US Cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Challenges and Opportunities
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Few regions in the world offer a clearer picture of geopolitical competition than Central Asia. The region plays host to such global powers as the United States, Russia, China, and Indiaâall states with enormous resources they are willing to expend in a scramble for political and economic influence. Underlying Central Asia's geopolitical value are its energy supplies, diverse security concerns, and position as a 'geostrategic crossroads'. As access to energy supplies can be zero-sum and securitization of 'threats' differs by referent object, states' objectives are often in direct opposition to one another. These regional realities contribute to a sense of anarchy in which states are locked in ruthless 'self-help' competition. For the United States, Central Asia is home to some of the nation's most intractable foreign policy challenges. First among issues is the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which is a drain on US resources and taxes US alliances. Second is the issue of Russia and China, both of which are attempting to erode the United States' influence in the region by limiting its political and economic presence there. Third are the United States' relations with Iran. While not technically a Central Asian state, it does look toward Central Asia for critical diplomatic support. To meet these challenges, the United States cooperates with a wide variety of state and non-state actors. First, in Afghanistan, the US Department of Defense (DoD) works with both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a coalition of partners under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) framework. Second, the Unites States Department of State (DoS) and DoD work with NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union to support democratic and economic development in Central Asia to maintain influence in the region. Third, the United States in engaged in extensive bilateral and multilateral diplomacy aimed at pressuring Iran into halting its nuclear program. While cooperation with state actors and international organizations has helped advance US interests in Central Asia, the United States still faces key regional challenges. Washington's failure to capitalize on its partnerships to develop successful solutions for Afghanistan, growing Chinese and Russian influence, and Iran rest at least in part with the types of states and institutions the US principally works. NATO, ISAF, and the EU are all Western organizations operating in an environment in which they are clearly foreign actors. These states and organizations lack the cultural and ideational legitimacy necessary to implement a specifically 'Central Asian' solution to Central Asian problems. The United States does maintain bilateral relations with each of the five Central Asian countries and attempts to base its foreign policy on specific cultural and political characteristics. Such bilateral relations are pivotal in achieving policy gains and influencing regional dynamics. They are, however, limiting in that they do not allow for a regional approach to transnational issues. To facilitate a regional approach, the United States must work with an endogenous international organization. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) stands alone as an organization positioned to address the aforementioned challenges. It is indigenous in conception and construction and contains both China and Russia as member states. As opposed to NATO, the UN, or the EU, the SCO does possess the necessary cultural understanding to implement a successful regional solution to the United States' Central Asia challenges. The United States would benefit from closer cooperation with the SCO in its struggle to bring security to Afghanistan, to maintain its political and economic influence in Central Asia, and to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program.
Small Wars Journal
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