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America needs a strategic partnership with Uzbekistan

Jim Watson/Pool via AP
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Khafizovich Kamilov at the State Department in Washington on March 9, 2022.

Historically, U.S. foreign policy has been replete with examples of over-involvement and under-involvement with the rest of the world. And we tend to go for ill-advised military adventures, which, when they inevitably go wrong, lead America to head for the exits, forgetting that the rest of the world continues to matter. 

So is the danger for U.S. foreign policy following the 20-year war in Afghanistan. While that exercise in mission creep is rightly being used as a primary warning for the avoidance of fighting wars without clear missions, we must be careful not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” when it comes to strategy. The war in Afghanistan was a nation-building folly, but Central Asia remains a region where America can and must — based on its national interests — continue to play a role.  

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has heightened awareness among Central Asian states of their vulnerability to pressures from Russia and China. It also has strengthened their resolve to cooperate with each other, and with the West, as a means of retaining strategic agency. The United States can play a constructive role in this geopolitical process by deepening the strategic partnership with Uzbekistan, the key player in a region that forms a crossroads between Asia and Europe. 

At their joint July presidential summit, initiated by Uzbekistan, leaders of the five Central Asian countries set an agenda for cooperation that promotes interconnectivity through free trade, green energy, tourism, water sharing and hydropower investments. The summit also opened the door to deeper American engagement. Washington has been hesitant to pursue closer ties with countries that are not viewed as model democracies, but such an approach is short-sighted in realist terms, especially given the current strategic environment in Eurasia.  

Specifically, Uzbekistan is preparing to hold a referendum in the coming months on a new version of its constitution that includes strengthening civil rights, extending the presidential term from five to seven years, and restarting the count of presidential term limits. The latter proposals have been criticized by Western human rights groups for potentially curtailing democracy even though Tashkent argues that they are designed to ensure political stability — a vital necessity in these dangerous times — and will not afford the president any additional powers. 

Uzbekistan’s government moved quickly to engage in damage control after an earlier constitutional draft envisioned curbing the autonomy of the country’s Karakalpakstan autonomous region. Public protests taught the government the central lesson that open debate and consultations with local leaders are essential to ensure stability and support. Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev subsequently dropped plans to curtail Karakalpakstan autonomy, indicating government responsiveness to social demands. 

The planned constitution also includes several amendments intended to boost governmental accountability. One change envisions transferring the authority to appoint the heads of the anti-corruption agency and Accounts Chamber, which has formal oversight over government spending, from the president to the Senate. Over the coming weeks, all these planned constitutional amendments will be put to a nationwide referendum, as the government has pledged, which will be closely monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission. 

The U.S. ought to play a supportive role in Uzbekistan by encouraging official accountability and public oversight, and developing stronger economic and security links. Since coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoyev has staked his reputation on modernizing Uzbekistan and his reforms have led to economic growth and foreign investment.  

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s breadbasket and home to some 35 million people — nearly as many as all other countries of the region combined. It won The Economist’s “country of the year” award in 2019 for its far-reaching reforms, including ending child labor in the cotton fields and opening up to international capital markets. Foreign direct investment rose by a stratospheric 266 percent that year and has remained consistent ever since. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that, given the trajectory of economic reforms, the country is well placed to continue its growth. For all these reasons, Uzbekistan amounts to an opportunity for the U.S., not a problem.  

If Central Asian regional security is to be truly promoted, the expansion of transportation routes involving Uzbekistan remains essential. Here, too, there are encouraging signs. On Aug. 2, the foreign, economy and transport ministers of Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed the Tashkent Declaration to enhance cooperation between the three Turkic-speaking countries. A centerpiece of this initiative is the international transport corridor — the Trans-Caspian International Trade Route (TITR) — that can boost trade and energy flows and bypass an unreliable Russia.  

U.S. big-picture attempts to forge a global international coalition of democracies is too simplistic to work in a world full of as much gray as black and white; America must not neglect states where pluralism is still a promising work in progress and where greater U.S. involvement will help limit pernicious Russian and Chinese Communist Party influence.  

It is also worth remembering that democracy has less chance of bearing fruit in the absence of national security and regional stability and that consistent U.S. engagement can strengthen both. There is a magical middle intellectual ground here between over-involvement and under-involvement. Greater U.S. diplomatic and economic ties with Uzbekistan, and Central Asia as a whole, serve American interests in the challenging era we find ourselves in.  

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in London, Milan and Bavaria. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, he is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHulsman1.  

Tags Central Asia China Russia Shavkat Mirziyoyev U.S. foreign policy Uzbekistan

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