The Great Balancing Act: U.S. Engagement in Central Asia (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Alex Little, Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

Central Asia is a diverse region with a critically important central geography, a plethora of natural resources, and rapidly developing industries such as energy production. Central Asia comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all of which are former Soviet republics. Given their Soviet past, Central Asia continues to be influenced mainly by Russia, its historical and cultural partner. China, which provides new developments for Central Asia’s future with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has played a more prominent role in Central Asia in recent years. With Russia and China currently playing significant roles in Central Asia, what are U.S. interests in Central Asia, and how can the U.S. avoid entangling itself in regional conflicts with fellow great powers?

U.S. policymakers could decide an expansive foreign policy is in Washington’s interests; however, the United States should instead focus on a narrow set of interests. U.S. engagement in the region has been characterized by military intervention by establishing military bases in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan during the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The United States is already remarkably secure with vast oceans to its east and west, as well as compliant, peaceful neighbors to its north and south. Rather than engaging in prolonged military adventurism tainted by nation-building and corruption, the United States should adopt a realist and restrained approach, focusing on narrow economic and diplomatic partnerships in Central Asia.