Alexander Cooley's concise and well-written analysis of the evolving contest among Russia, China, and the United States for position and influence in Central Asia is indeed welcome. Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia is likely to be the starting point for future assessments of this region. These should multiply as the complexity of the regional and global dynamics that affect Central Asia deepens.
New actors are already entering the region with their own unique objectives and strategies. Some traditional actors will be eclipsed as their capabilities wane or as they seek respite from distant entanglements there. [End Page 181] New generations of Central Asian elites will soon compete for power, and some will harbor very different visions for how their countries should be governed, strategically aligned, and integrated into a global economy. Conflicts spawned by the region's failed and failing states and aggressive ideologies from abroad will produce security challenges that cascade across borders. Stability will prove elusive and outright peace probably unobtainable. Not surprisingly, today's "rules of the game," appropriately described by Cooley, will change.
I would argue that by 2012, when Great Games, Local Rules appeared, the rules were already evolving in several Central Asian countries, not changing so much as adding new layers. Cooley is correct to emphasize the Soviet-era mindset of today's generation of Central Asian leaders. For them, ensuring the survival of their patrimonial regimes, gaming their economies for maximum personal gain, and guarding the gate lest outside influences disrupt these comfy arrangements is instinctive.
But it is increasingly evident that this is not the limit of their strategic visions, at least not all of them. Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov is notable for his grasp of Central Asia's larger strategic dynamics. For example, his efforts to encourage tighter economic integration with Afghanistan through energy and transport demonstrate his understanding of how that country's vulnerabilities could spike after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 and affect Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev has substantially redesigned his country's foreign-policy objectives and practices, which recently featured hosting 5+2 talks on Iran's nuclear ambitions.1 Even hermetically sealed Turkmenistan shows an inclination in this direction with its recent energy diplomacy.
Great Games, Local Rules masterfully describes how the Central Asian leaders successfully play the great powers off against each other, often resulting in the latter acquiescing to the local rules of the game. But more is at work here, at least in some places—something we might think of as strategic intent that transcends purely local interests. Another way to describe this distinction is to note the sharp contrast of these states' former status as the objects of other states' foreign policy with their current status as strategic actors in their own right. One might interpret these countries' design of larger strategies as efforts to double-down on the patrimonial rules Cooley describes, and that might be right. But I doubt that doubling-down is the sole or even the [End Page 182] most powerful incentive. The emerging Central Asian landscape described by Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse in their groundbreaking book Globalizing Central Asia will become increasingly inhospitable terrain for the old rules, though they will certainly linger for at least a generation or more. We should anticipate several Central Asian states becoming more assertive actors in a larger strategic universe, which is where their interests will increasingly be located. This will add additional complexity and uncertainty to the new great-power contest in the region.
Every great contest needs some great contestants. Yet the triangular contest for power in Central Asia among Russia, China, and the United States is very unequal, more scalene than equilateral. Of these, Russia strikes me as the least able to compete effectively for the long haul. Spiraling down across virtually all measures of power, authority, and influence, Russia is a...