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Qualitative Energy Diplomacy in Central Asia: A Comparative Analysis of the Policies of the United States, Russia and China

At the turn of the 21st century, Central Asia – especially Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan which are rich in oil and gas – has emerged as a new center of energy reserves. To compete for access to these resources in a pragmatic manner, the major powers also found it increasingly necessary to rationalize their ambitions qualitatively, if not necessarily ideologically. So the United States designed the platform of liberal democracy and “human rights above sovereignty,” Russia proffered its own idea of “sovereign democracy” to the Central Asians, and China posed as a non-interventionist “responsible state.”

From Energy Diplomacy to “Qualitative Energy Diplomacy”

As various scholars have proposed, a qualitative, value-driven or ideology-based foreign policy, in combination with traditional realist interpretations, constitutes a new distinctive “constructivist” school of thought in the study of international relations.[1] However, the rules of this new game are not yet fully spelled out. This paper begins by seeking to strengthen the theoretical groundwork of the constructivist school of international relations, on which this analysis is based, by proposing the following core rules, which can be used to study how the three powers maneuver within Central Asia:

1. Most studies on energy politics share two common assumptions: that the stakeholders are rationality-based, and they are realist-orientated. It would be naïve to assume that states today are not seeking to maximize their energy and security interests. Yet, this alone is no longer sufficient for the 21st century either.

2. Since the end of the Cold War, realist tenets have been challenged by the rise of norms and ideas that call for qualitative justifications of interest-maximizing behaviors. Encroaching on overseas energy resources might be seen as a violation of some of the new norms, such as peace and conservation. Without offering values or ideologies to rationalize their behavior from the moral high ground, the powers could face considerable challenges domestically and internationally.[2]

3. As a result, states have to offer a state-sponsored qualitative dimension to rationalize their hunt for resources in seemingly non-interest-driven terms. To be effective, such qualities, values, or ideologies need to serve as a compelling alternative to offset conflicting norms that question the energy campaigns; be easily shared by domestic nationalists; and be potentially accepted by some audiences in the home countries that host the resources.

4. From the perspective of states, interests always trump qualitative values because blindly following the rules could result in deviation from national interests. If the two are in conflict, values in the political sense are often less important than interests in the economic sense; in particular, excessively fanatical ideological pursuit would be discouraged; reporting of the regimes’ sacrificing of mere pursuit of values would be toned down. In other words, QED is different from mere ideological diplomacy in a sense that QED includes both carrot and stick: non-cooperative nations in terms of energy are more likely to be also denounced in moralistic terms by the powers.

5. The efforts spent by different powers on QED are, of course, different. Generally speaking, the more pluralistic a country is domestically, the more likely their values will be taken seriously on the diplomatic front. In this sense, it is expected from the paper that values play a relatively larger role in the United States’ Central Asia policy and a lesser role in its Russian and Chinese counterparts.

Note that this article primarily studies the role of the governments in advancing QED, whereas the private agendas of other domestic actors like oil companies (other than state-owned enterprises / SOEs) or pressure groups are not the direct focus here, even though their roles are by no means insignificant. The following section of the article shows how the above tenets of QED have been adopted by the United States, Russia and China in Central Asia. For each of these major powers, three aspects are reviewed: (1) the official-sponsored qualitative values chosen; (2) how these qualities facilitate traditional energy diplomacy in the region; and (3) how interests trump values as proven by the insincerity of these nations in preaching mere ideologies when they go against interests.


[1] See Michael Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Christer Pursiainen, Russian Foreign Policy and International Relations Theory (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2000); Sujian Guo and Shiping Hua, New Dimensions of Chinese Foreign Policy (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007).

[2] John Kurt Jacobsen, “Much Ado about Ideas: The Cognitive Factor in Economic Policy,” World Politics, 47(2) (Jan 1995), pp. 283-310; Albert S. Yee, “The Causal Effects of Ideas on Policies,” International Organization, 50(1) (December 1996). pp. 69-108.

SERIES: Working Papers by CEAP Visiting Fellows | Number 53