On September 17, the United States will host the Eurasia Summit, the country's largest ever event on Eurasia. US Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill will keynote, the first Treasury Secretary to travel to Georgia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan. He is expected to lay out the vision for our country's continuing role in a region that has long deserved close attention. The timing may well be perfect. Straddling Turkey, Iran, and Russia; the Caucasus and Central Asia; Eurasia has long been relegated to trekking expeditions, cartographers, and State Department staffers on the B rotation. For ten years, America's involvement in the region has been limited to two contradictory policies: maintaining a friendship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and bringing Caspian energy reserves to market through a new East-West transit corridor (which bypassed Russia). Neither was a priority.
Until this year.
September 11 created an unprecedented opportunity for Eurasia, based on the expansion of US interests to include virtually the entire region. The sudden display of policy importance has been impossible to miss. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Treasury O'Neill and a slate of other high-ranking administration officials have made a flurry of trips to the region over the past months, shoring up a new strategic partnership with Russia and making their commitment known to the faraway "stans." On the ground, the United States has opened bases in Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, shipped military advisors to Georgia, provided extensive educational support for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and expanded training and international assistance to most of the region.
There are several long-term implications of this policy change for the region. First, the foundation of an alliance with Moscow based on long-term shared interests increases regional stability by firmly linked the United States with the country with the most directly at stake in the region. Few countries benefited from the Taliban's removal as much as the Russian Federation and joint policing of Russia's southern flank is a shared good. Further, Siberian energy reserves have turned out to be more important than those of the Caspian, making critical Russian importance in diversifying world oil production as political tensions rise in the Middle East.
Second, America's new security interests have overturned the growing distance between haves and have-nots prescribed by energy politics. Countries most important in supporting the US-led war on terror (Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Georgia) were, coincidentally, those which had been least fortunate in terms of natural resources and, unsurprisingly, some of the most poverty stricken. US attention--especially direct security support, stepped up international aid, and diplomatic engagement--has been sorely lacking in these countries.
Finally, many of the countries now receiving closer attention from Washington--Afghanistan, Georgia, the Kyrgyz Republic--are some of the least opaque economic systems in the region. And one which has been considerably more closed to economic reform--Uzbekistan--has used the opportunity provided by sudden international attention to dramatically improve its rule of law. Perhaps the greatest surprise from the entire region (especially at a time when economic openness and investment climate has backslid in neighboring Kazakhstan) Uzbek President Islam Karimov has moved to privatize his cotton industry, support development of small and medium enterprise, and regulate trade. Early steps, to be sure--and absent notable improvement in human rights, not to forget--but surprising progress nonetheless.
America's attention has not been without its roadbumps. The Eurasian states still have a considerable distance to travel to make their economies attractive to international investment--building rule of law, taking every opportunity to build international interest. America's inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil (and continuation of comprehensive US-led sanctions against Teheran) handicaps economic development in the region. And the downturn in the global economy has not worked against US involvement, decreasing interest in emerging markets worldwide. Largely as a consequence, foreign direct investment into Russia this year is down 25%.
Most importantly, Eurasia's window of opportunity is short. As the United States turns its attention in the war on terror to Iraq, it will be near impossible to maintain committed, consistent high-level diplomatic interest in the Eurasian region.
But the basis for continued focus is there. While the most memorable phrase from President Bush's State of the Union may be the Axis of Evil, economic security may be the most lasting. Few places have clearer necessity for building economic security than the politically unstable regimes across Eurasia. Ultimately, building conditions for long-term Eurasian development is the only way the United States will guarantee the region's security and win the war on terror.
EurasiaNet, September 17, 2002