Focusing U.S. policy in the Caspian on containing Russian and Chinese influence has done little to advance U.S. security interests, and reduced its standing in the region to its lowest level in decades. The Obama administration needs a new approach that provides opportunities for local leaders to engage with the United States in economic and political development, concludes a new policy brief by Martha Brill Olcott.

Olcott recommends five building blocks for a new U.S. policy for the Caspian region: 

  1. Focus on military reform and capacity rather than military alliances. U.S. operations in Afghanistan depend on cooperation with the Caspian states, but the recent Russia–Georgia crisis underscores that NATO membership should only be offered to states who control their internationally recognized borders.
  2. Support fair market pricing for energy producers and consumers to promote energy independence for the Caspian region. The United States has wasted fifteen years pressing for unrealistic oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.
  3. Provide technical assistance for projects that capitalize on the region’s vast renewable energy resources—biofuels, solar, and wind power. Renewable energy projects would create major economic opportunities and minimize potential conflicts between neighboring states.
  4. While the United States should continue to press hard on human rights issues, sanctions will only block U.S. assistance on critical development projects. Providing education and democracy assistance at the grassroots level is the best way to promote political development in the region.
  5. Appoint a presidential envoy for the region. Europe, Russia, and China all have senior level officials assigned to the region.

Olcott concludes:

“This new approach to the Caspian states would enhance U.S. national security. It would also help improve the lives of the people of these countries and make them more likely to embrace the political and economic values that prompt the United States to international engagement.”