On December 18, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump presented in detail his administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS). The document that each president has to produce gives the U.S. Congress a guide of the main foreign policy priorities of the administration in charge. Apart from the U.S. Congress, Trump’s NSS was of particular interest for traditional U.S. allies, as well as geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, given his “America first” isolationist rhetoric. Trump’s approach towards the world affairs that he had advocated while running for office, including the U.S. commitment to NATO, raised serious concerns among the alliance member states and was viewed by Moscow and Beijing as an opportunity to fill a potential global leadership vacuum. Therefore, the NSS was expected to clarify the definition of the “America first” doctrine and how it would be translated into actions. In the released strategic plan, “America first” acquired a new meaning that rejects isolationism and declares the importance of the U.S. engagement abroad as a necessary condition for enhancing peace and prosperity at home. In this regard, it is seen as a document that is more in harmony with the traditional foundations and principles of the U.S. foreign policy priorities than one might expect. When it comes to the Central Asian states, the NSS presents only a vague picture of U.S. interests towards them while tying its approach to the region to the situation in South Asia, especially in Afghanistan. This reflects the fact that at present the post-Soviet Central Asia is not a priority area for the United States. However, given that the United States remains committed to Afghanistan while the dynamics of its relations with Pakistan is changing, there is a possibility that the Central Asian states might return back into the spotlight.
The strategy document is divided into four key pillars: protecting the homeland, promoting American prosperity, preserving “peace through strength” and advancing the U.S. influence in a competitive world. The first two pillars of the document are based on the assumption that the U.S. strength abroad fundamentally rests upon prosperity at home. In these parts of the document, it is argued that breaking down trade barriers and promoting a free market system around the globe will contribute to prosperity at home, thus allowing the United States to maintain its military might in meeting the security challenges ranging from jihadist terrorism, cyberattacks, illegal immigration to the “rogue regimes” of North Korea and Iran.
The next two pillars are based on the ground that the United States sees itself as a positive global force “that can help set the conditions for peace and prosperity” but revisionist powers – China and Russia – challenge “American influence” and “want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests”. These two sections therefore present a plan of how the United States shall deal with competition from Moscow and Beijing to maintain the global balance of power “in favor of the United States and its allies”. In doing so, the NSS asserts the need to ensure that the United States “must retain overmatch – the combination of capabilities in sufficient scale”, and such military power should be fully integrated “with our allies” since “they magnify U.S. power and extend U.S. influence”.
In essence, the NSS does not differ much from the strategies presented by the previous administrations and is most notably remarkable for giving Trump’s “America first” doctrine more shape. It appears to signal that the United States will remain committed to its key allies and to Article 5 of the NATO Charter. This is expected to reassure the European leaders who were concerned of President Trump’s previous statements about the obsoleteness of NATO. The NSS that takes hard line on Russia and China was unsurprisingly criticized by both states as a demonstration of a “Cold War mentality” and the U.S. “unwillingness to give up the idea of a unipolar world” (Aljazeera, 2017). Some foreign policy observers also attacked the document on falling rather short in outlining the details of how these policies will be enacted in the real life. Nevertheless, the NSS as a document that would drive the policy making process in Washington for the next couple of years still deserves a careful consideration.
In this regard, it is interesting to consider the final section of the document where the administration’s policies towards different regions, including Central Asia, are outlined. At the first glance, the section of “South and Central Asia” appears to contain nothing much neither on the region nor on individual Central Asian states. The region is predominantly viewed in the context of Afghanistan and U.S. efforts to stabilize the country. According to the document, the main interests of the United States in the region are fighting cross-border terrorism and preventing the regional nations from becoming “jihadist safe heavens”.
As noted above, this in general reflects the fact that today the Central Asian countries are of peripheral interest to the United States. Previously, the U.S. engagement with them surged when there was a need to secure the legacy of Soviet weapons of mass destruction programs in the early 1990s and after the dramatic events of September 11, 2001, when the large-scale U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan required an access to the regional military facilities (Rumer et al., 2016). However, since the end of the U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 and with the emergence of a number of crises around the world, such as those in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Ukraine, the U.S. interest towards Central Asia has diminished. In this regard, the fact that the region does not appear much in the NSS should not come as a surprise.
On the other hand, this might change as a result of the implementation of Trump’s new strategy towards Afghanistan unveiled in August 2017 that, among other things, envisages an increased pressure on Pakistan to force it to adequately clamp down on terrorist groups that operate from within its borders. Following the announcement of this strategy, the U.S. State Department declared on January 8, 2018 that it would suspend $1 billion in security assistance and $255 million of foreign military financing to Pakistan unless the country “demonstrates its willingness to aggressively confront the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and other terrorist and militant groups” (CNN, 2018). Although no reaction has followed from the authorities in Islamabad regarding the suspension, there is a possibility that Pakistan, in the worst case scenario, may respond by shutting down the presumably safest and cheapest ground and air routes passing through its territory to supply the U.S. troops in Afghanistan (Miller, 2018). It is worth mentioning that back in 2011 Pakistan blocked the U.S. and NATO troop supply routes for several months as a result of the NATO attack that had accidently killed more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
These concerns may lead Washington to more seriously examine the possibility of finding alternative routes, including through the Central Asian countries. As Paul Stronski, former director for Russia and Central Asia at the U.S. National Security Council, puts it, “Central Asia is the back-door shipping channel to Afghanistan” and “When we have problems with Pakistan, we need other supply routes. So a country like Kazakhstan becomes much more important strategically” (CNBC, 2018). During the visit of President of Kazakhstan Nazarbayev to Washington on January 16, 2018, President Trump hosted the Kazakh leader at the White House where they agreed to conclude agreements that would enhance cooperation in “logistical routes in support of regional security” (White House, 2018). At the same time, Kazakhstani media reported that the draft law envisaging the transit of commercial railway cargo related to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan through the territory of Kazakhstan, using the Aktau and Kuryk sea ports located in the Caspian Sea, was under consideration in the Parliament of Kazakhstan (Kazinform, 2018). In this regard, if the U.S. pressure on Pakistan escalates to the point where Islamabad cuts the transit through its territory, the U.S. engagement with the Central Asian states, in particular with the key transit ones, may increase. In particular, the realization of the U.S. New Silk Road initiative, which has so far suffered from Washington’s lack of resources and commitment, might gain a new impetus. In fact, the supply lines through Central Asia, also known as the Northern Distribution Network, that operated from 2009 until 2015 had given the way for Obama administration’s decision to launch this initative to build economic linkages connecting Central Asia to South Asia (Stronski, 2017).
Previously, some regional foreign policy experts were alarmed by Trump’s election rhetoric calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan. They feared that the Central Asian states might no longer be able to sustain the diplomatic strategy of balancing between the West, Russia and China. Although the United States is geographically distant from Central Asia, for the countries of the region, it is still a desirable player counterbalancing the influence of Moscow and Beijing.
To sum up, similar to other strategy documents presented by the previous U.S. administrations, the NSS put forward by President Trump is mainly an outline of foreign and security policy ideals that would be pursued by the United States. However, in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world this kind of grand strategy is unlikely to play an ultimate role in the decision making process of the U.S. administration. Therefore, though Central Asia earned little consideration in the document, the reality on the ground might change this upside down.
Al Jazeera. (2017). China and Russia slam new US national security strategy.
Abulkhairkhan Zhunisbek is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He graduated from Abylai Khan Kazakh University of International Relations and World Languages with a Bachelor in International Relations.