Time to Reset US Policy in the South Caucasus
Geopolitical conditions in the South Caucasus have experienced a substantial shift in recent years. Accordingly, the Trump Administration needs to adjust assumptions in advancing American interests in the region to make the most of its capabilities.
The United States has enduring interests in the South Caucasus. These include preserving regional stability, preventing the resumption of the region’s conflicts, countering the spread of Islamic extremism, drawing Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia closer to Western security and economic institutions, and advancing democratic change and improved governance.
While US interests are constant, recent developments—including the breakdown of the post-Cold War European security order, changing global energy markets, instability on the region’s southern flank, growing tensions and violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the EU’s internal challenges—have changed the context within which the United States pursues its geopolitical goals in the South Caucasus.
It is also important to acknowledge that events in the region rarely have a direct impact on the security or prosperity of the United States or American citizens. Thus, the region is unlikely to be a top administration priority.
Over the past 25 years, US involvement in the South Caucasus has helped the three states to defend their sovereignty and produce some democratic progress, particularly in Georgia. However, ambitious US efforts failed to deliver on the promise of transformational change because policymakers underestimated the political, economic, and geopolitical challenges facing the South Caucasus states, and did not back reform efforts with sufficient resources.
Moving forward, daunting obstacles remain in place. At the same time, the United States could have diminished capacity to promote development and better governance, if recently proposed cuts in foreign assistance are implemented.
If the cutbacks become reality, Washington will need to recalibrate—and be honest about—the assistance it is willing to provide to the states of the South Caucasus. It also should recognize it cannot alter two salient features of the region’s geopolitical landscape: Russia’s dominant position and its opposition to US engagement there; and China’s growing footprint, driven by its “One Belt, One Road” project, which envisions massive infrastructure investments in Eurasia, including the South Caucasus.
Going forward, a more realistic and sustainable US approach toward the region would be underpinned by several key principles and priorities:
First, America’s top priority should be to help prevent the region’s longstanding conflicts, particularly Nagorno-Karabakh, from heating up. A resumption of fighting would have devastating socio-economic and political consequences for all three countries and the broader neighborhood, which includes key US allies around the already tense Black Sea region.
Keeping the lid on regional conflict will be a tall order. Peaceful resolutions of these conflicts cannot be imposed upon the region—they depend on the countries and peoples themselves, who sadly show little willingness to compromise. It also requires getting Russia not to muck things up. To accomplish both these aims, the United States needs to show greater leadership here.
Second, Washington should proceed with greater caution and humility in promoting political modernization. Given growing poverty in the region and limited space for civil society in some countries, promoting economic development, transparency, and a thicker web of people-to-people ties should remain key priorities.
But it is essential to keep in mind that each state of the South Caucasus is on a different trajectory. As a result, broad regional approaches to defending democracy and promoting human rights are unlikely to be effective. Instead, tailored, country-specific approaches offer better prospects for success.
Third, Washington needs to be modest about its geopolitical objectives in the region. Russia is stretched militarily, and likely lacks the capacity to impose its hegemony over the region. But it still is willing to bring more assets and resources to bear than the United States. Washington should therefore be wary about promising the region more than it is willing to deliver. Its commitments to Georgia and investments to date in that country should make Tbilisi the pillar of US policy in the region. With democracy floundering in Turkey, Georgia is an important model for democratic reform for the broader region. Greater US attention to keeping Georgia on a reform trajectory is needed, as is continued support for its legitimate defense needs.
Finally, the United States should continue to work with and through the European Union to advance mutual interests. The EU can carry a great load in helping shape the region’s future, given Brussels’ geographic proximity, robust trade with the region, visa-free regime with Georgia, and experience in fostering economic development and the rule of law.
As we argue in a new report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the United States cannot disengage from the South Caucasus. But to achieve greater success, Washington will need to more carefully balance its commitments and resources. Limits on the US capacity to shape the region’s development, not lofty rhetoric, should dictate its agenda.