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Same Interests, New Climate: Assessing the US-Uzbekistan Relationship

thediplomat.com/
19 December 2019

TASHKENT — Developments in Uzbekistan over the past three years have inspired, in part, the soon-to-be-released new U.S. strategy for Central Asia, U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum told The Diplomat this week.

American interests in Uzbekistan, and Central Asia more broadly, have remained stable across administrations, with security and sovereignty key focal points. Wider regional U.S. interests — the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, for example — are also not new.

But the opportunities for cooperation have grown, particularly in Uzbekistan.

Rosenblum, who took up the ambassador post in Tashkent earlier this year, previously spent almost four years as the deputy assistant secretary for Central Asia. Given that background, he said he could really see the development in the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship since the death of the country’s first president, Islam Karimov.

“I can really see the contrast of what it was and what it is,” Rosenblum told The Diplomat.

Developments in Uzbekistan were one of the catalysts, he said, for updating the U.S. strategy in the region. “Developments here in Uzbekistan… [have] in many ways transformed the environment for regional cooperation in a really profound way and so it made sense to look at that new environment and figure out what implications it had for U.S. policy.”

On three front of particular concern for the United States, Uzbekistan’s reform efforts have excelled: regional cooperation, economics, and Afghanistan. 

With regard to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan’s active interest has been beneficial to U.S. aims. Uzbekistan’s wider economic reforms have not neglected Afghanistan, with development of trade infrastructure in place to take advantage of a future, more peaceful, Afghanistan. Premature, surely, but well-intentioned.

Rosenblum recounted a recent trip to Termez, replete with new warehouses and storage facilities sitting mostly empty. “The Uzbek attitude has been ‘if we build it, they will come,’” he commented.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s good neighbor policy has warmed regional relations and unlocked new possibilities for both diplomacy and trade.

“Uzbekistan has gone from being a ‘problem’ in terms of regional cooperation and regional security to being a catalyst for it,” Rosenblum told The Diplomat, pointing to the recent second meeting of the Central Asian presidents.

While the environment for regional cooperation has improved, the geopolitical features of Eurasia writ-large remain challenging. Globally, Rosenblum commented, “there’s an atmosphere of competition,” highlighted in the most recent National Security Strategy, in which U.S. interests don’t coincide with those of other major powers, like China and Russia. The way in which those circumstances play out, in Central Asia especially, positions the United States as another option on the menu for the countries of the region.

“We know we’re not going to be the only partner” to the countries of Central Asia, Rosenblum said, but “our general view is that the countries of the region can benefit from having diverse partners and diverse relationships.”

Pushing out Russia or China is just “not realistic,” Rosenblum said, and that’s not the main thrust of the new strategy. But on the other hand, the United States, he said, has a legitimate place in the region. “We have something to offer that is off mutual benefit… and so we’re going to keep pursuing those kinds if partnerships.”

An important facet of U.S. engagement in Uzbekistan is soft-power, deployed in the context of people-to-people exchanges and public diplomacy work that build foundations of familiarity, respect and trust. In the long run, Rosenblum told The Diplomat, such connections are “extremely important and powerful.