In recent decades, American foreign policy has too often failed to play the long game. Three administrations have built “coalitions of the willing,” working comfortably with allies, partners, and others who share Washington’s views. Conversely, these administrations have sanctioned adversaries and those governments with divergent views.
But Uzbekistan, whose President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits the White House this week, offers a different kind of challenge — one that Washington has not handled especially well. A reforming dictatorship, it is precisely the kind of country where Washington has struggled by viewing the world simply in black and white.
Mirziyoyev is, in fact, a product of the system Washington once shunned. He served quietly as prime minister to one of the world’s most repressive leaders, the late Islam Karimov.
But past is not always prologue. Since assuming power in 2016, Mirziyoyev has launched meaningful reforms and begun, at long last, to open up the country.
One lesson is that Washington needs to see the potential for change. Another is that it needs patient engagement to help bring such change about. A third is that there is sometimes more to a complex political system, even an authoritarian one, than meets the eye.
So when Mirziyoyev walks through U.S. President Donald Trump’s front door today, Washington should check its black-and-white views at the door and find ways to seize the opportunities it has missed.
Indeed, the United States was once more supple and adaptive. When Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, America launched a painstaking process of engagement rather than just waiting for the change to happen first. The U.S. was the first country to recognize Uzbekistan as a sovereign nation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secretary of State James Baker visited. And for the first decade, even as a harsh dictatorship took root, the relationship was defined by Washington’s investment in the country’s potential. This, in turn, gave the U.S. some early successes, not least weaning Uzbekistan away from its Soviet past as it developed an independent foreign policy while Washington worked to integrate it into the international community.
But by 2000, once it was clear that Uzbekistan had become a functional dictatorship, Washington changed strategy from its painstaking, frustrating, and difficult efforts at engagement to wild swings of the policy pendulum. The U.S. tacked from partnership to hostility, back to partnership, once again to hostility, and then finally back to partnership.
This “pendular” policy was encapsulated by the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Shunned as a dictatorship, Uzbekistan suddenly reemerged on Washington’s consciousness as a strategic partner in the war against terror as it became a key staging area for America’s entry into Afghanistan.
To its credit, Washington never closed itself up entirely to the regime in Tashkent. But sadly, a comprehensive strategy aimed at promoting change gave way to a more tactical approach that elevated counterterrorism as the centerpiece of the relationship, leading to high levels of military assistance. This one-dimensional approach left Washington vulnerable to events and Karimov’s whims. In 2005, his suppression of protests in the city of Andijan under the banner of “counterterrorism” provoked international condemnation, including from the United States. Within a year, the U.S. had lost an airbase in the country and, since military cooperation had moved front and center, found itself increasingly irrelevant in the country as ties between Uzbekistan and the U.S. unraveled.
The U.S. then pivoted to an equally one-dimensional emphasis on the regime’s terrible human rights abuses. Not surprisingly, relations remained in the basement until 2009 when U.S. concerns about the reliability of supply lines through Pakistan led Washington to pivot right back to its prior emphasis on counterterrorism and military assistance, seeking Tashkent’s cooperation in opening an alternate supply route for international forces in Afghanistan.
Relations with Karimov’s regime slowly normalized. But by the time Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, the U.S. was poorly positioned with Tashkent since it lacked a multidimensional, patient, and full-spectrum strategy. The U.S. had re-engaged but was largely waiting for Karimov to die.
And so from my vantage point, as an Uzbek language journalist covering U.S. policy from Washington, America was surprised by a political situation that has since moved much faster than anyone in the U.S. had predicted. The new Uzbek leader, viewed by Washington as a product of the Karimov system, embarked on a full spectrum reform campaign touching everything from settling border disputes with neighbors to opening currency markets and dismantling Karimov’s oppressive internal security apparatus. And surprisingly, he moved quickly to release dozens of political prisoners while taking steps to end torture in prisons and forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, two long standing irritants in the relationship.
Trump has an opportunity to build on this opening. As soon as he came to power, Mirziyoyev signaled his desire to work on these issues with the United States. American diplomats have laid some solid groundwork, slowly rebuilding trust between diplomats, military officers and policymakers. A common interest in stabilizing Afghanistan has now given both sides the confidence to work even on uncomfortable issues, such as Uzbekistan’s human rights record, which had so polarized the relationship. While U.S. messages were lost on Karimov, it appears that they were quietly absorbed by his prime minister. Today, Mirziyoyev’s ambitious reform agenda, which he calls the “Development Strategy,” is in train.
Mirziyoyev has deliberately chosen Washington for his first official visit to the West (although he did visit New York in September 2017 for the UN General Assembly). He is accompanied Washington’s best partner in Tashkent, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov who was Ambassador to the U.S. during the challenging years after Andijan. Kamilov has consistently been viewed as a trusted interlocutor, who saw value in improved ties and kept open a door that many, on both sides, wanted closed.
Trump’s first challenge is to embrace the change. His second is to firmly establish a multidimensional approach, not least by embracing the possibilities for reform that Mirziyoyev seems to have opened.
Looking beyond this week, it is important to maintain perspective and recognize that the Uzbek leader’s reform campaign, while ambitious, will not move forward at a steady pace. It will hit rough spots. He faces a range of challenges, including resistance to change within the power structures, a shortage of professional expertise in every sector, ingrained fear of independent action in the bureaucracy and among the general public, and slow economic progress.
Washington needs to persist in the face of these obstacles — not shift back to a tactical approach or give up on Uzbekistan in frustration. It will be critical for U.S. policymakers to both understand these challenges and remain focused on the long game. Maintaining a high level of engagement with Uzbekistan’s leadership has the highest probability of seeing the country realize its goals. So an approach that embraces the “grey” will provide maximum flexibility and the underlying strategic emphasis a tough relationship like this one needs. Accepting grey will be the essential element of Washington’s approach to assist Uzbekistan, and ensure that America is better positioned to capitalize on the next generation of Uzbek leaders who may have even more ambitious dreams for the country’s future.
Navbahor Imamova is an international broadcaster with the Voice of America’s Uzbek Service, South and Central Asia Division. This piece does not represent the views of her employer.