ALMATY — In mid-November, Kazakhstan hosted the third annual “Astana Club,” a new independent and unbiased platform for dialogue among international business leaders, politicians, media representatives, and other experts on the “critical issues affecting all the countries of Eurasia.” The event epitomized Kazakhstan’s foreign policy over the last two decades, at a moment when that policy is set to confront unprecedented tests.
Participants in this year’s Astana Club were high-profile and diverse: representatives of leading think tanks from Europe, Asia, the United States, and the Middle East; former presidents, such as Turkey’s Abdullah Gül and Slovenia’s Danilo Türk; former European commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner; Indian MP Shashi Tharoor; and CEO of Channel One Russia Konstantin Ernst.
The discussions took place in the Nazarbayev Centre, housed in an imposing and futuristic building designed by the renowned British architect Norman Foster. In a scene reminiscent of the intergalactic assembly in “Star Wars,” participants sat at a large table encircling a map of Eurasia to discuss the emerging world order, great power rivalries, sanction wars, nuclear proliferation, and regional integration projects.
This combination of status-seeking public relations and the provision of public goods that characterizes the Astana Club discussions has long been a feature of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. For example, every three years Kazakhstan hosts a Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, for which it commissioned Foster to build another imposing and futuristic building, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
Kazakhstan’s leadership has also worked to place itself at the forefront of the international nonproliferation movement. And last October, talks were held in Astana, the capital, on the Syrian crisis, with representatives of the Syrian government and some armed opposition groups attending—despite Kazakhstan’s distance from the tragic developments in that country.
This approach emerged soon after Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, when it initiated the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia, modeled after the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Cooperation, or Osce). It reflects Kazakhstan’s appreciation of the liberal world order into which it was born in 1991—an order that had then just received a major boost, with the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Not one to settle for being an accepted member of the liberal world order, Kazakhstan sought the chairmanship of Osce in Europe, which it obtained in 2010, and pursued a difficult but ultimately successful campaign to become a nonpermanent UN Security Council member in 2017-2018. It aspires eventually to join the advanced economies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the international community that Kazakhstan is trying so hard to impress is undergoing fundamental change. Russia, the great power of Kazakhstan’s neighborhood, has unsettled the region with its invasion of Ukraine, in which it illegally annexed Crimea and began a war in the eastern Donbas region.
To compound the problem, it seems that the United States cannot be counted on to continue constraining Russia or underwriting the post-1945 liberal world order that it created. Having ridden to power on a wave of popular anger, US President Donald Trump can’t even be counted on to follow its rules.
The European Union is similarly beset by internal political challenges that stem from a surge in anti-establishment and nationalist sentiment. China has sought to step into the breach of global leadership—and has been met with surprisingly strong approval from the rest of the world.
Such tectonic shifts are jarring enough for the large powers that bring them about; for small countries, they can be even more disorienting. Even as some welcome the demise of Western hegemony, the fact is that, for a country like Kazakhstan, unpredictability implies danger. It does not help that the emerging powers are less bound to international human rights norms and conventions, and thus less likely to attempt to enforce them.
Kazakhstan achieved independence at a time when international cooperation, free trade, and collective security were encouraged, and it has long worked to support these principles. Though Kazakhstan’s government, like other young states in the region, has lagged in advancing democracy and human rights, it has at least avoided foreclosing them entirely. For now, it is trying to stay the course. But if the trends continue, it might lose direction. Project Syndicate
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Nargis Kassenova is director of the Central Asian Studies Center at KIMEP University in Kazakhstan.