Obama is wrong to duck out of OSCE summit

November 19. Central Asia Newswire

by Martin Sieff

Obama is wrong to duck out of OSCE summitPresident Barack Obama has received a rocky reception at international summits in recent days, so it’s humanly understandable that he decided to duck possible criticism and declined to go to the upcoming Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to be held December 1-2. But that decision is a very bad one for U.S. national interests, and the president should reconsider it.

The United States has significant interests and a lot going for it in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is the world’s fastest growing energy economy: It has attracted $120 billion in foreign direct investment since becoming independent of the disintegrating Soviet Union at the end of 1991, and $15 billion of that is invested by major U.S. energy corporations.

Kazakhstan’s oil, natural gas and uranium resources are vast and new discoveries are adding to known reserves all the time.  Right now China and major continental European nations like Germany, France and Italy are running rings around the United States in nailing down hugely lucrative export orders for the enormous construction and hi-tech industrial development projects that are transforming the vast Central Asian nation, which at 1 million square miles is the ninth largest in the world.

President Obama in fact got off on the right foot with the Kazakhs when he gave them a prominent place in his Washington nuclear nonproliferation summit this spring. Kazakhstan, a Muslim nation, was also the first nation in history to unilaterally completely scrap the vast nuclear arsenal and delivery systems it inherited from the Soviet Union – weapons that had made it the fourth most powerful nuclear state in the world, far exceeding Britain and France.

But since the April summit in Washington, senior Kazakh officials have privately worried that though they are eager to expand their energy cooperation and trade deals with the United States, the Obama administration and the State Department have shown no interest in pursuing that agenda.

US diplomats have in recent months marked up significant and welcome improvements in US relations with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the two other energy-rich nations of former Soviet Central Asia. Yet Kazakhstan officials visiting Washington are repeatedly subjected to a relentless barrage of lectures and pressures on advancing human rights and democratic issues, even though Kazakhstan is incomparably freer, more open and more prosperous than its two energy-rich neighbors, and vastly more stable than supposedly democratic Kyrgyzstan, which in reality is sliding relentlessly into total anarchy and chaos.

Rather than attend the OSCE summit himself, Obama is sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his place. If the president does not go, then Secretary Clinton, undoubtedly the only other foreign policy heavy-hitter in the current administration, is the right choice to go.

But the president’s personal presence is critical for U.S. national interests in Astana at a summit billed as a gathering of over 50 heads of state – and U.S. diplomats have been eager to build up the OSCE as a major structure for resolving security, human rights and economic issues across Eurasia.

Sane and experienced figures (increasingly few on the Washington foreign policy scene) recognize that a rejuvenated OSCE offers the United States a rare avenue to exert multi-lateral influence across Eurasia to counter the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Russian- and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), or Shanghai Pact.  A thoughtful and comprehensive Atlantic Council report on US policy towards Central Asia earlier this year made that very point.

The president’s refusal to attend the OSCE summit will signal, more loudly than any of Secretary Clinton’s assurances to the contrary, that the current administration does not take the OSCE seriously and that it lacks the fortitude and focus to bring significant influence to bear on exerting US influence in the area.

It will certainly be taken by the Kazakhs in particular as a real rebuff, and it will make it far more difficult for American companies competing for major industrial, infrastructure and agricultural contracts, as well as export opportunities in Kazakhstan. And it certainly won’t strengthen the hand of the US energy majors as they try to stave off ambitious challengers from around the world, especially China, to develop new energy opportunities there.

President Obama repeatedly talks the talk about America’s continued global leadership and commitment to regaining prosperity and economic security for its people through taking advantage of the opportunities of free trade; but it’s time for him to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. There’s no excuse except sloppiness and laziness for him not going.