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Can We Change the Rules?: External Actors and Central Asia Beyond 2014

From: Asia Policy
Number 16, July 2013
pp. 185-191 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0039

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I wrote Great Games, Local Rules in the hope of facilitating a dialogue between observers of Central Asia and international relations scholars interested in the political dynamics of the post-Cold War world. For too long, the latter group has ignored Central Asia, dismissing it as an exotic arena of imperial competition and opaque local tradition that is of little global relevance. Specifically, I wished to flag what I considered important trends of the multipolar regional order—U.S. tacit security bargains and declining normative power, the Russian-led backlash against Western democratic norms and human rights promotion, and China's rise as a dominant economic player. Most importantly, I wanted to draw wider attention to the statecraft of the Central Asian states, demonstrating how relatively weaker states can still channel, translate, and manipulate external interests and agendas for their own domestic political purposes.

Engaging in an Asia Policy discussion about these ideas is therefore a deeply enriching and humbling opportunity, for the scholars assembled in this forum are all distinguished researchers and long-time observers of the Eurasian political landscape. A short response cannot do all of their points justice so I look forward to engaging with the important issues they raise beyond just these pages.

I have grouped my response to the reviews into three categories of topics raised by the roundtable participants: (1) the appropriateness of my analytical framework for explaining major regional developments and interactions, (2) the relevance of Central Asia's lessons to other areas of the post-Cold War world, and (3) the implications for U.S. policy toward the region following the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

The Analytical Framework of Great Games, Local Rules

My main analytical purpose in the book is to show how the "big three" external powers have sought different strategic goals in the region, but I also illuminate how, in addition to competition, the external powers have cooperated, mimicked, and learned from one another as they interacted in the Central Asian arena. All the while, the region's autocrats have used these external interactions as opportunities to extract resources to preserve their regimes, feed their domestic patronage machines, and push back against external criticism or conditions that might threaten the political status quo. James Sherr identifies these patrimonial dynamics as the political antithesis of western liberal and democratic institutions, though he is prudent to caution that the region's patrimonialism is neither pure nor immune from all transformative attempts. Yet the lens of patronage politics provides what I think is a theoretically useful assumption for examining internal-external interactions. Rent-seeking, pseudo-reforms, and competing norms are logical consequences that flow from these political imperatives, rather than an exceptional or even culturally bound set of local behaviors.

Nevertheless, in a bid for parsimony, I do oversimplify. Kathryn Stoner rightly suspects that the different flavors of authoritarianism within the region might also affect their patterns of external engagement. How else can one explain Turkmenistan's latching onto China so quickly as its main external patron, the close Kazakh-Russian partnership, or the prickly relations of repressive and paranoid Uzbek president Islam Karimov with both Moscow and Washington? Marlene Laruelle accurately notes that societal actors, such as businesses and migrants, are absent from my state-centric account, while Enders Wimbush and Sherr point out that some of the Central Asian states have graduated beyond these elite-led imperatives and are pursuing external engagements with the purpose of both enhancing their international standing (Kazakhstan especially) and influencing the region more broadly (in the case of Uzbekistan). These are fair and important observations. And even competitive patrimonialism has its limits. As Erica Marat observes, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev overplayed his hand when he initiated a public bidding war between Russia and the United States over the Manas airbase.

Although regional elites undoubtedly will be concerned with an increasingly complex array of personal, social, and national agendas going forward, it is worth recalling the region's political context during the 2000s. All of the regions' rulers consolidated their grip on power and then proceeded to securitize their coercive organs in response to counterterrorism imperatives and perceptions of imminent transnational regime...

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