U.S. policy toward Central Asia and the South Caucasus will see little change under the next U.S. administration, no matter whether it is led by President Donald Trump or his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Consumed by the coronavirus pandemic, economic problems, and a series of higher-profile international challenges (e.g., China, Iran, Russia, and transatlantic relations), neither candidate has taken much notice of either region during the campaign. The resurgence of the Karabakh conflict focused some attention on the Caucasus, but the countries to Russia’s immediate south generally do not figure highly in American foreign policy debate. Barring an existential shock, the status quo is for the most part the likely path forward.  

This lack of focus on Central Asia and the South Caucasus should come as no surprise. The United States has withdrawn from both regions over the past decade, which is largely a reflection of a more inward and isolationist mood in the United States and the emergence of far more urgent issues closer to home. The U.S. withdrawal from Eurasia began under the Obama administration, whose pivot to Asia and drawdown from Afghanistan shifted American attention away from Europe and Eurasia. Trump accelerated this trend—often to the chagrin of Central Asian and South Caucasian governments, most of whose leaders have long tried to balance their challenging relationships with Russia with closer ties to China and the West. America’s withdrawal from the region complicates those states’ ability to pursue multi-vectorism, a trend that will not change. 

The recent U.S. shift away from Eurasia occurred in large part because the extensive footprint of the United States in the Caucasus and Central Asia during the first decade of the twenty-first century was an outlier, tied directly to the existential shock of the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Central Asia and the Caucasus are now second-tier areas of interest for the United States. This is largely because they are geographically distant from American shores and pose few direct threats to the country or its closest allies. U.S. trade with and investment in Central Asia and the South Caucasus remain miniscule. Trade turnover between the United States and Kazakhstan—the region’s largest economy—is just around $2 billion dollars, while it is roughly $500 million with Georgia, America’s closest partner in the region. Despite ample U.S. assistance to the countries of both regions, their long-standing problems—crony capitalism, poor rule of law, poverty, unresolved regional conflicts, and growing threats of social instability—all remain unresolved, making them generally unwelcoming to U.S. investors. 

Continuity in the U.S. approach toward Central Asia and the Caucasus has been the general pattern of recent presidential transitions. In 2009–2010, for example, the Obama administration offered no new policies, instead continuing its predecessor’s push to expand military and logistical supply lines to Afghanistan through both regions. It was only as the Obama administration drew down from Afghanistan in its second term that it launched the C5+1 format to promote greater regional dialogue on transnational issues between the United States and the five Central Asian states. The Trump administration continued the C5+1 process, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo buying into the format by early 2020, when he launched his own Central Asia strategy. The C5+1 has become Washington’s most prominent tool to engage the region. A possible Biden presidency—staffed by Obama alumni who came up with the C5+1 format—would likely continue that course. 

There is greater possibility for change in U.S. policy toward the Caucasus due to events occurring on the ground. All three recent U.S. administrations have seen Georgia as the cornerstone of the U.S. approach toward the region, which helped transform Tbilisi into a key diplomatic and security partner. Given the long-standing U.S. investment in Georgia and broad bipartisan support for the country, Georgia will retain that importance. Robust U.S. security assistance and diplomatic backing for Georgia—all perennial friction points with Moscow—are unlikely to change. However, there is no renewed desire on the American side for Georgia to join NATO anytime soon. EU membership is also unlikely.

Given the resumption of large-scale fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, U.S. policy toward Armenia and Azerbaijan—both of which have complex relations with both Russia and the West—will remain focused on conflict mediation in the near term, with a Biden administration possibly more energized to play a larger diplomatic role. Biden recently criticized the Trump administration’s lack of serious engagement in conflict resolution: the one instance when Eurasia came up in the presidential campaign. The Trump administration’s only foray into mediation occurred in late October and appears tied to cultivating Armenian-American voters before the November election. Trump touted success in brokering a humanitarian ceasefire on October 25, but it collapsed within hours. 

Yet the growing humanitarian crisis in and around Nagorno-Karabakh will open up U.S. coffers to provide greater assistance and relief to affected areas and displaced people (likely to exceed 100,000). Once the fighting is over, the United States could revive its humanitarian de-mining program in Karabakh, which the Trump administration ended in early 2020. However, given the shifting military dynamics on the ground between the two countries, the U.S. response will likely be a reactive one. 

The wild card is how the war will impact Washington’s bilateral ties with Yerevan, Baku, and Ankara. The war will likely delay and possibly even derail Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Western-style anti-corruption reforms, which are key to his political viability at home and Armenia’s long-term ability to garner Washington’s support. Meanwhile, Baku’s swift advances toward retaking all of Karabakh and the shelling of civilian populations there has caused unease in Washington, particularly in Congress, which could dampen U.S.-Azerbaijani ties. A curtailment of security assistance to Baku, which is made possible only by a presidential waiver of long-standing sanctions against Azerbaijan, is likely under either a Democratic or Republican administration. Turkey’s active support for Baku in the conflict, including arms transfers and the deployment of Turkish F-16 fighter jets to Azerbaijani airfields, has caught the attention of U.S. policymakers too, adding yet another layer of complication to the Ankara-Washington relationship.

Recent statements by Biden’s foreign policy team suggest a Biden presidency would try to reinvigorate U.S. support for democracy, an agenda that received little backing from senior Trump officials. Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are noteworthy here given recent backsliding in both countries on the democratic front. Uzbekistan could be a focus too, considering Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s eagerness to open up the country, and Tashkent’s growing relationship with Washington on economic reform and other technical issues. A President Biden likely would ramp up pressure on all three, although Georgia would be the focus of any renewed democracy promotion effort, given the greater U.S. clout in the country, its better prospects for progress, and the fact that Washington sees Georgia’s success as key to motivating Western-style reforms elsewhere in the Eurasia region. 

Nevertheless, U.S. policy toward the region in the end will not shift too far from security issues, the long-standing focus of Washington’s engagement with both regions. Violence along Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan remains a problem, as does the instability emanating from the Middle East. The Caucasus and Central Asia are no longer simply remote parts of the former Soviet space, but increasingly connected to a growing swath of instability that spreads from North Africa and the Middle East to South Asia: a problem that should concern both Moscow and Washington. The return of Central Asian extremists from Syrian battlefields, the deployment of Syrian jihadi mercenaries by Azerbaijan and Turkey as proxy fighters in Karabakh, and efforts by emerging regional powers (Gulf States, Iran, Israel, and Turkey) to increase their influence remain concerns for regional stability, as well as the safety of Americans and U.S. interests in the region. Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the Caucasus, combined with its increasingly troubled ties with both Moscow and Washington elsewhere, suggests Ankara could become a more problematic factor that poses challenges for both Russia and the United States.  

The final question mark is over how a Biden administration’s negative view of Russia as a threat to Western democracy and U.S. interests globally would impact the Caucasus and Central Asia. Since leaving office in 2017, Biden has given a number of speeches highlighting the need to push back at Russia in various parts of the world, including Eurasia, to help states shore up their sovereignty and democratic trajectories, as well as to blunt growing Russian pressure for Eurasian integration. Reinvigorating a positive relationship with Ukraine will likely be the first priority, but a possible Biden administration appears eager to reach out across the neighborhood to improve ties, help states improve their ability to withstand Russian (or Chinese) pressure, and try to enhance U.S. credibility. 

Yet it is unclear whether Washington’s traditional toolkit (democratization assistance, anti-corruption programs, closer ties to multilateral organizations and institutions, and counterterrorism cooperation) can accomplish all that much in regions that have been resistant to past U.S.-led reform agendas and are increasingly remote from the mainstream U.S. foreign policy challenges of 2020. Biden’s rhetorical support for the region certainly will make it easier for Central Asian and South Caucasus governments to bring their issues to the attention of senior counterparts in Washington. Nevertheless, a Biden administration, if there is one, may not be able to marshal the resources or have the bandwidth to take on a great many new sets of problems.

  • Paul Stronski