Positive-Sum Relations with Russia in Central Asia

Are America and Russia adding up positive sums or punching it out along zero sum lines in Central Asia?An example: after some dramatic haggling, in which it seemed like Russian border guards were about to leave Tajikistan, it was decided on June 4 th

Are America and Russia adding up positive sums or punching it out along zero sum lines in Central Asia?

An example: after some dramatic haggling, in which it seemed like Russian border guards were about to leave Tajikistan, it was decided on June 4 that the Russians would stay at least until 2006. This ought to be a good thing for all parties - for Russia, for Tajikistan and for the United States, which also has an interest in security along the Tajik-Afghan border. Yet this could also be characterized as a turn by the Tajik government away from a budding American alignment, which had been expressed in earlier attempts to push Russia out. Likewise, a Russian analyst, Sergei Blagov, connected the earlier, anti-Russian moves to Tajik exploration of turning to a U.S. alignment (in "Are Plans for Tajikistan Unraveling?," Asia Times, May 6, 2004). It was the earlier anti-Russian moves that forced the game into a zero-sum mould. If that was America's game, it lost.

Another example: Uzbekistan has reinforced its relations with Russia, dealing the United States a blow in its moves to establish its bases and its influence in the region in place of Russia. This is not a quote from any single source.  Rather, it is how the events of June 15-16 - a Russia-Uzbek pact and a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit - have been interpreted in both the Russian and Western policy analysis communities. The interpretation has an element of truth: there is a new bilateral security pact that says, among other things, that neither nation "will allow a third state to use its territory in a way that can harm the sovereignty of the other." Russian fears shine through in this; but operationally it could dissolve into insignificance if the United States salves Russian fears. And most of the other elements in the enhanced Russian-Uzbek relationship are not zero-sum - not unless made so by the belief on both sides that it must be so. The planned joint anti-terrorism institute is a form of functional cooperation that the United States could consider making itself a part of.

America is going to lose too often in the zero-sum game and ought to stop playing it - or allowing itself to be played off against Russia by the local rulers, as may have happened in the Tajik incident. Given the natural strength of Russian influence in the region, it is simply not a sound game for America.  Russia has too many cards to play - ethnic Central Asians in Moscow whose remittances help keep Central Asia afloat, ethnic Russians in Central Asia who are also essential to the local economy, Central Asian debts to Russia, etc.

Yet month after month, the media - particularly the specialized media of the policy analysis community - report zero-sum moves. If they are Russian media, they report nasty moves by the United States and analyze how these are meant to thwart Russia's legitimate interests. If they are American media, they report ugly moves by Russia and analyze how these are meant to thwart America's beneficent influence in the region. Often they see the moves of both sides as zero-sum - yet they give all the blame to the other side for the zero-sum spirit, and proceed to prescribe (or predict, or praise) a zero-sum response on their own side.

With such "help" from their respective analysis communities, reinforced by Cold War habits, one might expect the two governments to follow completely zero-sum policies in the region. And to end up worse off for it.

Fortunately the reality has, instead, been mixed: some major moves of mutual support and joint policy, alongside some zero-sum moves and some in-between, symbiotic moves. This suggests that there has been new learning from experience, not yet filtered down into some entrenched subcultures; and that there could be a larger space for positive-sum outcomes out there waiting to be tapped, if it could only be explored and analyzed.

The policy analysis community has not been helping with this, neither in Moscow nor in Washington. Not most of the time, at least. But let me paint the scenery of a meeting last month where policy analysts did better.


It was a pleasant day at one of the inside-the-beltway think tanks in Washington. A seminar was being held on American and Russian roles in Central Asia. The speakers were competent, reasonable and intelligent. They quickly stumbled into the pit of zero sum logic. Nothing new here. Nevertheless, by the end of the day, the discussion turned itself around, worked its way out of the pit, and climbed up into the sunnier realm of positive sums.

How did it happen? In the early stages, audience questioners as well as panelists were mostly talking within zero-sum frameworks. It did not require a specific effort; it was a default mode for sophisticated analysis. Speakers would sometimes presuppose an inherent natural opposition of U.S. and Russian interests - that is, they would make an unstated zero-sum assumption from the U.S. side - and other times, somewhat contradictorily, would attribute Russian policies to an incorrigible zero-sum outlook in failing to appreciate the wonderful positive-sum approach of the Americans. They would busily develop, tit-for-tat, the implications of these assumptions, depicting mutually opposing past moves, and predicting and prescripting similar future moves. And while they would describe the negativity on both sides, somehow they would always dump the blame for the negativity on Russia.

However, one audience member, a former American diplomat in Moscow, intervened to observe that Russian officials, while deaf to all his  protestations in the 1990s that U.S. moves in the region were not zero-sum, were not always mistaken in that deafness: some of the moves were indeed zero-sum. It was, he said, a "dialogue of the deaf," meaning that the deafness went both ways.