Biden to intensify US policy towards South Caucasus

Biden to intensify US policy towards South Caucasus

Joe Biden’s administration will face multiple foreign policy issues that diminished America’s global position in the last four years. Among them will be a radically changed geopolitical landscape in the South Caucasus. Georgia, as the only pro-Western state, will be a focus for US policy, but it will also require reinvigoration of bilateral ties, Caucasus Watch writes in the article Biden and the US policy towards the South Caucasus.

Considering Joe Biden’s political background and his recent statements, the US’ foreign policy will likely be based on the pursuit of global leadership, defense and promotion of the liberal international order and promotion of democracy. On a geopolitical level, prevention of balance of power across the Eurasian landmass will be key. The 2017 national security strategy (NSS) document and the 2018 national defense strategy (NDS) document will remain a cornerstone of Washington’s foreign policy. This would involve a greater focus on the great power competition with China, Iran and Russia.

It would also mean that unlike the Trump administration, under Biden the support for American military alliances and partnerships across the globe will increase, which includes support for NATO. Indeed, in contrast to Trump, who called NATO "obsolete", Biden will try to amend the situation by emphasizing the role of the alliance in global affairs.

The support for NATO will also mean there will be more tools for deterring Russia in Eastern Europe (potentially including the South Caucasus). This would fit into Biden’s intention to build a tougher stance on Russia. He has been calling Russia an “opponent” and a “threat”. In early 2020, Biden wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs that “to counter Russian aggression, we must keep the alliance's military capabilities sharp, while also expanding its capacity to take on nontraditional threats, such as weaponized corruption, disinformation, and cybertheft.” Related to the support for NATO Biden will also differ from the Trump government in his determination to improve faltering transatlantic ties damaged under Trump.

On South Caucasus

Though the role of the South Caucasus has never been high on the agenda of the US administrations, a radically changed geopolitical landscape, namely, Russia’s new military presence in Azerbaijan as a result of the second Karabakh War, could warrant a bigger American trade and security involvement in the region. The US’ general foreign policy approach will see little change as continuity in America’s approach toward the South Caucasus has been manifested since the 1990s. The question will be about whether the US could increase its projection of power through a reconsideration of aspects of its policy established over the past several years.

The overall geopolitical context might not be entirely congenial for the South Caucasus as the US is decreasing its military presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan and has been inward-looking in the past several years. It could take some time for the US to rewind its active involvement in Georgia and the South Caucasus at large. Moreover, China's economic and military growth will continue to attract much of Washington's attention. Greater competition between China and the US will follow, which will require attention from US policy-makers and national resources to be dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region.

Though Georgia fears that in the long term, the recalibration of US foreign policy could spell difficulties, since Tbilisi’s aspirations for NATO membership and therefore national security, have traditionally hinged on close relations with Washington, for the next four years, some basic US interests in Georgia will persist. 

One of the imperatives of the US policy since the 1990s was to empower successive Georgian governments to use the country’s geographic position as a nodal point in the nascent South Caucasus energy and transport corridor. The effectiveness of the Georgian corridor also underpins a bigger vision, i.e., the Trans-Caspian Corridor, which, under improved circumstances, could turn into a geopolitical reality with Turkmen gas reaching the European market.

In the next four years, we could also see Georgia having to choose between two techno-economic blocks that are being created across Eurasia: one associated with the US, another increasingly with China. Georgian politicians will have to walk a diplomatic tightrope, keen not to draw ire from China while preserving ties to the West. But as America’s stance on China hardens, it will be more difficult to maintain this balance. Thus, for the Biden administration and its foreign policy, another crucial issue will be to navigate Georgia so as to ensure it avoids entanglements with China and sticking to Western standards and trade practices.

Recommendations

Beyond these basic US foreign policy approaches towards the region and Georgia in particular, a number of improvements could be made. It is in America’s national interest to establish trade and investment initiatives as the forefront of US policy toward Georgia and perhaps even the wider Black Sea region. This could involve Washington enhancing trade ties, encouraging foreign direct investment, and fostering domestic reforms in Georgia. As an example, several days ago, the US embassy in Tbilisi announced that “To help Georgia’s private sector recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Government will fund foreign investment advisory firm OCO Global to identify and promote high-value investment opportunities in the Georgian economy and raise awareness about the country’s economic potential among major international investors.” In the longer run, this could lead towards a prosperous regional network of market-based economies that can serve as an antidote to the practices often associated with non-democratic states.

To be successful the policy needs to reflect a deeper change in the US trade approach as Washington’s protectionist trade policies in recent years have hurt the Black Sea and South Caucasus regional economic ties.

But perhaps the biggest change the Biden administration could unveil is a free trade agreement (FTA) with Georgia. As a country with vital ports, roads and railway infrastructure, FTA with Georgia would give American businesses greater access to the otherwise geographically closed region. And this does not only involve the three South Caucasus states, but Central Asia too as trans-Caspian shipping increases and deeper contacts between the two regions is being established.

Thus, there is a set of policies that will remain unchanged under the new US president, but there is also a wide range of issues where Washington could work on to improve its position, which has been rather static over the past several years. Bigger issues such as growing Russian military presence and Chinese economic activity could serve as a necessary motivator, but there also needs to be a reassessment of some aspects of US approach to Georgia and the region overall.

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