Can Trump Shake Up the South Caucasus?

Azerbaijani soldiers on parade in Moscow. Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia all expect different things.

The South Caucasus states followed the U.S. presidential election carefully, due to their expectations of the next leader occupying the White House. Since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, the existence of powerful Armenian lobby groups, Georgia’s endeavors to become a Western ally and Azerbaijan’s energy resources, as well as the role of trade and energy transit between East and West, have all attracted U.S. attention to the region. The South Caucasus is one of the world’s most tumultuous regions, because of three spots of conflict (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). In the light of geopolitical transformations in the region, U.S. involvement there is of high importance for local states with expectations that the United States will support their independence and sovereignty.

In 2016, all three South Caucasus states marked their twenty-fifth anniversary as independent actors in the international community. In the ensuing twenty-five years, various issues have had direct or indirect effect on the United States’ South Caucasus policy. The foreign-policy priorities of U.S. administrations, the region’s geostrategic importance for U.S. interests, the United States’ relations with neighboring Iran and Russia, the enlargement of NATO, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the closed border between Turkey and Armenia (closed in 1993 due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) all have enormous impact on the United States’ bilateral relations with regional states and its foreign policy towards the South Caucasus.

According to U.S. officials, three major issues affect U.S. policy toward South Caucasus states: democracy and human rights, energy, and security. However, the prioritization of these issues changed according the priorities of various administrations over the last twenty-five years. Under the Bill Clinton administration, energy was at the top of the United States’ South Caucasus policy, because transporting the Caspian basin’s energy resources to Western markets was a priority. Under George W. Bush’s presidency, security was on the top of the United States’ foreign-policy agenda, because of the September 11 terror attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States followed a rather liberal-interventionist foreign policy in the region. However, the place of these three issues was different in the respective cases of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The United States’ engagement in the region during the Clinton and Bush administrations was more active than in Barack Obama’s presidency.

During his first term, Bill Clinton followed a policy of containing Iran and putting “Russia First” in the region. The architect of this policy was Strobe Talbott, who believed that Russia would change first, followed by the post-Soviet states. That policy was successful until 1996, but after then, the United States changed its policy. Bill Clinton’s administration actively endorsed regional energy projects in order to integrate regional states into the Western community and to strengthen their independence and sovereignty. Since 1994, all the states have been part of NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program, and actively supporting NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan.

At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States and Iran lacked diplomatic relations because of economic sanctions imposed against Iran. Iran has long tried to defeat its containment by the United States, by developing economic and political relations with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result, a new minor geopolitical competition began between Iran and the United States in the region, though it never became an hot war. The South Caucasus states never supported the imposition of economic sanctions against Iran.

Under George W. Bush, the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the region increased due to “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, which were the most eager states to become members of the EU and NATO. Russia, by contrast, has strongly opposed the enlargement of NATO toward the post-Soviet region, because of security reasons. Georgia has opted for Euro-Atlantic integration and becoming a member of NATO and the EU. During the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, the United States and Poland called for granting a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia; however, the proposal met opposition from several countries, led by Germany and France. These countries opposed Georgia’s membership in NATO because of the situation facing the country’s breakaway territories. As a result, today Georgia has been left without the MAP. Meanwhile, newly elected Donald Trump is also against NATO enlargement.

During the George W. Bush era, confrontation between the United States and Iran had negative effects across the region. The Bush administration tried to deploy military bases in the South Caucasus against Iran, but regional states—even Georgia—refused to host them. Under Obama’s presidency, Iran signed the nuclear deal with the P5+1 states, and Western countries removed certain sanctions against Iran. The new situation had a positive impact for regional security and for bilateral relations between Iran and the South Caucasus states. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has referred to deal as a “disaster” and vowed to “dismantle” the deal. This would probably have a negative effect on regional relations and may lead to new crises in the region.

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