Alexander Cooley's Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is a must-read strategic primer of the challenges and opportunities for any aspiring great power in Central Asia. His analysis tracks the varying successes of the United States, Russia, and China in Central Asia since 2001 and the onset of the war in Afghanistan. The events of September 11 dramatically increased Washington's interests in the region and shifted them predominantly to support the war in Afghanistan. During this past decade under Vladimir Putin, Russia—recovering from its loss of empire and the economic disaster of the 1990s—has sought to reassert its influence through various bilateral policies and multilateral institutions. China's regional influence has grown principally through economic means, and its favored multilateral security and economic institution is the aptly named Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
But while great powers may have grand designs, the real story of Cooley's book is how effectively regional leaders have been able to manipulate and play off the economic and security interests of the great powers to strengthen the sovereignty of their states, as well as increase their political and economic leverage over domestic political competitors. If a state is unwilling to play by local rules, achieving other policy goals will be met with a mounting parade of obstacles. In the case of the United States, for example, this meant quieting objections to human rights violations and democratic shortcomings for return for support in Afghan war efforts. Of course, such trade-offs offend the high morals that Americans like to claim in U.S. foreign policy. I recall several years ago a State Department official telling me with a straight face that our engagement of Central Asian states in the Northern Distribution Network, a set of new transit corridors to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan, would increase our ability to support the cause of defending human rights in Central Asia. Suffice to say, there has been no evidence in the past three years to support this contention.
The track record of the Russians since 2001 has been mixed at best. After more than one hundred years as part of the Russian empire and the Soviet [End Page 175] Union, Central Asian states remain very sensitive to initiatives from Moscow, whose likely goal is to erode their sovereignty or interfere on one side or another in their domestic politics. Russia, as a provider of public goods, strikes Central Asian elites as almost oxymoronic. Regional perceptions of the United States as a provider of public goods may be higher, but Washington's credibility suffers from being viewed as a "short-timer" whose interests can be ever so fickle. Cooley argues that in this triangular competition over the past decade or so, China has probably "won on points," as Beijing is viewed as only interested in economic ties that increase jobs and build infrastructure (p. 165). However, the accelerating shift to a genuinely multipolar environment in Eurasia increases the options for Central Asian states to partner with outside countries, including India, Turkey, Iran, and others; thus, the competition grows for access to the region's assets, be they military, strategic, economic, or otherwise.
Certainly, from a U.S. standpoint, we are at a crossroads with Central Asia. As the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, U.S. interest and influence in the region, as Cooley suggests, is bound to decline. After more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mantra "No more land wars in Eurasia" reverberates from the White House to Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon. The new strategic buzz in Washington is the "pivot to Asia," which essentially boils down to the management of the rise of China's power and influence in the years and decades to come. But the Obama administration's conception of Asia goes back more than a hundred years ago to that of Admiral...