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Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199929825
ISBN-10: 0199929823
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Editorial Reviews

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Amazon.com Exclusive: Q&A with Alexander Cooley, Author of Great Games, Local Rules

You talk about the importance of Central Asia as being forward-looking, rather than backward looking. What do you mean?

The original Great Game of the 19th century the British and Russian empires in a competition for influence in Central Asia. This is the metaphor that is now used to describe current relations among Russia, the United States and China in the region. But the metaphor is misleading for 2 reasons:

First, it underestimates the political agency and savviness of the Central Asian states themselves--they are not passive pawns, even if they are relatively "weak". As independent states with they actively spark eternal interest and use this outside engagement for their own benefit.

Second, relying on the "Great Game metaphor" prevents us from seeing what's most important about Central Asia as a region in contemporary world politics: it has become a laboratory for understanding the dynamics of multipolar politics or what Fareed Zakaria and others now refer to as the "post-Western world." The decline of US soft power and its political standing, the quiet rise of China as a provider of public goods such as development loans and infrastructure, and the backlash against the West's so-called value agenda of democracy and human rights that we see in Central Asia are all now playing out in other regions like Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

This savviness on the part of Central Asian governments is embodied in what you refer to as "local rules"--what are they and why are they important?

Three seem particularly important: First, Central Asian governments, above all else, seek to preserve their regimes, which leads them to conflate and guard against both external threats and internal political challenges. Second, Central Asian elites tend to use resources and revenue streams acquired by the state for their own personal benefit. We saw a dramatic example of this in 2009 when President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan launched a base-bidding war between the United States and Russia over the future status of the US air base at Manas. Third, the Central Asian elites have become effective brokers between the pressures and demands of the outside world, and satisfying their political constituents and domestic patronage machines.

You speak of US policy towards Central Asia as being instrumentalized in the service of the Afghanistan campaign. What do you mean?

Since 9/11 Central Asia has been treated mostly a staging area for US operational needs in Afghanistan, not a region worthy of broader engagement on its own merits. The United States quickly established military bases in the region and secured overflight and refueling agreements with all of the Central Asian states. Since 2008, and the deterioration in the security of NATO supply lines in Pakistan, it has also opened the so-called Northern Distribution Network, an impressive transportation chain that spans the Eurasian landmass in an effort to bring supplies to Afghanistan via Central Asia. The US has also increased military assistance to the Central Asian countries, especially in support of counterterrorism training and border management. All of these forms of engagement have been conducted in the service of the Afghan campaign, leading to the privileging of security cooperation over other issues. Now that the US along with NATO forces are withdrawing from the Afghanistan we are likely to see a further instrumentalization of the region, as the US uses the NDN to ship equipment out and tries to ensure regional stability during the drawdown.

What have been the effects of this great power interest for democratization and human rights on the region?

Unfortunately, the cumulative effect has been negative as we've witnessed a steady deterioration of democracy and human rights across the region. Of course, the regional trends in these areas were negative to begin with, but, as a I detail in the book, the engagement of multiple great powers, all trying to curry favor with the Central Asian governments, has empowered these local rulers to pare down outside demands for political reforms, while the global war on terror has permitted a broader targeting and crackdown on political opponents. This is also a region where the United States, Russia and China have all cooperated with Central Asians security services in conducting extraordinary renditions of accused terrorists and alleged political extremists.

What about China's role in the region. How would you describe China's importance?

China's rise as a regional power in the short space of 10 years has been nothing short of extraordinary. Beijing has finalized lingering Soviet-era border disputes, has secured the cooperation of Central Asian governments in its efforts to crackdown on Uighur separatist activity in its Western province of Xinjiang, while China is now the region's most important single trading partner and has built important new pipelines to bring Central Asian oil and gas eastward. It has done all this while putting a multilateral face to its activities by founding and promoting the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a new-style regional group that rejects Western practices of imposing universal values or interfering in the sovereignty of its members.

And Russia--this used to be Soviet territory. How is Russia handling its imperial disengagement?

There is no doubt that Russia is still the single most important outside power in the region and still holds a number of levers of influence, including monitoring the precarious status of the millions of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia. So Moscow is mostly concerned with maintaining its status as the region's privileged power, but this is often lead to strategic confusion and an obsession to tactically countering moves by both the United States and China, rather than formulating a coherent long-term vision for future relations. The so-called US-Russian reset has tempered some of this competition, but the Kremlin remains concerned over the region's future orientation, hoping to integrate it into a Russian-led Eurasian Union.

What lessons do you see Central Asia holding for other parts of the world, especially the post-Arab Spring Middle East?

As in Central Asia, the United States in the Arab world has had trouble juggling its strategic commitments to allies with supporting greater democratization. This inconsistency has been magnified in places like Bahrain, which like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan hosts vital US military facilities, and where US reaction to the Manama's crackdown has been muted out of concern of losing basing rights. Also, just like China in Central Asia, Gulf states like Qatar now provide alternative sources of international financing that may undercut Western-led organizations like the IMF and World Bank. And just as in aftermath of the so-called Color Revolutions that toppled governments in Eurasia, we now see throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt, new restrictions being placed on the activities of Western NGOs involved in democracy and human right promotion. While there was a lot of optimism in the West following the Arab Spring, the multipolar context of these political transitions makes their political environment much more akin to the multipolar politics of Central Asia than the post-Cold War moment when the United States was the unchallenged leader of global affairs.


"The borderlands of Central Asia are plagued with terrorism, poverty and an immense power struggle for the land mass of Asia. The region is ripe for large scale economic and political unrest. Cooley combines scholarship with expertise and great skill as a writer to give us by far the best analysis of Central Asia during the past decadeELA well-conceived and comprehensive work."--Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Pakistan on the Brink

"Central Asia remains the enigmatic heartland of geopolitics. As Alex Cooley's important book demonstrates, no great power-the U.S., Russia nor China-has yet mastered the art of
negotiating with a host of crafty patrimonial regimes who dictate resources, contracts and access as much as the reverse. This is a region that must, therefore, be understood from the inside out, rather than during the first iteration of the Great Game in the 19th century. As it did with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Central Asia could still create a perfect geopolitical storm as ossified political systems undergo transition, American bases are vacated, and energy pipelines extend in all directions. The 21st century Great Game will have both new players and new rules."--Parag Khanna, author of The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance

"Alex Cooley knows his stuff. With objective and penetrating research and analysis, Cooley peels away the fog and shadow that have always obscured this prime geopolitical region."--Steve LeVine, author of The Oil and the Glory

"A book with multi-faceted value. Great Games, Local Rules provides in-depth analysis of a key yet understudied region, and does so informed by history, imbued with international relations theory, and bearing on key policy issues, all from a well-respected scholar."--Bruce W. Jentleson, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, Duke University

"The field of Central Asian studies needs this book. Cliché-ridden thinking blights much popular commentary on the region and the putative competition under way there among China, Russia, and the United States. Cooley brings firsthand research and a detached, sensible eye to a complex, fast-moving subject..."--Foreign Affairs

"...an exceptional and critical analysis. Cooley's book offers the prospect of a new research agenda to study the international politics of Central Asia in terms of both its
powerful and misleading discourses and its corrupt and profitable practices. It is an important book that deserves to be widely read among scholars of IR who seek to make sense of what 'multipolarity' means today."--International Affairs

"...wide-ranging and compelling..."--Survival


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199929823
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199929825
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #784,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAME on September 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am in Afghanistan, where I spend my time thinking about all external and internal factors bearing on 2014, and I was greatly looking forward to reading this book. It arrived, I read it, and I am hugely disappointed. Judging by the long list of grants and stipends that the author names in the front of the book, I have to ask myself, how on earth did he ever arrive at such a sadly simplistic rendering of what is in essence the center of the world?

EDIT: I include Afghanistan in Central Asia and the 'Stans, many including the Open Source Center do not agree with me, the consider Afghanistan and Pakistan part of South Asia. Be that as it may, in relation to what the title promises, Global Game, Local Rules, this book is at best a three no matter what countries are covered.

This book gets three stars from me because it fails across virtually every significant point of analysis -- not that the facts are wrong -- journeymen argue about facts, masters debate models and assumptions. I gave this book the benefit of my "first class" read, which is to say, I started with the index, the bibliography, and the notes. Here are reasons this book does not rise about the three star level:

01 No strategic model, no intelligence in the sense of decision support. Visit Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog to learn everything that academics and think tanks have absolutely no clue about in relation to the evolving discipline of intelligence.

02 Afghanistan is a side show, not really included in the book in any substantive sense, nor is the author at all cognizant with the major tribes that bleed over the borders, the key personalities, etcetera. This is an anticeptic book that could easily have been written from an air-conditioned cubicle in the USA.
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By BB on January 16, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I like that Mr. Cooley doesn't settle for the facile, surface explanations for what is going on in Central Asia. He gets done in the weeds and it is interesting there. However, it is dense, heavy going work down in the weeds.
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This is an excellent book on the modern history of the former Soviet, Central Asian region. I especially enjoyed the well organized structure that gives each country its own chapter, and the overall analysis of Russian, Turkish and Iranian influences in the region. The writing is also superb, in a way that really engages the reader in the narrative.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Cooley delves into the interplay between authoritarian Central Asian regimes and external great power interests in the region. Instead of the assumption that Russia, China and the USA having a free hand in the region, he convincingly shows that local governments have entrepreneurially-exploited the agendas of outside powers to bolster their own regimes, and often, rent-seeking elites have lined their pockets at the same time. He also demonstrates that there is a surprising degree of cooperation and accommodation amongst outside powers in the region and that their objectives are not always in conflict as assumed by the weary `Great Game' paradigm often invoked for explaining the politics of post-Soviet Central Asia. The work also serves as a very useful and insightful update generally on the unfolding politics of the region. Strongly recommended for politics and IR courses dealing with the area, as well as for any IR courses looking at great power interaction with and management of client states.
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Format: Hardcover
Alexander Cooley's book was really useful to me, and gave me new insights. I say that as someone who has studied Central Asia for twenty years. The idea that the US, Russia, and China have different goals in Central Asia, and thus can both act independently without alarming rivals and can collaborate as well as compete, is fundamental. It also clarifies why the European Union is the major player in higher education policy. The US, China, and Russia have carved out their realms of interest, and influencing higher education is a very minor piece of the portfolio for each. For the EU, it's much more substantial. On the other hand, as Cooley emphasizes, the fact that the Central Asian nations have multiple suitors allows them to resist pressures to democratize and to include non-elites in the decision-making process. For those of us who lived and worked in Central Asia in the first decade after independence, this retreat from reforms is disappointing. However, as Cooley points out (p. 29), "the multiple-principals problem diminished U.S. credibility in demanding political reforms ... Over the course of the decade, Washington, like Moscow and Beijing, learned to play by local rules." He adds (p. 98), "...in reacting to the perceived threat to regime integrity posed by so-called Western-style democracy and human rights appeals, the Central Asian States grafted a set of alternative norms, practices, and institutions, supported by Moscow and Beijing, which stressed the importance of sovereignty and cultural relativism ...," thus allowing them to resist pressures to democratize. This sobering conclusion requires even those of us who work outside of the field of politics to rethink what reform strategies now are possible.
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