Consumed by domestic controversies and growing foreign policy crises in North Korea and the Middle East, the Trump administration has put little effort into developing a new policy approach towards Central Asia.  In a presidential campaign in which Russia figured dominantly both before and after the election, neighboring Central Asia does not appear much at all in America’s foreign policy debate. Yet, as China increases its economic reach deeper into Central Asia, Russia works to preserve its political and security influence there, and Afghanistan continues to be rocked by instability, many Central Asians are voicing concern about a vacuum of U.S. leadership in the region. 

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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Yet, the Trump administration’s failure to focus on Central Asia thus far should come as no surprise. Central Asia is far from U.S. shores and poses no direct security threat to the U.S. or its allies. American trade with all five Central Asian countries remains miniscule. The region’s entrenched political and economic framework—corruption, crony capitalism, poor rule of law, and the lack of transparency—makes them unwelcoming to American investors. Trade turnover between the U.S. and Kazakhstan, the largest economy in the region, is a measly $2 billion. Central Asian energy exports barely register in America’s overall energy situation, despite deep investments in the region by some U.S. companies. As a result, Central Asia has never been a priority region for the United States; instead, American interests in Central Asia always have been derivative of security concerns from outside of it—the need to safeguard the Soviet legacy of nuclear and biological weapons in the 1990s, the war in neighboring Afghanistan in the 2000s, and growing concerns about Russian aggression and meddling since 2014. 

Behind schedule, but does it matter?

American policies towards Central Asia are generally not set in the first few months of a new presidential administration—a time when administration principals are still staffing up the bureaucracy and devoting their time to developing new approaches to high priority issues:  Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Syria. The Trump administration, however, is woefully behind its predecessors in staffing executive branch agencies with political appointees—a problem given that it is these very people who spearhead the interagency reviews that develop new strategies. The lack of senior and midlevel political appointees is particularly true in the State Department and USAID, agencies that reportedly are held in little regard by the President. This means that policy toward Central Asia, like many other regions of the world, will remain in limbo until 2018 at the earliest

What does this mean in practical terms? Essentially, it is leading to the continuation of long-standing U.S. policies towards the region. Although this administration’s staffing delays are unprecedented, continuity is a common theme in presidential transitions. We saw this pattern when the George W. Bush administration transitioned to Barack Obama’s. In its first year of office, the Obama administration offered no new approach to Central Asia, but accelerated the Bush administration’s effort to expand transportation supply lines through Central Asia, eventually branding them as their own as the “Northern Distribution Network” in 2009. However, it took two more years for the Obama administration to roll out its “New Silk Road Strategy,” a project it hoped would build regional economic linkages from Central to South Asia to support U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Yet, this initiative lacked financial backing, was not popular in the region, and never really took off.    

It took another four years for the Obama administration to launch the C5+1 discussion format in November 2015. These delays did not mean the U.S. completely ignored the region, but they show that for the most part America’s approach to Central Asia has enjoyed remarkable continuity with changes—barring the September 11 shock—to U.S. policy occurring incrementally. In fact, the U.S. has had the same interests in the region for the past twenty-five years. Two longstanding American goals have been to help ensure the region remains stable and sovereign—whether threats to either come from states to the north (Russia) or south (Afghanistan/Iran), or from non-state actors, extremist groups or transnational crime networks. Those broad goals likely will continue under the Trump administration.

The way forward

How will Trump transform U.S. policy towards Central Asia? First and foremost, there will be no big changes on the horizon, barring an 9/11 style existential shock. There was no turnover of U.S. ambassadors to the region on January 20, 2017. They are career foreign service who will likely serve until the end of their appointments. The annual bilateral consultations between the United States and Central Asian governments—a holdover from at least the Bush administration—appear to be continuing, as will the C5+1 regional discussion platform between the United States and the five Central Asian countries. However, because the Obama administration delayed in establishing the format until its last fifteen months in office, the C5+1 has not become institutionalized at the senior levels of government, so it may only operate at the working level.  

Furthermore, the C5+1 is closely identified with former Secretary of State John Kerry and it remains unclear whether current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will remain engaged.  Given limited resources, more pressing global priorities and apparent aversion to extensive travel, Tillerson probably does not have the bandwidth or desire to deal with Central Asia as his predecessor did, even though he appears to know the region well from his Exxon-Mobil days. This likely means that the Central Asian states themselves need to drive the C5+1 agenda, if they want it to continue. They also will need to show how the format and how closer engagement between the region and the U.S.  benefit both regional stability and American interests. With the new administration’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, the latter is now a litmus test for U.S. engagement in the world.  

Assistance to Uzbekistan largely was preserved in the draft budget likely because Washington’s hopes that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will be more reform minded and willing to engage in solving regional issues than his predecessor. There certainly have been some encouraging signs coming out of Tashkent, particularly the new government’s efforts to improve relations with many of its neighbors. Uzbekistan, however, has seen less progress on the domestic political front and it is not yet clear whether Washington’s assumptions about the new government are correct. 

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both are moving in the wrong direction on human rights, so the need to support a beleaguered civil society may have garnered those countries some form continued assistance, although it is unclear how effective such programming can be. Perhaps more relevant for the Trump administration, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have witnessed bouts of destabilizing violence over the past two decades. That sad history, combined with growing poverty and continued poor governance in both countries, merit at least some Western attention, if only to help ameliorate socio-economic conditions.   

Trump’s proposed cuts are not final. Congress—including Republican senators and representatives—disagree with some of them and will seek to reinsert funding for some programs and countries, but it is not clear whether they will be successful in returning assistance to previous levels. Relations between Congress and the Trump White House, however, are tense. This growing friction, combined with several investigations into the President’s ties to Russia, raises the possibility of contentious and prolonged budget negotiations. These talks will resume after the summer congressional recess, delaying final decisions on the budget and foreign assistance levels to Central Asia by several months. 

Congress also is eager to help countries on Russia’s periphery push back against Russian influence—which could help funnel additional assistance to the region. Central Asia is one place where this money could and should be spent to make the region more resilient to Russian influence and media narratives.  However, given the White House’s particular animosity towards USAID and development assistance, any additional funds likely would be funneled through the State or Defense departments. 

Continued securitization of U.S. policy

Beyond the budget, the Trump administration has given a few signals of where Central Asia policy eventually may be headed. The White House’s focus on fighting terrorism with hard power, its de-emphasis of human rights, and low regard for diplomacy and development suggests that security will continue to play an important role in Washington’s relationship with the various Central Asian states.  The recent donation by the U.S. of $6 million in equipment to Tajikistan—a country with a worsening human rights record and rampant corruption—to shore up its border suggests the U.S. relationship with Central Asia will remain highly securitized.

Violence along Central Asia’s border with Afghanistan is on the rise, while the growing trickle of Central Asian extremists to the Middle East is worrying. Several high profile international terrorist attacks over the past year—the Istanbul airport bombing, the St. Petersburg metro bombing, and the Stockholm truck attack—were committed by extremists with ties to Central Asia. A terrorist attack against American interests committed by people with a connection—however remote—to Central Asia likely would refocus American attention to the region. Most of the Central Asians committing terrorist acts in Russia or the West however, had a circuitous route towards radical violence, usually forced by poverty in their home countries to a life of migration in wealthier Kazakhstan, Russia or Turkey. This should call for tailored socio-economic assistance and programs to help improve investor climates inside Central Asian countries, which could help diversify economies, make them more sustainable, and reduce the need for Central Asians to migrate abroad. However, the President’s focus on military solutions to combating extremism makes this approach less likely.  

The bureaucratic waning of the State Department and the heavy presence of military personnel at the National Security Council also weaken the State Department’s traditional agendas—advocating for economic transparency, political modernization, human rights and greater cultural/people-to-people ties. Secretary Tillerson said as much in a controversial May 2017 speech that called for de-emphasizing “values” in U.S. foreign policy.  However, that speech caused a bipartisan backlash, which indicates, democracy promotion and human rights advocacy will remain at least part of U.S. foreign policy, even if Trump and Tillerson chose to focus on other issues. Advocating for democracy and human rights are part of the foreign policy consensus in Washington that this administration disdains. Yet, these issues have become institutionalized inside the U.S. government with advocates inside executive branch agencies, in Congress, the NGO community, and among the population-at-large. If the administration tries to abandon these issues, Congress may be tempted to tie the administration’s hands, as it did when it imposed the Magnitsky legislation on the Obama administration forcing it to sanction human rights abusers in Russia, even though President Obama fiercely tried to resist it.

Squeezed or neglected?

Finally, drafting policy is not simply a proscriptive exercise, but also a reactive one. The September 11 terrorist attacks transformed George W. Bush’s presidency, ultimately focusing greater U.S. attention onto both Afghanistan and Central Asia than anyone would have expected on January 20, 2001. Obama had to develop policies to respond to Russia’s war against Ukraine, which brought his reset with Russia to a definitive end and led to the collapse in U.S.-Russia relations—both of which have had clear implications for Central Asia. The Trump administration certainly will be hit by the unexpected, and it could concern Central Asia.  Recent reports suggest Trump has approved a new Afghan war strategy that could lead to sharp increases in U.S. troops there to help shore up the Ghani government. If realized, this such a move would likely reinvigorate U.S. engagement with Central Asia.

Finally, Central Asia will remain hostage to U.S.-Russia relations for the foreseeable future. When President Trump won the election in November 2016, many Central Asian leaders hoped that tensions between Moscow and Washington would decrease, easing pressure on them. Those hopes were misguided. The U.S. and Russia have fundamentally different interests in many parts of the world, as Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all came to realize during their respective times in office. Furthermore, as investigations over possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia grow in Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice, the prospects of a Trump-Putin accommodation dim even further. Trump’s statements on Russia and his Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister further undermine his administration’s ability to dictate Russia policy, as Democrats and even Republicans grow increasingly concerned.

The recent bipartisan agreement in Congress to levy new sanctions on more Russian entities for meddling in the U.S. election suggest that the legislative branch is willing to tie the administrations hands when it comes to Russia. Allegations that Trump himself may have tried to obstruct various parts of the Russia investigations raise questions about whether he even will be able to serve out his full term or be an effective policy maker on Russian and Eurasian issues if he does. This means that ties between Washington and Moscow appear destined to remain uncertain. Without a clear path forward, the Central Asian countries at best will find themselves squeezed between Russia and the United States. On the other hand, given President Trump’s apparently benign views towards Russia and perennial desire to defy conventional wisdom (and his critics), the White House could also decide to lay low, avoid any sort of muscular policy in Central Asia that would antagonize Moscow, and retreat from Eurasia even further. Both scenarios mean that barring some sort of catastrophic black swan event, Central Asia is unlikely to command much attention, energy, or resources from the Trump administration.  

This piece was originally published by the George Washington University Central Asia Program.