Central Asia: The United States and the Pitfalls of Ideology


Frontier markets are not easy markets, and fragile states are not simple states to engage with.


Invariably, operating successfully in such environments requires one to question some closely-held, perhaps unconscious, ideological assumptions. Ideology, and a belief in what’s right, is a fine thing of course, but history shows us that it can also be a dangerous thing. This is not only true when the ideology itself is problematic, but also when false assumptions underpinning benign ideologies are left to run unchecked.


In this blog we apply that sentiment to the United States’ engagement in Central Asia, under the current circumstances of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, regional economic headwinds, rising insecurity and increased isolationism among Central Asian states.


The United States Government believes in the free market in Central Asia, as a way to develop the region, to thereby increase stability, and also to promote a degree of economic independence from Russia and China. This ideology finds its expression in the United States’ New Silk Road initiative, which envisions regional transformation achieved by opening up closed Central Asian states to trade and cooperation, and the provision of broad-based benefits to ordinary Central Asian citizens. According to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this means “removing the bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people. It means casting aside the outdated trade policies that we all still are living with and adopting new rules for the 21st century.” [1]


However, reality on the ground appears counter to this vision. Facing an uncertain and insecure future, “the Central Asian countries are moving increasingly toward a zero-sum view of interactions with one another”, at least according to a 2013 paper by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Far from cooperating for mutual benefit, one country’s gain is often seen in Central Asia as another country’s loss. [2]


Agathon has operated in Central Asia for many years. Based on our experience, we opine that the reason why free trade and cooperation have so far failed to gain traction in Central Asia is not because these developments would be bad for the region. Rather, some of the assumptions made in the West about the mechanisms supporting this ideology are faulty. Most notably, the assumption that free trade, cooperation and shared prosperity is good for everyone in Central Asia, and should therefore be supported by everyone.  With this assumption in place, integrating and liberalizing Central Asian trade becomes analogous to finding a particularly dim sheep in a field, butting its head against the gate over and over, and simply opening the gate to allow the sheep to pass through unhindered. Or, as Hilary Clinton calls it, “removing the bureaucratic barriers”.


A 2012 paper by Agathon’s director Graham Lee,explores the issue through extensive first-hand research. It, and the work of many others over recent years, finds that such barriers stay up in Central Asia precisely because there exist powerful vested interests in them staying up. Central Asia is a zero sum game because it suits some of those near the top in the region for it to remain so, not because Central Asian citizens are butting their heads against the gate, waiting for others to open it for them. [3] [4]


A further ideological pitfall is the tendency to think of one’s own worldview as so unquestionably right that its achievement in the world is inexorable. A corollary tendency is to recruit facts as evidence that this worldview is coming to pass, when they might not be fit for purpose. For example, a comment by US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns in 2014, on the highlights of the United States’ work thus-far on Central Asian economic development: “In trade shows we’ve organized from Tashkent to Termez, and Almaty to Islamabad, we’ve seen how innovation and creativity cut across borders and nationalities. In the past year alone, those shows resulted in more than $15 million of trade deals between businesses that had never traded together before.” [5]


Even taking this fact as read, even treating the entire value of these trade deals as new wealth created within the borders of Central Asia, and even assuming that this wealth is shared by ordinary citizens as much as it is by elites, gives a total economic benefit per Central Asian of about 25 US cents. It is difficult to imagine any wavering jihadist, currently considering a career as a destabalising force in the region, being steered instead to the merits of the free market with such an incentive. Or, for that matter, with a thousand-fold increase on this incentive.   Can we really, therefore, credit the New Silk Road with any serious prospects for promoting regional stability?


Central Asia is a land of enormous promise (and, for that matter, of wonder and beauty), and there is nothing wrong with engaging in the region in an ideological way. However, it is important to understand when doing so that there are those who do not share the same ideology, and they too must be engaged effectively. It is also important to question whether the facts on the ground really support the worldview which one happens to favour. As ever, objective analytical understanding, realism and pragmatism are key. All these are qualities which Agathon endeavours to provide in Central Asia.


Finally, the issues discussed above resonate beyond regional borders, and beyond the discipline of policy analysis. At its heart, we have an observation on how best we can understand the world around us, and how best we can shape the world to a more desired form over time. It is a lesson on strategy: the utility of ideology in defining our goals, and the perils of ideology when pursuing those same goals. This is true not only in foreign policy, but also in business and in international development.


[1] Transcript available at http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/travel_diary_india_us_vision


[2] “The United States and Central Asia after 2014”, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, January 2013. http://csis.org/files/publication/130122_Mankoff_USCentralAsia_Web.pdf


[3] “The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network: A Golden Road to Central Asian Trade Reform?”, Open Society Foundations, October 2012. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/reports/new-silk-road-and-northern-distribution-network-golden-road-central-asian-trade-reform


[4] For further reading on the subject see “The United States’ Silk Road to Nowhere”, Foreign Policy, 29th September 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/29/the-united-states-silk-road-to-nowhere-2/ and “Bumps on the New Silk Road”, Huffington Post, 18th July 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/malou-innocent/new-silk-road_b_1528045.html


[5] Transcript available at http://asiasociety.org/policy-institute/deputy-secretary-state-william-j-burns-economic-connectivity-central-asia