Conclusions: the Caspian Basin in US strategic thinking

As this chapter has attempted to demonstrate, although US Caspian policy has been largely derivative over the last twenty years, nonetheless the magnitude of interests at stake in the wider Caspian area - plus the key role the basin plays in the context of all major issues in the Eurasian post-bipolar system - have placed the Sea high on the White House’s foreign policy agenda. This largely derived from the basin's two main geopolitical assets i.e. its critical geographic collocation in the heart of the Eurasian system and the significant presence of largely-unexploited hydrocarbon reserves, whose has development turned into a key tool for littoral and regional actors’ policies. From this perspective, it may be affirmed that Caspian policy was simultaneously a key vector and a test-case for the post-Cold War process of redefinition of the interests and strategies of the main regional and international players active in the Eurasian space - and not least so for the United States and its key Atlantic allies.

The Clinton Administration deserves credit for having set the priorities and key tools of Caspian policy along key guidelines which are still valid today. Indeed, the overall aims of supporting the then-Newly Independent Caspian State’ independence, sovereignty and development, and creating business opportunities for US companies while simultaneously limiting Russian regional influence and preventing the spread of Iranian influence, may be considered the main common features linking the three presidencies under scrutiny - three presidencies whose mandates roughly overlap the same number of stages of US Caspian policy.

Though working as an accelerator rather than a watershed for US Caspian policies, 9/11 and its resulting regional developments had a double impact by changing the regional objectives from which the policies derived. In the short-term, 9/11 presided over the prioritization of security cooperation versus energy cooperation, consistently with the needs of the Enduring Freedom Afghan operations. Hence, while in the 1990s requests for security cooperation and guarantees were primarily made by the Caspian actors and addressed to their Euro-Atlantic state and super-national interlocutors, in the following decade this trend was reversed and the White House regional interlocutors came to be viewed as security providers rather than security consumers. Moreover, the priorities reversal was facilitated by the simultaneous conclusion of the first phase of Caspian energy policy i.e. by the realization of the BTC and SCP pipelines which, by breaking the Russian monopsony over the basin’s resources, still stand as the main accomplishment of US Caspian policies.

Over the medium-term, the effects of post 9/11 regional developments on Caspian policy resulted primarily in the prioritization of the eastern dimension at the expense of the western one, consistently with the White House’s need to put forward a regional stabilization strategy in view of the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. Significantly, this trend appears to have presided over a fragmentation of the wider Caspian area in US strategic thinking, with the Southern Caucasus and Central Asian regions gradually becoming detached from one another and the Caspian Sea being dragged into the latter, rather than into the wider Black Sea region. Still in fieri, such a strategy sees the Obama Administration walking a difficult tightrope, which is all the more slippery due to the enduring instability of the Central Asian scenario and whose inherent contradictions seem to further undermine the “Atlantic Ticket”. An Atlantic Ticket which, already regionally weakened by the burdensharing issues arisen in Afghanistan, seems instead to be crucial for allowing the US - as well as the EU - to counteract old and new pressures exerted on its Caspian partners by Russia and China.

 
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