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.
The United States: An Adolescent Global Power
I have visited Azerbaijan several times since 2008, when I published a book called The Next 100 Years, which identified Azerbaijan as geopolitically critical in the emerging global system. This brought with it an invitation to visit Azerbaijan and see the place on which my theory focused. Since I continue to regard Azerbaijan as critical both in the struggle emerging in the Caucasus and to the United States, I continue to visit and continue to enjoy dinners that never end and rounds of toasts that test my liver. But I never forget one thing: Hitler risked everything to get to Baku and its oil. He failed to reach it, and the history of our time turns on that fact.
My latest trip had to do with a conference on U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. There are a small number of people in the United States who care about Azerbaijan and most of them were there, along with some congressmen, state representatives and a large numbers of Azeris. Compared with my first encounter with Azerbaijan, the number of people interested in the country has risen dramatically.
Conferences on subjects like this are global. You can be in Washington, Singapore or Baku and it all looks the same. When you are in my business, you meet the same people several times a year. Sometimes they have something new to say; sometimes I have something new to say. It is too infrequent. What is interesting is the people you don’t normally meet: the local academics, government officials, businessmen and others. Over time you create a group of friends in the countries you visit. These are the ones from whom you learn the most. And in Azerbaijan, you listen to their desire to be friends with the United States and bewilderment at American indifference.
This is a recurring theme in my travels. Everyone is unhappy with the United States either for doing something or not doing something. In either case, they feel let down by the United States, and I am somehow personally at fault. In general I give as good as I get. But in the case of Azerbaijan, I’m on the defensive. They feel let down by the United States, and they are. This isn’t a question of sentiment. Nations don’t have friends and whatever my friendships in Azerbaijan — friendships that are real and important to me — the United States must pursue its interests. 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. I don’t like criticizing my country in another country, so I try to shift the discussion to something else. It rarely works.
My own interest in Azerbaijan requires greater explanation. In The Next 100 Years I forecast a number of events, beginning with the serious weakening of the European Union and the increase in relative power of Russia. Russia had its own problems, but between Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and the fact that Russia had cash available to buy assets in Europe, the decline of Europe meant a more powerful Russia. The countries that would feel that power would be those bordering the former Soviet Union — a line from Poland to Turkey and then from Turkey to Azerbaijan, the eastern anchor of Europe on the Caspian Sea.
I wrote that the United States, withdrawing from its wars in the Islamic world, would be increasingly cautious and uncertain. The United States would continue to be the dominant power in the world, economically the most viable and with the most powerful military, but an adolescent power without foresight or balance in its actions. I argued that the United States had not been the dominant global power until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. 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. Between Korea, Vietnam and some other, less well-known engagements, nearly 100,000 Americans died in the “Cold” War — almost as many as died in World War I — a fact that most people don’t appreciate. And when we look back on Korea and Vietnam, it is hard to imagine this period as the American age.
The United States won the Cold War because the Soviets knocked themselves out. But a win is a win and the United States stood alone, really amazed to be where it was, talking about New World Orders, but truly clueless as to what it would do later. First it imagined that war had been abolished and that it was all about making money. Then it imagined that it would spend the next century with only Islamic terrorists on its mind. Now it seems to have decided that it will avoid involvement in the world — 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.
Specialists in U.S. foreign policy divide into two camps. One camp is the realists, who argue that the United States should pursue its national self-interest. That seems reasonable until you ask them to define what the national interest is. Another camp consists of idealists, who want to use American power to do good, whether building democracy or stopping human rights abuses. It’s a good idea until you ask them how they intend to do it. Usually the answer is to intervene but only kill bad people. I assume they will wear signs.
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. It takes awhile to understand how to use power. The British had to lose America before they started to get the idea. The United States is fortunate. It is rich and isolated, and even if terrorists kill some of us, we will not be occupied like France or Poland. We have time to grow up. This makes the rest of the world very uncomfortable. Sometimes the United States does inexplicable things. Sometimes it fails to do necessary things. When the United States makes a mistake it is mostly other countries that suffer or are placed at risk. So some of the world wishes the United States would disappear. It won’t. Other parts of the world wish the United States take responsibility for their security. It won’t.
The Criticality of Azerbaijan
This brings us back to Azerbaijan. It is a country that borders both Russia and Iran. In Russia it borders Dagestan; in Iran it borders the Iranian Azeri region. The bulk of Azeris live in Iran, where they are the largest ethnic minority group in the country (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is an Azeri). Azerbaijan is a predominantly secular country. It feels threatened by Iranian Shiite terrorism and by Sunni Islamic terrorism in the north. Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s in which it lost an area called Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, which was backed by the Russians. Russian troops are now based in Armenia. A government that appears to have close ties to Russia has replaced the formerly pro-American government of Georgia. Azerbaijan finds itself in a tough place, and the country’s position between Russia and Iran makes it critical. A secular Muslim state in this region hostile to both Iran and Russia is not all that common.
Azerbaijan has another strategic virtue from the American point of view: energy. The Russian strategy has been to maintain and deepen European dependence on Russian energy, on the theory that this would both increase Russian influence and decrease the risk to Russian national security. The second phase of this strategy has been to limit alternatives for the Europeans, including Turkey. 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.
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. But there are limits to American power and interest. It cannot go to war as the first option. The United States can afford to support only countries that take primary responsibility for their national security on themselves. The United States cannot be the primary source of that security.
This is what makes U.S. relations with Azerbaijan interesting. Azerbaijan is strategically located between two powers antagonistic to the United States: Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan has served as a major transshipment point for supplies to Afghanistan. Azerbaijan wants to be able to buy weapons from the United States. The United States has deflected that request in most cases. The Azerbaijanis have turned to the Israelis instead, with whom they have close ties.
Azerbaijan has all the characteristics of a full American ally. It is strategically located and provides options for both influencing events in Iran and limiting Russian power in Europe by providing an energy alternative, including the possibility of a pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Central Asia. Given its location it needs access to weapons, for which it is prepared to pay. Yet the United States limits its access to weapons.
There are two reasons for this. One is the ethnic politics of the United States. The strong Armenian-American community is hostile to Azerbaijan because of the dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Azerbaijani lobby in the United States has failed to gain the influence of its Armenian counterpart. Therefore, there is pressure on Congress to block weapons shipments, and even appointing ambassadors is difficult. The second reason is more significant. Human rights advocates, including those in the State Department, have said that the Azerbaijani government is repressive and corrupt. Therefore, they have opposed arms sales to Azerbaijan.
I am not in a position to have seen repression or corruption. 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. It is also a country where family and clan are critical, so there is what Westerners would call cronyism. 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. He argued that valuing merit over blood was the height of immorality. I would not have liked to build my company on his basis, but his comments reminded me that our conviction as to how a society should function is neither universally shared nor admired. I am therefore more cautious in judging the moral conduct of others. 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.
At any rate, a country doesn’t go from being a Soviet republic to having an economy without corruption in a little more than 20 years. Nor does it become a full-fledged liberal democracy in that time frame, particularly when it is surrounded by hostile powers on three sides — Iran, Russia and Armenia. Looking at the record of other former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan is not out of the box. It is hard to imagine what country in the former Soviet Union the United States could be aligned with if Azerbaijan were off limits.
Another issue troubles me — what I call the “Arab Spring syndrome.” There is an assumption by human rights advocates that the crowd opposing a repressive regime will create a less repressive government. I recall how in 1979, when demonstrations were going on against the Shah of Iran, the obvious fact that he ran a repressive regime was combined with a fantasy about what the demonstrators were like — they were all seen as Western liberal democrats. 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.
The same can be said of Azerbaijan. Whatever criticism might be made of the regime, it is difficult to imagine that the alternative would be either more liberal or transparent. An Iranian-sponsored alternative would look like Iran. A Russian-sponsored alternative would look like Russia. 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. It is part of the immaturity of a global power trying to find its bearings.
Azerbaijan matters to the United States not because of its moral character. It matters because it is a wedge between Russia and Iran. 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. 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. The United States must adopt a strategy of early and low-risk support for strategic partners rather than sudden, spasmodic military responses to unanticipated crises. An independent Azerbaijan is a bone in Russia’s and Iran’s throat and an energy source for Turkey. And Azerbaijan pays cash for weapons that will be used by Azerbaijani troops and not by Americans.
It is hard to get attention for seemingly arcane issues in the United States today. It is not until the arcane becomes the urgent that the United States responds. I explain this in Baku, and they have no choice but to put up with it. But the management of massive power requires prudent management of seemingly arcane threats. As much as I enjoy Azerbaijani cooking and company, it is the ability of the United States to create a stable framework for its foreign policy — neither simplistically realistic nor moralistic — that is being tested in Azerbaijan.
Both Hitler and Stalin understood that control of Baku meant control of the Eurasian landmass. The realities of energy have shifted but not to the extent that Baku doesn’t remain critical. When I go to Baku and I read my histories, this becomes obvious. Most Americans don’t go to Baku and too many don’t read histories. It doesn’t take much to guarantee the security of a critical asset, but it is hard to get the United States to do much right now.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article has been republished with permission of Stratfor.