts on Central Asian affairs would understandably suggest that there is so much more that could be done. However, given limited resources and attention to the region, a policy that outlines what the United States can and cannot do would offer a realistic presentation of U.S. foreign policy. This would be in contrast to past efforts, when the United States has promised a lot and consistently under-delivered.

Guidelines to Consider?

Pundits have spent the past year trying to figure out if we can glean from his 1980s best seller, The Art of the Deal, any insights into how Donald Trump might construct a foreign policy strategy. Specific to this discussion, are there any guiding points for U.S. policy toward Central Asia? The Art of the Deal is worth reading, primarily because it is instructive to see what people write to explain their motives. In this book, Donald Trump goes into detail about his past business dealings and comes up with some basic precepts that a good business professional should follow. Among the list of Trump’s steps are such maxims as: “Maximize your options,” “Use your leverage,” “Deliver the goods,” and “Contain the costs.Can one use such business methods in the world of diplomacy? A simple response would be no, if one considers international relations to be actions and relations among nation states. However, if one reframes these dynamics to be more about personal ties, especially among leaders, then perhaps there is something to consider.

After all, for Donald Trump, personalities do matter. Every president has had an “inner circle” of trusted advisors, and Donald Trump is no exception. Steve Bannon and writers from the far-right website Breitbart are probably the only non-family members that have the president’s absolute trust. As they have regularly written on foreign affairs, it would make sense to assume such thinking will shape future policy. A review of writings on that site would be instructive in offering a sense of how foreign policy is viewed by the senior advisors to the president.

Moreover, in terms of the actual workings of Washington, D.C., it is important to understand that foreign policy will be made by the White House with little input from others, at least for the time being. Congress, which has been conspicuously silent during all the Twitter-induced storms and controversies of the past two months, is focused on getting a domestic policy agenda passed and is bargaining to gain the President’s support for it. Indeed, outside of a small handful of Senators, it appears that the Republican-dominated Congress will back President Trump on any and all foreign policy initiatives. What does this mean? That the National Security Council will have a good deal to say about the direction of foreign policy, and that, in the coming months and until senior political appointments are made in different departments, limits on attention and effort will mean that only a few key “deals” will be addressed.

Early on, it seems that foreign leaders also understand that personalities matter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been active in helping to recraft the U.S. position on the Middle East, particularly the place of Israel in the region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan likewise made a big deal of coming to the United States to meet with Trump (and golf with him in Florida), assuring the new president that Japan wants to be a strong ally. In contrast, for the president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, personal differences have meant cancelling meetings and engaging in a periodic war of words with his American counterpart. What would personal ties with the Central Asian leaders be like, assuming any of them were ever able to meet with President Trump? Most likely, they would appreciate the focus on transactions and “deals,” but a key issue would be: What do the two sides truly have to offer each other? So, in practical terms, what does this mean?

What Are the Foreign Policy Priorities of the U.S. Administration?

For now, it is too early to tell. First of all, we are still well within the first “100 days” and attention has been devoted to a range of other issues—domestic, media, and personal conflicts—as opposed to foreign policy. Second, there has been little staffing for senior political appointees. At the Departments of State and Department of Defense, there are countless vacancies. This means that those holding offices—and “acting appointments”—have to employ triage measures to maintain existing functions. It’s not impossible and “life is going on,” but there is no real stamp of a new policy direction or major guidance initiative. Indeed, the current National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, and other important documents are all holdovers from the Obama administration.

Third, the issues that have been discussed in the Trump administration are not surprising. In no particular order, they involve, but are not limited to, a recognition that Iran, North Korea, and China are threats to the United States, with the latter also an economic rival. Current statements underscore a belief that multilateralism is problematic—NATO is a valueless organization full of free-riding European countries, international trade arrangements such as NAFTA need to be re-negotiated, and the TTP and TTIP are “dead on arrival.”

Of importance for Central Asia is the administration’s strong belief that Russia is not a threat. The takeover of Crimea is not worth re-hashing and the challenges to Ukraine and the Baltic states are negotiable. It would not be surprising if the administration were to acknowledge Russia’s “primacy” in Central Asia. It is simply not worth engaging in the region when a “strategic ally” such as Russia can keep the peace. Indeed, Russia ought to be an ally in the fight against what is the United States’ greatest existential concern: radical Islam, Islamic extremism, Islamo-fascism, or simply Islam. President Obama was criticized for not mentioning “Islam” as a factor in the development of modern terrorism. Trumps’s key advisors—such as Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, among others—all note specific links between the Islamic faith and acts of violence and acceptance of terror as a method. Some see it in terms of “my God is stronger than your god,” or simply that Muslims are of a lesser quality than Christians. These are controversial views, held not just by senior White House officials but by strong voting blocs of the American people. Like it or not, this “elephant in the room” is a discussion that needs to be had—especially when dealing with countries that have large Muslim populations, including the Central Asian states.

However, outside of this very important issue, where does this put Central Asia? Not surprisingly, for now, it is off the political radar screen. Before we castigate Trump and his inner circle, however, let us remember that no administration has considered a coherent Central Asia policy this early in a presidency. That the region will be ignored for some time—short of a major crisis or situation—is actually the norm for American presidential administrations.

Missed opportunities, lack of funding, lack of high-level attention (to include no presidential visits to the region since independence), will form the core of any future critical assessment of U.S. policy toward Central AsiaRoger Kangas

What Are the Limitations on U.S. Engagement in Central Asia?

The US “brand” has changed, and one should expect that issues such as democracy, human rights, social justice, and protection of minority groups are irrelevant to American engagement in the region, just as they will also be less important for U.S. engagement throughout the world. On the one hand, this will be beneficial to the U.S. presence in Central Asia, as it will not hound the leaders of the five states over human rights abuses or condescend on internal matters. Quite frankly, if the United States takes a page out of the Chinese approach to Central Asia, which emphasizes “non-interference in the domestic affairs of foreign states,” then Americans might find it easier to work in the region. However, working in a “post-human rights” world has some challenges. Conditionality has been a feature of U.S. engagement in the region since 1991. Even during the years immediately following the 9/11 attack (i.e., October 2001 onward), the administration of George W. Bush held out human rights and political/economic freedoms as central elements of U.S. foreign policy toward Central Asia. Indeed, the global “freedom agenda” was quite specific in emphasizing democratization efforts. Will removing such issues from the American foreign policy toolkit make it possible to strike better deals with the leaders in the region?

If one takes the earlier-noted principles as possible, what might be the future of U.S. policy in Central Asia? At best, American interests will be transactional in nature. If one assumes that it’s about “making deals,” what are the “deals” that can be struck? What value does Central Asia hold for the United States? There are no resources, to speak of, that would be important to the United States, so our desire to engage will be reduced. Moreover, with a proposed 37 percent reduction in the Department of State—and gossip about slashing USAID and other efforts—our “toolkit” for engagement in the region will be that much emptier.

So what is left? Assisting in a war against Islamic extremism? There is a good deal of talk by senior White House officials—as demonstrated by their past writings/speeches—that the primary threat to the United States is Islamism. There is an assumption that working with certain governments might help us limit the influence of Islam and its extremist manifestations. However, with little to bargain, what would a Central Asian leader have to gain by working with us? If, in fact, this is a business negotiation, what leverage do we have that could bring them around to our side? It is unclear. Indeed, if any struggle against terrorism is cast largely in terms of Islam, then we could find some reluctance to engage. Ironically, Russia does not equate Islam with extremism. President Putin’s acceptable terminology is “international terrorism,” repeatedly stressing that Islam per se is not a problem. And with over twenty percent of Russia’s citizenry being Muslims, he is wise to do this.

Are any of the leaders of the Central Asian states willing to “go to war with Islam” in their own countries? Given that their populations are overwhelmingly Muslim, this is difficult to imagine, although they do monitor and periodically target religious education, attendance, and institutions within their own countries. In short, the United States may find itself presenting contradictory views to the countries of Central Asia with very little to offer by way of leverage or incentives. Thus, in a true transactional environment, the United States would be shut out of any substantial role, even if it wanted one in the first place.


These are just some modest offerings on the subject of what might be ahead for U.S. engagement in Central Asia. Debates about the limitations of U.S. policy toward Central Asia have taken place in the past and will undoubtedly continue. Missed opportunities, lack of funding, lack of high-level attention (to include no presidential visits to the region since independence), will form the core of any future critical assessment of U.S. policy toward Central Asia. The best-case scenario would be what appeared to be the “glide path” at the end of the Obama administration: selective engagement in areas where the United States has comparative advantages, especially in the technical, security, and legal areas.

More likely, the United States will find itself simply as a minor player in the region, with little to offer and even less desire to engage. Barring a crisis, one can expect this to be the “new norm” for the next eight years, if one assumes that Donald Trump will win re-election in 2020. The curious unknown is how the countries in the region will go forward with a much-reduced American presence. They are already making their own arrangements and “deals” with other nations that have more to offer and better leverage. The Great Silk Road, after all, pre-dated “the Art of the Deal” by quite a few centuries.


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