The Caspian Sea Basin in United States Strategic Thinking and Policies

Carlo Frappi


Ever since the formulation of a regional policy toward the former Soviet south in the mid 1990s, the Caspian Sea has played a special role in the White House's Eurasian policy. The geographical collocation of the basin, right in the heart of the Eurasian landmass at a critical crossroads of influence projection from the main regional actors, coupled with the presence of relevant and largely unexplored energy resources, were the main features providing the Caspian with a relevant place in US strategic thinking and on its foreign policy agenda.

Over the course of the last twenty years, a wide scholarly and institutional debate has developed around the nature of US interests at play in the Caspian area. All the more so, as the notion of a new ‘Great Game’ - taking place in the Caspian area and aimed at exploiting and transporting its energy resources as a key tool for regional influence - gained consensus among International Relations scholars and analysts.[1] Although the reference to the nineteenth-century Great Game proved misleading, not recognizing the higher complexity of post-1991 regional dynamics, it is nonetheless equally true that competition for influence has been fierce and the efforts made and role played by the United States in the political, institutional and economic regional transition proved to be decisive.

That said, although the debate on the nature of US interests in the Caspian quite properly concluded that the United States had no vital interest

in the area,[2] this consideration does not diminish the importance of Caspian politics in the regional power transition, making it a significant subject of study in order to understand the dynamics and evolution of the United States’ post-Cold War Eurasian policy.

Moreover, starting from the assumption of the lack of a vital US interest at play in the Caspian area, it is also possible to agree with those who said that the United States’ policy toward the region - and hence the basin - has been largely a derivative of other objectives[3] i.e. that the US never arranged a Caspian policy per se. However, the relevance of such objectives, accentuated by the strategic location of the basin - the convergence point of different and crucial regional security complexes - has made US Caspian policy both a strategic vector and a key tool for US action in different Eurasian scenarios.

Against this backdrop, the aim of the article is to highlight patterns of continuity and discontinuity in US policy toward the Caspian - i.e. objectives pursued and instruments adopted - by analyzing the evolution of both energy and security cooperation, which have simultaneously represented the main tools and testing grounds of the White House regional policy.

  • [1] See, for instance, M.E. Ahrari, The New Great Game in Muslim Central Asia, McNair Paper no. 47, Washington, National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1996.
  • [2] See, for instance, Joseph Nye categorization of US security interests, according to which the Caspian areawould be considered as a “C” threat - i.e. posing threat to US interest, but not to its immediate security. Thesame view was shared by Administration officers - specifically by John E. Herbst, Deputy Coordinator for theNew Independent States at the Department of State - portraying US interests in the area as important yet notvital. See J. Nye, “Redefining National Interests”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 78, no. 4, 1999; J. Herbst in: “US Interests in Caucasus Region”, Hearing before the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, US Government Printing Office, Washington, 30 July 1996, p. 10.
  • [3] See, F. Starr, “Power Failure: American Policy in the Caspian”, The National Interest, no. 47, Spring 1997, pp.20-31; J. Barnes, US National Interests in the Caspian Basin: Getting Beyond the Hipe, James A. Baker IIIInstitute for Public Policies, April 1998.
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