On Wednesday, a lot of Azerbaijani people expressed their great delight at the approval of Matthew Bryza as the new ambassador to Azerbaijan by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This feeling is logical for Azerbaijani people, because Washington has failed to appoint a new ambassador to Azerbaijan for over a year. Baku has viewed this inaction as proof of U.S. disrespect and disinterest in the development of Azerbaijani-U.S. bilateral relations.
Although the U.S. president nominated Bryza, a skillful diplomat who is a former Minsk Group co-chair, the U.S. Senate has delayed his validation because of the Armenian diaspora’s strong lobbying efforts. The Armenian community is opposed to Bryza’s appointment because of concerns over his partiality, as they view him as a diplomat with close ties to Azerbaijan who intends to strengthen U.S. interests there. The current impasse, from Baku’s vantage point, looks like disrespect, or the dysfunction of the U.S. political system, or both. As a result, conclusions have been made in Baku about the U.S. capacity for leadership in the region.
Since the election of Barack Obama, recent developments showed that his administration’s initial focus on the Caucasus was to push for the opening of the Armenia-Turkey border at any cost, even as the U.S. president “forgot” to appoint an ambassador to Baku. Starting in 2009, suffering from “cartographic camouflage,” Obama’s administration not only failed to develop, but even decreased the importance of the U.S.-Azerbaijan strategic partnership.
Many analysts ask the question: Is the United States losing Azerbaijan?
During this time both countries asked fundamental questions about the future of U.S.-Azerbaijan strategic relations. Both countries’ politicians argued that the Obama administration has obviously failed to understand the importance of the region and there was a growing belief among the Azerbaijani public regarding Washington’s “neglect” toward Azerbaijan.
Time showed that realpolitik has its limits in a fluid strategic environment, where the perspectives of a regional and a global power often diverge and sustainable relationships require commitment and frequent high-level consultation.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during her visit in July. At the meeting Aliyev said he expected the U.S. “to work closely with us [Azerbaijan] and with others on the resolution [of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict].” After Clinton, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made an emergency visit to Baku, which jump-started the fence mending. It brought new hopes of the solution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and fresh air to the strategic partnership.
Clearly, after the August War in 2008, Azerbaijan stands as the strongest state among the three South Caucasus countries and Washington should review first of all its policy toward Baku because of their common interests.
On one hand, Azerbaijan needs U.S. assistance in the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in balancing regional actors like Russia and Iran. Even if in the recent two years Azerbaijan adopted an “offensive tactic” in response to U.S. policy, after the new Russian regional initiatives, Baku is ready to renew its dialogue with Washington.
It may also be that last year’s economic development caused by the increasing energy cooperation of Azerbaijan made a serious contribution to the strengthening of its foreign policy arguments.
On the other hand, the U.S. has strong economic and mostly strategic interests in Azerbaijan because of its energy resources and geographical location in the neighborhood of Iran and Russia. The strong partnership with Azerbaijan answers the strategic questions in Washington, related to the consolidation of the U.S. presence in the Caucasus-Caspian Sea region, the dilution of Russia’s regional influence and the isolation of Iran.
As a result, the United States needs to state its long-term policy priorities toward the region. To be precise, the U.S. government policy toward the region (as any other regions), involves a multitude of governmental bodies. Little or no active coordination exists at present between them, and occasionally their interests and policies are in outright confrontation, as is sometimes the case with the departments of State and Defense.
Such is the case of Bryza’s appointment to Baku, opposed by congressmen who are supported by Armenian diaspora groups. Long-term strategy needs high-quality coordination between governmental structures. As for the future, the U.S. needs to promote a more proactive rather than reactive policy in the region, and in those terms the appointment of Bryza is a “first” step.
|Zaur Shiriyev is a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan.