Predicting the future of US relations with any country under the Trump Administration may appear a fool’s errand. The new president has little political background, especially in foreign policy; and he has explicitly made unpredictability a mark of honour. Can anything, then, be said about the Trump Administration’s likely approach to Azerbaijan and the Caspian region? At this early date, only several preliminary conclusions can be drawn.

President-Elect Donald Trump points toward the crowd during his speech at a rally at the Giant Center, Hershey, Pennsylvania, on 15 December 2016. Photo: Evan El-Amin/

However, to appreciate the prospects of America’s approach to the region, it is useful to briefly examine the history of the past 25 years. Simply put, for the first half of the quarter-century since independence, there was a bipartisan consensus that held that the Caspian was an important region for American national security interests, and both Democratic and Republican administrations pursued balanced foreign policies that sought to advance security, trade, and democratic development. Yet in the second half of the period, this began to change, and an American disengagement from the South Caucasus and Central Asia has been very visible. This disengagement was most visible in the areas of security and trade; whereas the normative agenda of supporting democracy and human rights remained in full vigour, creating a lack of balance in US policies.

The relationship was at its strongest when the United States had a clear and identifiable strategy in the Caspian region

Looking at bilateral US-Azerbaijan relations, these developed rapidly during the Baku oil boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but gradually deteriorated from 2003 onward, reaching a bottom around 2014. This is not the place to examine in depth these processes. However, several observations are relevant. First, the relationship was at its strongest when the United States had a clear and identifiable strategy in the Caspian region. This was the case in the second half of the Clinton Administration, when a task force was created to support the extraction of Caspian energy resources, and realise the multiple pipeline policy, which succeeded in building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and South Caucasus pipelines. Indeed, this task force involved numerous agencies of the US government in a coordinated fashion – something that has since occurred only once for any issue of relevance to the region: the fight against terrorism and particularly US operations in Afghanistan, which mobilised the entire US government, and in which Azerbaijan was an important and valued participant.

Gradual deterioration

Yet since 2004, this relationship has gradually deteriorated. There are numerous reasons for this, and Western commentators frequently mention Azerbaijan’s purported deficiencies in the area of human rights and democratic development as the lead factor. Yet a close look suggests that this is at best a very partial aspect of the problem. Much more important were two developments of the mid-2000s: the war in Iraq, and the enunciation of the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda.” The war in Iraq led the US to gradually lose attention to the Caspian region, while it also dealt a considerable blow to America’s image and power in the world. The Freedom Agenda, which sought to rapidly spread democracy in the wider Middle East, was enunciated following the Iraq war, and had direct application to the Caucasus: post-factum, the Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003 was held up to be a beacon for the entire region, and was followed by revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. This shook the entire geopolitical situation across the region, as America came to be seen as a supporter of regime change, leading previously friendly Central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to run for Russian and Chinese cover.

Former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev shakes hands with former US president Bill Clinton during an official visit to Washington DC in August 1997

Azerbaijan did not follow suit, instead gradually diversifying its foreign relations and reducing its dependence on the West. Yet suspicion of American intentions grew markedly. More significant was the Obama Administration’s initiatives upon being elected: the Russian “Reset” and the Turkish-Armenian normalisation process. The “Reset” for all practical purposes ignored the Russian invasion of Georgia and sought to rebuild a positive relationship with Moscow, in the process subordinating American relations with other former Soviet states to the relationship with Moscow. While this was disheartening, the Turkish-Armenian gambit was, from an Azerbaijani perspective, lethal: it implied that the Turkish-Armenian border would be opened without Armenia making any prior concessions to Azerbaijan, such as withdrawing from occupied territories.

From Baku’s perspective, this meant that Azerbaijan’s two key allies – Turkey and the United States – would entirely ignore Azerbaijan’s key national security issue, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Predictably, Baku fought tooth and nail to torpedo this process, a goal in which it actually succeeded. Yet the episode had, figuratively, pulled the rug from under the feet of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. Remarkably, dashing Russian hopes, Baku did not respond by embarking on a dramatic foreign policy shift; instead, Azerbaijan continued to diversify its foreign policy to maximize its independence and reduce reliance on any foreign power.

The war in Iraq led the US to gradually lose attention to the Caspian region, while it also dealt a considerable blow to America’s image and power in the world

Yet the episode generated considerable bad blood between the Obama and Aliyev Administrations. Influential figures in Washington blamed Aliyev for killing one of the President’s key foreign policy initiatives; many in Baku felt betrayed by America’s disdain for Azerbaijan’s vital interests. A campaign against Azerbaijan began in Washington, which saw the country being singled out for criticism on its human rights record; yet Baku grew increasingly intolerant of such criticism, hitting back with strong rhetoric against what it perceived to be encroachments into its internal affairs. This gradually led to a marked deterioration of relations, which bottomed out in 2014. Since then, a mutual outreach has repaired part of the damage and restored a more cordial atmosphere. Yet US-Azerbaijan relations leave much to be desired.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline under construction

Changing mood

Even before the Trump Administration took power, the Republican presidential campaign had shown a change in America’s mood. Candidates that could be identified with the Freedom Agenda – in other words, those that made support for either military intervention or the export of democracy a cornerstone of their foreign policy – did not go far. By contrast, the two finalists, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, both embraced a foreign policy that would be focused on American interests, and highly skeptical of the Freedom Agenda. To illustrate, Ted Cruz’s foreign policy advisor Victoria Coates, who later gained a prominent position on Trump’s National Security Council staff, was known to distribute copies to campaign associates of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 seminal article Dictatorships and Double Standards, which vigorously defended America’s relationship with authoritarian regimes deemed amenable to long-term positive change.

What had changed? The most obvious answer is that America was tired of war after the 7,000 killed and 50,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. But events in the world, particularly the fallout of the Arab uprisings, were arguably more salient. The “Arab Spring” had degenerated into an Islamist winter, bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, where it proceeded to grab power through unconstitutional means, being removed only by a military intervention with considerable popular support. Libya and Syria were far worse: regime change in the former brought chaos and anarchy; efforts to achieve the same outcome in the latter led to a debilitating civil war. Even in the post-Soviet space, revolutionary fervour had calmed considerably. The revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan brought little positive change but much unrest, failing to solve the problems of mismanagement and corruption that had been their chief drivers. Only Georgia was in many ways a success story.

A protester holding an Egyptian flag during pro-democracy protests that erupted in Cairo in January 2011. Photo: Zeinab Mohamed/Wikipedia

As a result, a broader shift appears to be underway in thinking about democratic development, in which support for regime change and an almost exclusive focus on election is distinctly going out of favour; by contrast, support is growing for strategies based on evolutionary change and support for governance. This is coupled with a shift in thinking on the causes of Islamic radicalism. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the mix of poverty and authoritarianism was believed – without serious evidence – to be the main culprits behind radicalisation. In the years following 9/11, considerable research on radicalisation has failed to show any meaningful linkage between these phenomena. More to the point, the stream of European Muslims to jihadi groups such as the Islamic State has dented the credibility of that assumption – as has the fact that it is the least authoritarian Muslim states – such as Tunisia and Jordan – that amount for large contingents of fighters in Syria, rather than authoritarian ones such as Egypt or Uzbekistan.

Early days

As the Trump Administration takes over, all of these changes have potentially important implications for the way Azerbaijan is viewed by Western leaders. To this should be added one more significant factor: the past 20 years have shown clearly that the Armenian Diaspora in the United States exerts far more power within the Democratic party than in Republican circles. In this particular election cycle, Armenian Diaspora groups not only strongly endorsed Hillary Clinton, but strongly denounced Donald Trump. This means that the incoming administration is much less exposed to, let alone beholden to, the hostile approach to Azerbaijan that many Democratic politicians appear to have internalised. By contrast, the Trump Administration’s National Security team is dominated by former military officers – the very constituency in the US government that is probably the most positively disposed towards Azerbaijan.

This mosque in Aghdam, Nagorno-Karabakh, has remained in ruins since the town was overrun by Armenian forces in July 1993. Photo: Lukasz 2/

But is the Trump Administration not favourably disposed towards Russia, as the media reports? The facts suggest that while President Trump harbours hope of a rapprochement with Moscow, he has appointed a national security team that is decidedly skeptical, if not hawkish, on Russia. Moscow’s own policies – such as its tight links with Iran, and its newfound infatuation with the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan – also make it extremely difficult to expect a sustainable warming of US-Russian relations.

What this will mean in terms of practical policy is, of course, too early to say: the main officers that will be in charge of day-to-day relations with Azerbaijan and the Caspian region have yet to be nominated as of this writing. Yet the discussion above would suggest, at least, that there is a considerable opportunity for the return of American involvement in the affairs of the Caspian region, and for a new spring in US-Azerbaijan relations.

Whether this happens will depend on a number of factors, only some of which Baku can influence. Will the United States take the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict seriously, for example? The appointment of Ambassador Richard Hoagland to the post of OSCE Minsk Group co-chair suggests it might; but high-level attention will be crucial for the US to be taken seriously in the conflict. Will the United States see Azerbaijan, a secular Shi’a nation, as an asset in its struggle against Islamic radicalism? Will Washington once again see the region in view of the strategic East-West Corridor connecting Europe to Asia, as was the case a decade ago, or will the lack of focus concerning the region continue? These are all key questions that only time will answer.

About the author: Svante E. Cornell is an Associate Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Programme, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden.