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Obama’s Great Game

October 13, 2010

Steve LeVine recently wrote a piece arguing that Obama is forfeiting US influence in Central Asia to reap the benefits of the Russian “reset.” The “reset” is one of the few policies where Obama has made appreciable progress, and while relations are not perfect, they are certainly past their recent nadir. LeVine argues that without a robust US role in Central Asia, these gains will come at the cost of the liberties and sovereignty of the Central Asian states, as well as America’s own national interests.

Daniel Drezner, however, claims that a lower US profile is a good thing, since Central Asia is geographically remote, China will counterbalance Russia, and the US does not really do much to help Central Asian freedom anyway. LeVine fires back quite convincingly. Whether one thinks the war in Afghanistan is being fought well or not, there is no way to win or exit that conflict without its neighboring Central Asian states taking an active role, and certainly as long as troops are in the area, relations with Central Asian states are critical to supporting ISAF efforts and the Kabul government in general.

You do not need to be Halford Mackinder to appreciate the importance of Central Asia in Eurasian politics. Particularly as the political “hub” shifts from Western to Eastern Eurasia, Central Asia will become more important than it has historically been to US interests. As LeVine points out, Central Asia is not just in Russia’s backyard, but Iran’s, Afghanistan’s and China’s. Despite its distance from the US, maintaining influence in Central Asia provides America leverage over the region’s neighboring powers. Drezner’s argument that China is a greater concern to Russian leaders than America. This sounds true, but does it really prove Drezner’s point?

If Russia is more concerned about Chinese influence than American influence, then it suggests the familiar argument that continental powers perceive offshore powers’ balancing efforts more favorably than those of rival continental states in the same region. If Russia really is more afraid of China, then this is an argument for capitalizing on our offshore balancing role rather than conceding it, at least if we are more afraid of China in the long run than Russia. Now, if the US presence becomes too uncomfortable, particularly in the Caucasus, where Russian security concerns are more grave, Moscow and Beijing may seek rapprochement to keep the US out of the “heartland.” Nevertheless, so far Russia is tacitly supportive of the US role in Afghanistan, and may wish to see it expanded further as far as issues like opium production is concerned.

Maintaining US leverage in Central Asia, however, may not be stellar for Central Asian democracy, as Drezner points out. The US is willing to work with essentially anyone who will give us basing rights. That aside, toning down the US emphasis on democratization and finding alternatives to Russian energy investment might be more important parts of soothing Moscow’s concerns. Geopolitical leverage and democratization will not always go together, particularly if we try to pursue them while seeking warmer relations with Russia. As the war in Afghanistan comes to one end or another, it is natural that US involvement in Central Asian politics will subside from its peak – but it should by no means disappear. Policy debates aside, LeVine is absolutely correct to point out that Central Asia is not a strategically marginal region. The US has already made the mistake of abandoning Central Asian politics. Despite our war exhaustion with Afghanistan, we cannot decide a region is irrelevant simply because it is strategically frustrating. While it will probably not be the US priority, it should not be at the bottom of its list, either.

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