Kazakhstan chooses engagement, not confrontation
Maulen Ashimbayev, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Security of the Parliament (Mazhilis) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, described President-elect Donald Trump’s recent phone conversation with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev as “both timely and much more than a mere courtesy.”
The phone call not only reconfirmed the importance of US-Kazakhstan bilateral relations but reinforced the need for the US to continue to energetically engage the wider Central Asian region (beyond diplomatic parties and appeals for greater investments in the oil sector). Building lasting and productive relationships while remaining vigilant (together with Russia and China) against radical Islamic fundamentalism must be a top priority for all the countries in the region.”
Clearly, Nazarbaev’s team is looking forward to developing a close working relationship with the Trump Administration that both advances Kazakhstan’s vital national interests and maintains excellent relations with its neighbors. Unlike the other Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, whose post-independence paths have proved more torturous, Kazakhstan is politically and socially stable, and has emerged as a regional power broker.
Following independence in 1991, there were growing pains and failures of institution building, and corruption continues to be a problem today, but, on balance, Kazakhstan must be considered a success story.
Several factors explain Kazakhstan’s success to date: a) a relatively strong economy (when commodity prices are high), b) a sophisticated foreign policy anchored in a principled realpolitik, c) a recognition that radical militant Islam represents an existential threat to the region, d) a policy of tolerance and acceptance of religious and ethnic minorities in a multicultural society, and e) a policy of intelligent engagement with Russia and China.
“Kazakhstan,” Ashimbayev says, “is prepared to work closely with the United States (and all of our partners) in order to maintain peace and stability throughout Central Asia and beyond. To advance our national interests, we believe in engagement not confrontation and in an integrated multi-dimensional foreign policy that sees our neighbors (all of them) as partners not adversaries.” No one should expect any changes in Kazakhstan’s well-honed and principled brand of realpolitik over the coming years.
Just as Kazakhstan served as an effective mediator between Moscow and Ankara when, a year ago, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian plane near the Syria-Turkey border, it could potentially mediate in other regional crisis, of which there is no shortage. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s new role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council could work as a force for positive change in crisis areas such as Afghanistan or Yemen.
During the presidential campaign and subsequently, Donald Trump rejected the hyper-interventionism that has been a hallmark of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. He called for an end to regime change as an objective of US foreign policy, and spoke to the need to talk to all countries, friendly or otherwise, to find practically areas of agreement. This plays well in Astana and other Central Asian capitals. If Mr. Trump’s Secretary of State and the other members of his foreign policy team act in this spirit, the path will be open to increased cooperation between the US and Kazakhstan with positive repercussions for our bilateral relationship and the region.
What might be a next step for US-Kazak relations? The Trump Administration should consider enhancing the US role in the emerging Silk Road trade and infrastructure linking China with Europe (and Russia) through Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. This initiative (old idea) is a potential bonanza for American business if it actively gets in on the action. To this end, the administration should send a Congressional delegation to Astana to lay the ground work for a US-Kazakh Regional Silk Road Trade Conference in Washington to accelerate U.S. participation in this important project. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who has already met personally with President Nazarbaev (September 2014), and Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) could lead the US delegation.
Kazakhstan’s integrated multi-vector foreign policy is designed not only to further the interests of Kazakhstan but of the entire region. In this context, the promotion of Kazakhstan as a trade and transport hub for the Eurasian continent is a key element of the country’s international relations. While terrorism is a major concern, Ashimbayev states that “we have no enemies in the region, only challenges.”
In the coming years, Kazakhstan will remain a reliable ally of the United States both in the region and on the UN Security Council. Kazakhstan should be tapped as a regional go-between in the case of on-going or potential conflicts. Despite Kazakhstan’s youthfulness, no one on Capitol Hill or at the US Department of State should underestimate the effectiveness, regional importance and political savvy of Kazakhstan in international affairs.
It would behoove the next US Secretary of State not to lecture the Kazakhs but to seek their advice. After all, the Kazakhs are the best horsemen in the world: they do not need to be taught how to ride, whether on the steppes of Central Asia, or on the playing fields of world politics.