- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

How to Suborn Great Powers

James Sherr

James Sherr is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and the author of Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad (2013).

This is one of eight essays in the book review roundtable on Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

Even if it does nothing else, Alexander Cooley’s latest book, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia, will remind us that we are well into the revisionist phase of understanding what did—and more importantly, did not—change in the countries of the former Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War. Let us hope that the mood is contagious. The World Bank, the European Commission, the U.S. Congress, and the “better” business consultancies are still well-provisioned with individuals promoting reform with the rectitude of English Whigs promoting enlightenment.

Some ten years ago, Ivan Krastev reflected on the consequences of pretending that “reform has nothing to do with cultures.” [1] As Cooley demonstrates, patrimonialism is not only a culture but a tenacious and adaptable system. The tsarist dispensation was patrimonial as a matter of principle. The Soviet state, between purges and liquidations, was obliged to compromise with local (and often tribal) variants of patrimonialism, and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia are patrimonial to the core. The “who-whom” in these countries is not conservatives versus reformers but networks of patrons and clients that knit society together, as well as divide it. The norms of this world are organic rather than rational, informal rather than public; and its public institutions for the most part are either decorative or captive. Rent-seeking is pervasive, and resources and power are interchangeable. What Vladislav Inozemtsev stated about Russia applies in Central Asia with a vengeance: “what Westerners would call corruption is not the scourge of the system, but the basic principle of its normal functioning.” [2]

As the title implies, Great Games, Local Rules is largely the story of how external powers—very great ones, indeed—have had to accept local rules as the price of presence and access. In the case of Russia, many will find this surprising. As the author notes, “above all, Moscow has sought regional primacy” and “of all the great powers, it easily possesses the most extensive array of regional ties” (p. 51). Even if one excludes the intra-elite and institutional linkages that survived the Soviet dissolution, the Russian Federation has an unequalled array of soft-power resources, notably the remittances provided by the region’s migrants (which account for 49% of Tajikistan’s entire GDP). It is also the only country with a plausible military counter to the region’s destabilization. Just as much as its Soviet predecessor (or any liberal state), contemporary Russia is the bearer of rationalist, integrationist agendas (recently, the Eurasian Union). What Cooley manages to show is that, despite these ambitions and assets, Russia’s agendas have been adulterated, parried, or bent to serve local interests.

Not surprisingly, it is the United States, with its metronomic litany of reforms and rights-driven causes, that has suffered the greatest rebuffs (notably after the Andijan episode of 2005). Yet, in ways that are both edifying and dispiriting, Washington has adapted to realities on the ground, maintaining and in some ways expanding the military presence it secured in the wake of September 11. The picture the book presents of the political prerogatives assumed by the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command—utterly disorienting to any product of the British military system—is a story in itself. But, according to Cooley, the “erosion of U.S. credibility… as an exporter of democratic values…and accompanying loss of prestige remains the greatest casualty of Washington’s engagement with the Central Asian regimes” (p. 164). He finds it “doubtful that this steady decline in overall U.S. regional influence will be reversed” in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal (p. 164).

Thus far, it is China that has accumulated the biggest prizes. Beijing has broken the Russian energy monopsony, whereby Russia once could buy Turkmenistan’s gas for derisory sums and sell it on the European market at oil-indexed prices. Unlike the European Union, which dithers over gas interconnectors in its own jurisdiction, China has built pipelines and other infrastructure projects to specification and on time. Of the three big players, it has been the least demanding and the most adept. Yet China is not without flaws, and indeed illusions. It too seeks to advance Central Asian integration, not as a good in itself but as a complement to its own regional policy and as a means of diluting Uighur separatism. China might be less intrusive than the United States or Russia, but it is unabashedly self-interested. According to Cooley, “if it fails to sufficiently demonstrate that it is acting for the broader good, and not just as a plunderer of the region’s natural resources and energy,” China risks a regional backlash (p. 166).

That fact serves to remind us that, in addition to local agendas, the countries of Central Asia have national interests. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan has perfected the art of keeping external powers engaged and in check. Yet Nazarbayev is not alone in understanding that the alternative to a multivector policy is loss of autonomy and failure. What is missing in this schema is any articulated notion of regional interest, let alone the recognition that, beyond counterterrorism and regime survival, such a thing exists. As Cooley notes, barriers to integration persist not because national governments “lack the necessary technical expertise or capacity, but because elites privately benefit from the region’s enduring system of national regulations and border restrictions” (p. 160). Yet there is more to it than that. Barriers are ingrained in the mentalities of an ethnically and tribally demarcated world. It hardly makes sense to exploit such divisions if one wants to overcome them, yet the architects of the Soviet project set out to do both, oblivious of the essential contradiction between their vision and their methods. With partial success, they integrated Russians into distant lands; through inadvertence as much as malice, they deepened the alienation of neighbors. Anyone lamenting the absence of integration in Central Asia should first ask what usable heritage the countries of the region possess.

Despite its strictly regional focus, Great Games, Local Rules is possibly the most cogent critique of post–Cold War orthodoxy published to date. Yet, invariably, the demolition of one orthodoxy erects another. It is doubtful that Alexander Cooley has such an intention, but the revisionist trend, now encompassing the European ex-Soviet states and the EU-integration project itself, risks becoming an avalanche. Patrimonialism is not only antithetical to the norms of liberal, Western democracy; it is a viable antithesis, as Central Asia demonstrates in a remarkably pure form.

Yet in the European parts of the former Soviet Union, patrimonialism does not exist in a pure form. It is by turns adulterated, modernized, counterbalanced, and opposed by European inheritances, aspirations, and norms of conduct. The Russian Federation has perfected a workable, if unsettling, synthesis between patrimonialism and competitive business practice. There, as in Ukraine, this synthesis is anathema to a growing body of small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs, who not only understand what EU standards are but have an avowed need for them. In these states and a good many others, Western standards and practice have alienated some and been grist to the opportunism of others. But they have also created points of friction within states and begun a process of evolution to which even Kazakhstan might not prove immune. The betrayal of expectations that are largely of our own making has not brought an end to this evolution, let alone history, which has a habit of surprising those who think they understand it.


[1] Ivan Krastev, Shifting Obsessions: Three Essays on the Politics of Anticorruption (New York: Central European University Press, 2004), 30–31.

[2] Vladislav Inozemtsev, “Neo-Feudalism Explained,” American Interest, March/April 2011,