The new National Security Strategy of the United States portrays the Caucasus and Central Asia primarily as a site of great power competition, a striking return to a Cold War footing -- at least rhetorically. But how much the stated strategy reflects actual US policies remains unclear.
President Donald Trump unveiled the strategy document on December 18, and the overarching theme was geopolitics.
"[A]fter being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned," the document argues. "China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally ... they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor."
The emphasis on great power competition is a notable departure from the last such strategy document, published in 2015 under President Barack Obama. That report portrayed Russian aggression as a problem in Ukraine, but not on a global scale. And there was far less of an emphasis on competition. "While there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation," the 2015 document said, in the context of China.
The 2017 document is released amid a great deal of uncertainty as to the real nature of American foreign policy under Trump. And although Trump signed the document, and presented it personally -- something his predecessors did not do -- his public remarks struck a very different tone than did the report, calling for greater cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The document, by contrast, portrays Eurasia as a Brzezinskiesque zone of competition between the US and Russia: "The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing ... Russia, too, projects its influence economically, through the control of key energy and other infrastructure throughout parts of Europe and Central Asia."
The Caucasus are barely mentioned in the document, but Georgia is used as an example of Russian aggression:
Although the menace of Soviet communism is gone, new threats test our will. Russia is using subversive measures to weaken the credibility of America’s commitment to Europe, undermine transatlantic unity, and weaken European institutions and governments. With its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereignty of states in the region. Russia continues to intimidate its neighbors with threatening behavior, such as nuclear posturing and the forward deployment of offensive capabilities.
Central Asia is mentioned partially as a site of competition with Russia (though not with China) and partially as a potential site of Islamist extremism.
"[W]e seek Central Asian states that are resilient against domination by rival powers, are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms," the report argues. The latter two points are somewhat consisent with past strategy statements on Central Asia, though the Obama administration deemphasized rhetoric like "jihadist." The reference to "rival powers," though, is an unusually assertive statement, particularly given what appears generally to be a strategic retreat by the US in Central Asia.
The new document also revives a bit of the New Silk Road idea, which largely has been forgotten since the early days of the Obama administration. "We will encourage the economic integration of Central and South Asia to promote prosperity and economic linkages that will bolster connectivity and trade."
And most intriguingly, it prioritizes military "access" to Central Asia: "We will work with the Central Asian states to guarantee access to the region to support our counterterrorism efforts." While conventional US military activity in Central Asia has been declining, the past few years have seen an increase in special forces training programs in the region, a trend that the new strategy document appears to formalize.