Audrey L. Altstadt
U.S. policy towards Azerbaijan has been a mixed bag of pursuing strategic interests at the cost of its values.
Azerbaijan is a former Soviet republic with a mostly secular Muslim population, oil and gas reserves, and a notoriously corrupt government. Bordering Russia, Turkey and Iran, it is poised at the doorstep of the Middle East, and is of strategic interest to the United States. How to craft and pursue a policy that balances U.S. strategic interests with Azerbaijan’s steadily worsening record on human rights and democracy has challenged policymakers and diplomats for the twenty-five years of Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet independence. The time has come, despite global trends to the contrary, for the United States to give greater weight to human rights and democratization in its policy toward Azerbaijan.
U.S. policy debates on Azerbaijan are a microcosm of the struggles and trade-offs of American foreign policy. The United States does partner with repressive regimes, a frequently uncomfortable choice that is readily justified when greater strategic imperatives—energy security, defense, military advantage—are at stake. At the same time, U.S. policy elites in and out of government articulate the values of the founders holding up ideals of equality, democracy, and rule of law. American diplomats privately explain that in dealing with dictators, they might “work behind the scenes” to advance human rights even while signing agreements for weapons sales in front of the cameras.
When it comes to Azerbaijan, U.S. policy has been a compromise, resting on a so-called tripod of security, energy, and democracy/human rights, almost always named in that order. Over time, U.S. administrations and diplomats on the ground have adjusted the weight on the legs of this tripod.
Although the time may seem ripe for a defense of U.S. partnership with authoritarian regimes given the apparent downgrading of human rights concerns in the present administration, such an approach is contrary to the national interest. Geopolitical considerations support transactional relations not whitewashing repression, not downplaying corruption. Recently the Heritage Foundation’s Luke Coffey claimed that Azerbaijan is a “good partner” for the United States. He argued that greater emphasis on human rights would create a “lopsided” foreign policy, but the reverse is actually true.