Kazakhstan and the USA: Current State and Prospects for Bilateral Cooperation


I am honored to appear before you this afternoon, and pleased to have come to Kazakhstan to take part in this important event.

The title of my talk—“Towards a New Stage in U.S. Kazakh Relations in the area of Security Relations”—is designed to be illustrative.  I believe that the long-established and deeply rooted cooperation in the area of security relations can serve as an important foundation for taking U.S.-Kazakh relations to a new stage.

I do not want to devote my time to detailing the many and growing areas of security cooperation between our two countries, as there are other speakers in this session far more qualified to do this. But from the first days of independence, when Kazakhstan agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons and to take U.S. assistance in doing this, a long-lasting cooperation was born, serving as a cornerstone from which to erect an ever expanding relationship between the two states.

As we have heard and will hear this relationship has further deepened in the five years since September 11, through Kazakh participation in the U.S. led international coalitions in the War on Terror and Kazakh support of activities in Afghanistan and in Iraq . Growing U.S. role helping the Kazakhs plan for and train a modern military designed to meet the nation's defensive needs and to meet Kazakhstan's international responsibilities also strengthened the our bonds. The U.S. and Kazakhstan cooperate on a variety of other fronts, sharing information relating to mutually-perceived threats.

This relationship, importantly, is not based on exclusivity; it assumes that the goals that Kazakhstan and the U.S. share, are shared by other nations as well, and are oftentimes achieved through the participation of both sides in a variety of multilateral relationships. But neither partner assumes that the U.S. - Kazakhstan relationship is an exclusive security partnership. Kazakhstan is engaged in security relationships in which the U.S. plays no role; it is part of a collective security arrangement relationship with Russia and a number of other CIS member states, and it also a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has an evolving security agenda.

A Changing International Environment

One of the satisfying things about this relationship is that it has had real elasticity, or what some might even call flexibility. Over the last fifteen years, the US-Kazakhstan relationship has adjusted to changing circumstances. Some of these relate to changing global conditions, especially the escalating threat posed by transnational terrorist groups with religiously inspired agendas, albeit agendas that the majority of their co-confessionals reject.

Circumstances have changed for the U.S. , and they have changed for Kazakhstan . The changed circumstances relating to Kazakhstan are more easily elaborated, and less controversial to present. If we look at the developments over the last five years:

  • Kazakhstan faces no direct external threats. Border delineation is effectively completed, or at least has become an almost entirely manageable diplomatic issue.
  • Kazakhstan has managed to create a cooperative working relationship with its too largest neighbors--- Russia and China , on the basis of strong bilateral and multilateral relationships, including some that are overlapping.
  • The Kazakh-Uzbek relationship has improved, and Kazakhstan successfully avoided being made a party to the political struggles in Kyrgyzstan .
  • The Kazakh economy has enjoyed unprecedented growth, in part fueled by oil prices which exceeded everyone's expectations, and the windfall profits are leading to the faster growth of the National Fund.
  • This has meant an increased capacity of the government to support the kind of economic diversification that it desires, but it is not yet clear whether or not Kazakhstan 's leaders will succeed at this task.
  • The Kazakh government has assumed greater control over and direction of national resource development. While the legal environment supporting this could become even more transparent, there is reason to anticipate more clearly defined and predictable terms for foreign and domestic investment. The government has clearly signaled its desire to increase the role of market driven mechanisms (both in the further expansion of Kazmunaigas and in the development of a Samruk, a kind of national merchant bank to manage government held packets of shares in state companies).
  • The transformation of political institutions from their Soviet or immediate post-Soviet roles to institutions that are fully transparent and publicly accountable is relatively slowly, at least from the point of view of most European and US actors, and most of the Kazakh opposition. But there has been clear progress in center sectors, including in the legal system and in the technology of elections. For the most part, public expectations in this area have been met, and hopefully the pace of change will accelerate so it more than keeps pace with public expectations (even if it still does not meet foreign ones).

Now, it is honestly far more controversial to review what has changed for the U.S. in the past five years.

  • Security threats to the U.S. and to U.S. citizens living abroad have increased, witness not just the attacks of September 11, but also the number of plots which have been detected and countered since.
  • While there was strong international support---almost universal international support---for the War on Terror as executed in Afghanistan , the War in Iraq has proved far more controversial.
  • In fact, as the reconstruction post-Saddam has seemingly faltered, there has been growing international concern, even among some of the US 's oldest and closest allies that such an approach to regime change---as was tried in Iraq--- may be ill-considered.
  • Similarly, the “ballot box-to street” scenario of post-communist “color revolutions” seems less of an easy fix than it did a year or so ago, with the new “tandem” coming to power in Ukraine and a series of unsettling events in Kyrgyzstan attesting to the lack of professionalism (if not incompetence) of that regime. Clearly free and fair elections remain an unshakeable U.S. goal, but official U.S, support for the “let them take to the street in peaceful protest if that fails” approach seems to be diminishing.
  • The US faces two immediate international crises that in the wake of Iraq , almost by definition, will not be solved unilaterally---the growing crisis over Iran 's refusal to allow international inspection or stop producing nuclear energy, and the future of Southern Lebanon .

What Should This Mean for US Kazakh Relations?

So, if in 2002 or 2003, the world's only superpower may have felt compelled and empowered to lead unilaterally, both militarily and in terms of providing political/moral guidance, in 2006 this strategy will hopefully no longer seem so appropriate.

This does not mean that the U.S. should not continue to serve as a model for other states. It should. After all a 225 year history of democratic self-government, even with its various (and in the case of race-relations, long-running) imperfections is nothing to sneeze it. And of course every state should be pressed to respect the human rights of its citizens.

But the U.S. must put national security, and the U.S. understanding of global security, at the forefront of foreign-policy decision-making. And this makes an enhanced partnership with Kazakhstan very much in U.S. interests.

They are a valuable ally, and likely to become an increasingly more valuable ally as Kazakhstan 's economic potential is realized, and hopefully, as its political potential is realized as well.

To say this, is not synonymous with advocating “stability” over “democracy,” a bifurcation which I find to be a dangerous oversimplification of the intellectually and institutionally highly complex process of state-building. But U.S. policy-makers should recognize (and I am pretty certain the assembled group in fact does), that it is very difficult to know how to jump start or sustain the development of democratic and participatory political institutions in another country, let alone “implant” examples from one setting to another. If they didn't know that then a close reading of the situation in Iraq , Lebanon , Georgia , Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan (not to mention a dozen other places) should be teaching them this lesson.

This does not mean that the U.S. should not keep goading their Kazakh friends to move more quickly toward developing full legal transparency, a fully free media, and political institutions that are fully publicly accountable, but at the same time the U.S. needs to recognize Kazakhstan's accomplishments, in part through helping Kazakhstan play a greater role on the international stage, in institutions like the OSCE, at the UN, and even in various Russian and Chinese sponsored multilateral organizations, knowing that in much of its policies Kazakhstan will advocate that are also in US interest as well as their own.