Azerbaijan: the eye of the storm

Why doesn't the United States take more interest in this critical country sandwiched between Turkey, Iran and Russia?
George Friedman | 12 June 2013

There is a point where three great powers -- Russia, Turkey and Persia -- meet: the Caucasus. At the moment they converge in a country called Azerbaijan. That fact makes Azerbaijan a battleground for these three great powers, which have competed with each other along various borders for centuries. Until 1991 Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, as was the rest of the South Caucasus. But as the Russian border moved north, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were once more unveiled by history. Of the three, Azerbaijan won the geopolitical prize of bordering the three great regional powers. It also emerged as a major energy producer. At the end of the 19th century, half of the oil in the world was produced in Azerbaijan, whose oil fields around the capital, Baku, were developed by the Nobel brothers, famed for dynamite and prizes. This is where they made their fortune. I had the pleasure of dining at their mansion a few years ago, a guest of government officials. Whatever others might have thought in that elegant house, I thought of Hitler urgently trying to reach Baku and its oil, and the fact that his disaster at Stalingrad was actually part of his attempt to seize Azerbaijan's oil fields. Azerbaijan was once the prize of empire. It is now independent in a very dangerous place.

Everyone is unhappy with the United States either for doing something or not doing something. But I never forget one thing: Hitler risked everything to get to Baku and its oil.The United States: An Adolescent Global Power I have visited Azerbaijan several times since 2008.S. Nations don't have friends and whatever my friendships in Azerbaijan -. It is too infrequent. He failed to reach it. Sometimes they have something new to say. . It rarely works. I don't like criticizing my country in another country. along with some congressmen. My latest trip had to do with a conference on U.-Azerbaijani relations. These are the ones from whom you learn the most. This brought with it an invitation to visit Azerbaijan and see the place on which my theory focused.friendships that are real and important to me -. and they are. In either case. state representatives and a large numbers of Azeris. when I published a book called The Next 100 Years. you listen to their desire to be friends with the United States and bewilderment at American indifference. My problem in answering is that I believe that working with Azerbaijan is in the American interest and that holding back is taking unnecessary risks. Singapore or Baku and it all looks the same. Compared with my first encounter with Azerbaijan. sometimes I have something new to say. Since I continue to regard Azerbaijan as critical both in the struggle emerging in the Caucasus and to the United States. businessmen and others. you meet the same people several times a year. In general I give as good as I get. and the history of our time turns on that fact. they feel let down by the United States. And in Azerbaijan. This isn't a question of sentiment. But in the case of Azerbaijan. There are a small number of people in the United States who care about Azerbaijan and most of them were there. I'm on the defensive.the United States must pursue its interests. You can be in Washington. What is interesting is the people you don't normally meet: the local academics. Conferences on subjects like this are global. which identified Azerbaijan as geopolitically critical in the emerging global system. I continue to visit and continue to enjoy dinners that never end and rounds of toasts that test my liver. and I am somehow personally at fault. so I try to shift the discussion to something else. the number of people interested in the country has risen dramatically. This is a recurring theme in my travels. When you are in my business. government officials. Over time you create a group of friends in the countries you visit. They feel let down by the United States.

In The Next 100 Years I forecast a number of events.000 Americans died in the "Cold" War -. beginning with the serious weakening of the European Union and the increase in relative power of Russia.almost as many as died in World War I -. That seems reasonable until you ask them to define what the national interest is. really amazed to be where it was. The United States would continue to be the dominant power in the world. Specialists in U. talking about New World Orders. the eastern anchor of Europe on the Caspian Sea. economically the most viable and with the most powerful military. I wrote that the United States. It's a good idea until you ask them how .a fact that most people don't appreciate. but an adolescent power without foresight or balance in its actions. Until then the United States had shared domination and competed with the Soviet Union in a Cold War that had been frequently hot and where it wasn't clear that the United States would win.My own interest in Azerbaijan requires greater explanation.a line from Poland to Turkey and then from Turkey to Azerbaijan. And when we look back on Korea and Vietnam. when the Soviet Union collapsed. who argue that the United States should pursue its national self-interest. whether building democracy or stopping human rights abuses. First it imagined that war had been abolished and that it was all about making money. The countries that would feel that power would be those bordering the former Soviet Union -. Between Korea. Vietnam and some other. would be increasingly cautious and uncertain. One camp is the realists. I argued that the United States had not been the dominant global power until 1991. but truly clueless as to what it would do later. But a win is a win and the United States stood alone.although how a country with nearly 25 percent of the world's gross domestic product and control of the oceans avoids involvement is beyond me. The United States won the Cold War because the Soviets knocked themselves out. who want to use American power to do good. but between Europe's dependence on Russian energy and the fact that Russia had cash available to buy assets in Europe. withdrawing from its wars in the Islamic world.S. Then it imagined that it would spend the next century with only Islamic terrorists on its mind. it is hard to imagine this period as the American age. Another camp consists of idealists. foreign policy divide into two camps. the decline of Europe meant a more powerful Russia. Russia had its own problems. nearly 100. Now it seems to have decided that it will avoid involvement in the world -. less well-known engagements.

Russian troops are now based in Armenia.they intend to do it. Sometimes it fails to do necessary things. Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s in which it lost an area called NagornoKarabakh to Armenia. When the United States makes a mistake it is mostly other countries that suffer or are placed at risk. The United States is fortunate. which was backed by the Russians. This makes the rest of the world very uncomfortable. Sometimes the United States does inexplicable things. It won't. It won't. The point is that the United States is the world's global power but is lurching from conflict to conflict and from concept to concept. Azerbaijan is a predominantly secular country. It takes awhile to understand how to use power. Azerbaijan finds itself in a tough place. where they are the largest ethnic minority group in the country (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an Azeri). It is a country that borders both Russia and Iran. . It feels threatened by Iranian Shiite terrorism and by Sunni Islamic terrorism in the north. A government that appears to have close ties to Russia has replaced the formerly pro-American government of Georgia. It is rich and isolated. The British had to lose America before they started to get the idea. I assume they will wear signs. and even if terrorists kill some of us. In Russia it borders Dagestan. in Iran it borders the Iranian Azeri region. We have time to grow up. we will not be occupied like France or Poland. and the country's position between Russia and Iran makes it critical. The bulk of Azeris live in Iran. Usually the answer is to intervene but only kill bad people. So some of the world wishes the United States would disappear. Other parts of the world wish the United States take responsibility for their security. The Criticality of Azerbaijan This brings us back to Azerbaijan.

It cannot go to war as the first option. This is what makes U. The United States has deflected that request in most cases. relations with Azerbaijan interesting. Yet the United States limits its access to weapons. The Russian strategy has been to maintain and deepen European dependence on Russian energy. including the possibility of a pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. for which it is prepared to pay. The United States can afford to support only countries that take primary responsibility for their national security on themselves. including Turkey. The United States cannot be the primary source of that security. Azerbaijan has served as a major transshipment point for supplies to Afghanistan. The second phase of this strategy has been to limit alternatives for the Europeans. Given its location it needs access to weapons. with whom they have close ties.A secular Muslim state in this region hostile to both Iran and Russia is not all that common. But there are limits to American power and interest. It is in the American interest to try to limit Russian influence around its periphery in order to stabilize the pro-Western states there at a time when Europe is weak and disorganized. It is also in the United States' interest to limit Iranian power projection and to retain a platform for influencing the Azeri population in Iran. Azerbaijan has another strategic virtue from the American point of view: energy. on the theory that this would both increase Russian influence and decrease the risk to Russian national security. It is strategically located and provides options for both influencing events in Iran and limiting Russian power in Europe by providing an energy alternative.S. One is the ethnic politics of the United States. The complex tension over oil and natural gas pipelines boils down to the fact that the Russians do not want significant energy sources that are outside of Russian control to be available to Europe. There are two reasons for this. Azerbaijan wants to be able to buy weapons from the United States. Azerbaijan has all the characteristics of a full American ally. Azerbaijan is strategically located between two powers antagonistic to the United States: Russia and Iran. The strong Armenian-American community is hostile to Azerbaijan because of the . The Azerbaijanis have turned to the Israelis instead.

I recall how in 1979. they have opposed arms sales to Azerbaijan. there is pressure on Congress to block weapons shipments. A Chinese businessman once told me that he thought Americans were vile and immoral because they would hire strangers over family merely because the stranger was better qualified. The second reason is more significant. Therefore. He argued that valuing merit over blood was the height of immorality." There is an assumption by human rights advocates that the crowd opposing a repressive regime will create a less repressive government. when demonstrations were going on against the Shah of Iran. At any rate. including those in the State Department. I am not in a position to have seen repression or corruption. Another issue troubles me -. Russia and Armenia. Nor does it become a full-fledged liberal democracy in that time frame. have said that the Azerbaijani government is repressive and corrupt. the obvious fact that he ran a repressive regime was combined with a fantasy about what the demonstrators were like -. This is a country that was a former Soviet republic and that went through a chaotic privatization program that resulted in inequities like those in other former Soviet countries. Looking at the record of other former Soviet republics. Therefore. particularly when it is surrounded by hostile powers on three sides -. It is also a country where family and clan are critical. They weren't. and it is difficult to argue from a human rights point of view that the success of the demonstrators enhanced human rights in Iran. I am therefore more cautious in judging the moral conduct of others. a country doesn't go from being a Soviet republic to having an economy without corruption in a little more than 20 years. The Azerbaijani lobby in the United States has failed to gain the influence of its Armenian counterpart.dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. and even appointing ambassadors is difficult. This is not because I don't think merit is superior to blood but because I am aware that there are reasonable people who think my view is vile.what I call the "Arab Spring syndrome. I would not have liked to build my company on his basis. so there is what Westerners would call cronyism. Human rights advocates.Iran. Azerbaijan is not out of the box. but his comments reminded me that our conviction as to how a society should function is neither universally shared nor admired. .they were all seen as Western liberal democrats. It is hard to imagine what country in the former Soviet Union the United States could be aligned with if Azerbaijan were off limits.

Whatever criticism might be made of the regime. but it is hard to get the United States to do much right now.neither simplistically realistic nor moralistic -.The same can be said of Azerbaijan. An Iranian-sponsored alternative would look like Iran. I explain this in Baku. But the management of massive power requires prudent management of seemingly arcane threats. Most Americans don't go to Baku and too many don't read histories. As much as I enjoy Azerbaijani cooking and company. It is hard to get attention for seemingly arcane issues in the United States today. It matters because it is a wedge between Russia and Iran. A Russiansponsored alternative would look like Russia.that is being tested in Azerbaijan. this becomes obvious. The idea that the United States should not pursue its strategic interests in a situation where the current regime is morally superior to a Russian.or Iranian-backed alternative is perverse. The realities of energy have shifted but not to the extent that Baku doesn't remain critical. Azerbaijan matters to the United States not because of its moral character. . The loss of Azerbaijani oil to either Russia or Iran would increase the pressure on Turkey and eliminate energy alternatives along the periphery of Russia. spasmodic military responses to unanticipated crises. It is not until the arcane becomes the urgent that the United States responds. It is part of the immaturity of a global power trying to find its bearings. it is the ability of the United States to create a stable framework for its foreign policy -. It doesn't take much to guarantee the security of a critical asset. An independent Azerbaijan is a bone in Russia's and Iran's throat and an energy source for Turkey. and they have no choice but to put up with it. Both Hitler and Stalin understood that control of Baku meant control of the Eurasian landmass. The United States must adopt a strategy of early and low-risk support for strategic partners rather than sudden. Any regime that would follow the current one would likely be much worse in a moral sense and might be hostile to the United States. And Azerbaijan pays cash for weapons that will be used by Azerbaijani troops and not by Americans. When I go to Baku and I read my histories. it is difficult to imagine that the alternative would be either more liberal or transparent.

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