Central Asia has never been a top priority for the United States and under the new administration of Donald Trump there are few hints at a measurably new direction. In lieu of a grand new plan, the plans of the past will remain in place.
At a conference this week hosted by George Washington University’s Central Asia Program, Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment with experience in the Obama State Department and National Security Council, had the tea leaf reading-like task of divining U.S. policy toward Central Asia under Trump.
Central Asia, itself, has never been the driving force behind U.S. engagement in the region, Stronski said.
In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed into more than a dozen newly independent states, overriding U.S. interests in the region were linked to concerns about nuclear, biological, and chemical materials, nonproliferation, and the general stability of the new states. Following 9/11, U.S. interest in the region was tied to Afghanistan. In recent years as American focus on Afghanistan has waned, Russia has reemerged as a concern and a focus — particularly following the events in Ukraine in 2014. Throughout, Central Asia policy has piggybacked on other U.S. policies, whether they be nonproliferation, Afghanistan, or Russia.
As the Trump administration struggles under the weight of its understaffed bureaucracy, a review of Central Asia policy is far from the top of the list.
“Central Asia [policy] is really not going to get done until Russia is done, until Afghanistan is done, until China is done,” Stronski said.
“This basically means,” he continued, “that if there is no new Trump administration policy, the previous policy of the Obama administration just continues.”
Stronski commented that there is nothing surprising about this. When Obama came into office he also continued the Central Asia policy of his predecessor. The launch of the signature U.S. Central Asia initiative, the C5+1, didn’t come until the very end of Obama’s term — illustrating the length of time it takes to get around to evaluating policy toward the region.
What hints we have about emerging Trump administration policy regarding Central Asia suggest that security will remain Washington’s core regional concern. The region is not a major economic partner and diplomatic engagement has been largely co-opted by security — leaving human rights activists frustrated, in particular. U.S. Central Asia policy has been “securitized” since 2001, thanks to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan, and there’s no sign this won’t remain the policy direction under Trump.
Indeed, in the recently leaked State Department budget proposal bilateral economic assistance previously routed through the Assistance for Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia (AEECA) account has been reduced to zero (note, however, that this is just one of several streams of money from the United States to Central Asia, with other major funding routed through the Defense Department). As a 2017 Congressional Research Service guide to foreign assistance accounts notes, the AEECA was discontinued in FY2013’s budget and reinstated in FY2016. It appears — if the Trump administration gets the budget it’s proposing — that AEECA is set for another journey into nonexistence. In its place, some of the states of Central Asia may see an increase in funds routed through the Economic Support Fund (ESF), which the CRS report notes, “uses economic assistance to advance U.S. political and strategic goals in countries of special importance to U.S. foreign policy.”
The Central Asian losers, when it comes to the budget proposal, are Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The budget only lists AEECA funding falling from $6.1 million for Kazakhstan, and $3.9 million for Turkmenistan, to zero, with no corresponding rise in other state accounts like the ESF. Kyrgyzstan is potentially even more affected: its AEECA funds fall from $40.5 million to zero and its allotment via the ESF would rise from zero to $15 million. Tajikistan’s numbers are similar, with AEECA funds dropping from $25.2 million to zero and ESF funds rising to $13 million.
Uzbekistan is the only regional state to come out of the proposed budget with an overall increase: $5.4 million vanishes from the AEECA row but $7.0 million appears via the ESF. This may reflect the “cautious optimism” which many regional analysts feel given the change in leadership in Tashkent last year and the new Uzbek president’s penchant for good neighborliness.
As Stronski noted during his remarks, the leaked budget is just a proposal. It will take months for a final budget to appear and the route through Congress leaves plenty of space for states to lobby their importance. It will also be important to watch what becomes of the Defense Department’s budgets with regard to security assistance to Central Asia in order to get a more complete picture of U.S. regional policy.
Central Asia policy has always been linked to other, more critical, areas of U.S. foreign policy and the Trump administration will be no different. What changes may come will be driven by several factors, not the least of which is the status of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Changes in the makeup of the National Security Council may also impact U.S. regional policy, with the existing trend toward securitization furthered by an NSC dominated by former military minds. In addition, Central Asia was split from Russia and lumped in with South Asia, under the purview of Lisa Curtis, an expert on South Asia most recently at the Heritage Foundation.
The administration’s basic interests, as Stronski sees them, are not terribly different from previous administrations’: regional stability. The traditional tying of stability to good governance, political modernization, and anti-corruption will likely continue, institutionally, while there’s the potential for the administration to shift focus away from human rights and good governance and toward security.
“Even when policy is set,” Stronski said, “I think we also need to be aware that we have a very volatile president who likes to say things impromptu, likes to tweet things impromptu, and even if the policy is set, that could change on a moment’s notice.”
Stronski pointed to the recent South Korea episode as illustrative. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made visits to reassure South Korea of U.S. support only to be undercut by a Trump tweet demanding South Korea pay for the deployment of THAAD. In the Central Asia context this translates as the very real likelihood that State Department functionaries may sustain existing U.S. policy — and eventually pursue whatever regional policy the Trump administration settles on if it ever gets to the region — but the administration could flip at any moment.