From Kazakhstan With Love: A Lesson in Multipolarity

From Simon Shuster, reporting for Time:

Then, on Jan. 19, three weeks into the dispute, Kazakhstan stepped in with a game-changing offer. It said that if Russia refuses to provide oil to the Belarussian refineries, it would be happy to take Moscow’s place. The Kazakhs also said they would be willing to buy a stake in Belarus’ Naftan refinery, which Russia’s largest oil companies have coveted. “The demands of Belarussian refineries will be filled by Kazakh oil,” said Anatoly Smirnov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Belarus, adding that the two nations’ presidents had already discussed the idea and “no one has refused.”

In most parts of the world, this would seem like a completely normal arrangement for two countries to make. But this is Russia’s backyard. And Moscow, which has yet to react to the Kazakh offer, may not take too kindly to two of its former republics striking an energy deal behind its back. The offer demonstrates, however, that many ex-Soviet states might not care anymore if they anger their former benefactor. A sense of defiance has grown in the region since the Russia-Georgia war, which proved that Moscow would not stop at economic bullying in its efforts to maintain influence over its neighbors.

In a multipolar world, every push by a country creates if not an equal and opposite reaction, at least some pushback from another country or countries.

For all the neocon fear of a resurgent Russia destroying democracy in the region, we see Russia’s actions are pissing off former allies and causing them to move in their own direction–as they too begin to acclimate themselves to a globalized, multipolar environment.  Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko is still a hardline dictator and it’s not like Kazakhstan is some bastion of liberal democracy.  They aren’t all of a sudden “good guys” (whatever that means) and we’re certainly not looking at a  zero-sum game whereby Belaruss and Kazahkstan are on the US side just because they are quarreling with Russia.

This is why narratives that sharply divide the world into autocracy versus freedom (a la R. Kagan) lack this kind of nuance.  According to that framework, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia all exist on the autocracy side of the ledger.  In theory then they should all be aligned with one another.  Schuster’s article also mentions Georgia – so what about them?  From a neoconservative perspective, they are the great beacon of democratic light in that area of the world.  Never mind that Georgian President Saakashvili (the great democratic leader in this formulation) instituted a media blackout and a state of emergency while heavy-handedly crushing protests.*

Nor does it make sense to see everything through a US-centric (in this case Afghanistan-centric or War on Terror-centric) lens either.  That approach would suggest we fully back Kazakhstan because they’ve supported us in the War on Terror and are now sticking it to Russia.

The more regional webs grow, the more every single actor becomes constrained.  This reality applies to all countries.  A more nimble US foreign policy would be willing to play both sides of the fence on an issue like this.  The US could largely avoid this regional energy dispute while still working with Russia on a number of issues.  Learning to play this type of multi-layered game is, I think, the only real way forward for a successful US foreign policy.

Every conflict is related to other regional conflicts and those to other global concerns.  As Dan Drezner would say, All Politics is Global.  Or all politics is simultaneously Local, Regional, and Global.  No set of policies and actions is ever going to be perfectly good (from any of the vectors of analysis) given this state of affairs, which is particularly true when one considers the counter-push and law of unintended consequences with so many parties in play, each with relations to each other and to the whole.  The kind of framework I have in mind for US policy thinks in terms of longer trajectories  within countries and regions, and is willing to live with incompleteness instead of trying to impose some artificial scheme across the globe:  e.g. The  War on Terror or Democracy Promotion, “With us or Against us”, etc.  If we refuse to adapt to a multipolar framework, US foreign policy becomes entirely reactive to situations on the ground, which are inevitably interpreted through these myopic, artificial narratives.

*The opposite of such a black and white worldview is not simply the deconstruction of black/white dichotomies and some leveling of preexisting distinctions, but rather one in which shades of grey become much more important.

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4 thoughts on “From Kazakhstan With Love: A Lesson in Multipolarity

  1. Nor does it make sense to see everything through a US-centric (in this case Afghanistan-centric or War on Terror-centric) lens either.

    Yes! This point needs to be hammered until it sticks. The US either approves or supports many regimes that are un-Democratic (Saudi Arabia specifically comes to mind) because we share some common interests. However, when other countries act identically (see: Brazil to Iran, Turkey to Syria) we are supposed to see this is a direct attack on America and Democracy, and start priming sanctions (or military actions for the bolder pundits). Part of this is a natural psychological response: I know that my intentions are good, so any actions to the contrary are just collateral on the way to a more just future; my opponent, on other hand, has dubious intentions and any identical action on his part further underscores them. But part of it is also the media re-enforcing such a narrative and down-playing the totalitarian behavior of nations with which we have common enemies. The South Ossetian crisis was particularly egregious example of this, where Georgian instigation was portrayed as benevolent self-defense.

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  2. Yes and no, right. I mean relations with Russia aren’t as warm as they could be. However, they too supported us in the War on Terror, quite critically and early on, so I’m not so convinced US foreign policy still stands on an US v. Russia standpoint.

    If anything, it seems we’d prefer to build strong bilateral relationships with CIS’ membership, Russia included and frown upon attempts by Russia to dominate and otherwise intrude on what we see as sovereign to sovereign relationships.

    I agree that US media coverage and analysis is very America-centric, but I’m less convinced our foreign policy approach towards the region is as inflexible as you suggest (though I could be misreading you Chris).

    If anything, I think this is indicative of how China’s increasing influence in Central Asia is emboldening the stans. The Russians and Chinese are quietly competing in Central Asia and if there is a divide between autocracies and the free world, it’s that the free world is adrift and reactionary, while the autocracies or rather demi-democracies behave like nation-states with national interests at stake.

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