Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day: the Importance of Understanding Central Asia

As many Americans head to the beach to celebrate Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, I would like to use this blog to draw attention to the strategic significance of Central Asia to American foreign policy. When I say to my friends and family that I am spending my summer in Kazakhstan (I leave in a week and a half), I usually receive one of three responses. First, are you filming Borat 2? Second, where (and in some cases, like the saleswoman at the Verizon store, "what") is Kazakhstan?  Third, why Kazakhstan?

In addition to Central Asia's fascinating history -- a story of warring tribes, nomadic empires, and cultural influences from China, Persia, Russia and the Turkic world -- the region is of strategic security importance. Earlier this week, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) published a new report, Beyond Afghanistan: A Regional Security Strategy for South and Central Asia, that provides a comprehensive analysis of the regional security challenges.

I found the most interesting part of the report to be the recommendation for increased trade and transit routes and a "strategic public engagement plan." Promoting inter-regional commercial activity is certainly not a new suggestion in this report. Rather, incorporating a trade-promotion strategy, in conjunction with civilian projects such as "visitor and exchange programs to build relationships," is a fundamental recognition that South-Central Asian security requires a comprehensive, multi-level approach.

What Barno, Exum and Irvine, the report's authors, refer to as "public engagement," is to the State Department, "Public Diplomacy." Last fall at Georgetown, I attended a lecture by Edward Schatz who gave a great lecture titled "Framing Public Diplomacy and Anti-Americanism in Central Asia." While I do not remember all of the details of his lecture, I took away one important point: American public diplomacy in Central Asia at the micro-level would augment America's image.  I remember Schatz explaining how since 9/11, America has used the Central Asian states for strategic purposes and consequently, most Central Asians' interactions with the U.S. is limited to viewing American military vehicles pass through the country. So far, American-Central Asian interactions are limited to high-level power politics. Increased micro-level engagement cognizant of region and culture-specific sensitivities would be the optimal use of American public diplomacy.

So, my answer to those who ask "why kazakhstan" is that cross-cultural understanding is absolutely critical to safeguarding the security of the U.S.A. By learning the languages, understanding cultural norms, values and practices, and appreciating different ways of life, American policy makers and strategic planners will be in a position to make well-informed decisions and be able to better predict the outcome of such decisions. As an aspiring policy maker, I believe engaging at the grassroots level will provide invaluable insight into Central Asian, particularly Kazakh, culture. Simply put -- understanding Central Asian culture is part of America's security strategy. That is why I am going to Kazakhstan.

Happy Memorial Day.

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