Alexander Cooley's Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is a significant contribution to the intellectual exploration of great-power dynamics in Central Asia. Cooley skillfully consolidates scattered knowledge about the experience of the great powers [End Page 167] and different local actors in Central Asia into a strategic picture of the region that is valuable to both the academic and policymaking communities.
The book's major argument is that three major powers—China, Russia, and the United States—are not involved in a nineteenth-century-style, zero-sum competition but rather are pursuing different individual strategic purposes in Central Asia that have allowed them to co-exist in the region without major confrontation in the last decade. At the same time, Cooley argues that the Central Asian states and their rulers are important actors in their own right. The book demonstrates local political leaders' mastery of balancing the great powers in Central Asia, which has helped them maximize political sovereignty while also securing the survival of their regimes.
The book shows that Moscow, Beijing, and Washington all managed to achieve some balance of their strategic interests in post-September 11 Central Asia. The United States obtained basing rights and strategic access to Afghanistan via the region. Starting from 2008, the United States facilitated the development of the Northern Distribution Network, the supply line for U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan that transits and benefits several Central Asian states. Russia has kept its southern borders secure and maintained strong economic and political ties with Central Asia. China has limited the spread of radical Islamic influence in its own Uighur-populated Xinjiang region, which neighbors Central Asia, and established itself as a key trade and investment partner for most of the states in the region.
But Cooley's analysis demonstrates that there are still winners and losers in this modern game of great powers. The strategic positions of Russia, the United States, and China in Central Asia are different today from what they were in the pre-September 11 era. First, looking at how the role of Russia has changed, Russia is no longer the sole outside military power accepted by the regional states. The presence of U.S. and other Western troops in Central Asia reflects the strategic retreat of Russia. Russia is also no longer the sole provider of the transit of energy riches from the Caspian basin, with China absorbing significant amounts of hydrocarbons from the region. And Russia is no longer the leading trade partner for the region, replaced in this position by China. Russia has thus clearly lost its strategic position as the dominant political and economic force in Central Asia, a position that it had held for almost two hundred years. Cooley still thinks that Russia holds broad and deep soft power that in the long run gives it a unique advantage over China and the United States and supports its "privileged role" in the region. Russia is the most significant provider of public goods for the region. One substantial element of Russia's soft power is that it is a key source of remittances to Central Asia [End Page 168] from labor migrants, mostly from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The Customs Union is another soft-power instrument that Moscow pushes to advance its interest. Moreover, the book argues that Russia will return to its position as the security guarantor for the region after withdrawal of the majority of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Russia will face its own limits, however, including its ability to mobilize financial and human resources for a larger security presence in Central Asia. Although Russian limits are not discussed in the book, Cooley indicates that the Kremlin may not have the political will to play this role in the region. Lack of political will by Russia, which is trying to secure its strategic borders, can only be explained by a lack...