American Expert: US Should View Central Asian Countries as ‘Subjects of Their Own Stories’ 

ASTANA – The United States should view Central Asian countries as the subjects of their own stories rather than mere objects in the broader competition with other nations, said Evan Feigenbaum, the vice president for studies at Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an interview with The Astana Times. 

Evan Feigenbaum. Photo credit:

Feigenbaum was visiting the Kazakh capital for the Astana Club, a two-day event on Dec. 11-12 that gathered Kazakh and foreign experts to discuss pressing challenges. He underscored the need for a fundamental shift in approach towards Central Asia.

“I don’t think the United States is really doing a good job of that. Increasingly, the United States thinks it is competing with China everywhere in the world. It is reducing countries to being proxies in a competition, and that is not really their game,” he said. 

While the topic of the event focused on finding a “new formula for peace,” Feigenbaum said at the global level, the mood is very pessimistic.

“That is partly because of Russia’s war in Ukraine but also things such as the strategic competition between the United States and China, which is having a lot of debilitating economic effects,” he said. “On the surface, it is very pessimistic.”

At the regional level, however, Feigenbaum sees optimism. 

“But at a regional level, ironically enough, I actually find it more hopeful,” said Feigenbaum, who previously served in the U.S. State Department as deputy assistant secretary for South Asia and deputy assistant secretary for Central Asia.

Feigenbaum and The Astana Times Senior Editor Assel Satubaldina. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Drawing a stark comparison between the current situation and that of 2014-2015, and even as far back as 2007-2008, the expert highlights a notable increase in economic interaction among the Central Asian countries.

In the case of Kazakhstan, the nation’s trade with Central Asian neighbors is also growing. According to the Kazakh Ministry of National Economy, in 2022, Kazakhstan’s trade turnover with Central Asian countries hit $8 billion, 25% higher than the 2021 figure. Exports made up $5.7 billion, and imports – $2.3 billion.

“I think for a country like Kazakhstan, people are seeing opportunities to leverage some of the contradictions at the global level, actually, for advantage,” said Feigenbaum, highlighting the relocation of multinational companies from Russia to Kazakhstan as an example.

“But it is also true that Kazakhstan and other countries in the region are able to demand more from external economic partners than before,” he added. “So you have to scratch a little harder, but it actually gives me some hope for the future of the region.”

Economic and security fragmentation

Amid the current global challenges, Feigenbaum highlights a troubling trend where economics and security, once running in parallel lines, are now increasingly colliding. The expert identifies a significant disruption in economic integration, particularly driven by what he termed as “security fragmentation.”

“That is a very debilitating set of trends. The answer to that isn’t easy. But I think it is partly to find our way to see how we can maximize economic benefits without over-securitizing,” he said. 

One of those ways is technology. “Almost all technologies, especially emerging and foundational technologies of the future, are dual-use in nature,” noted the expert, pointing out their potential military applications alongside economic or commercial uses. 

This dual-use perspective, while acknowledging security concerns, also underscores the risk of limiting opportunities for innovation. Feigenbaum highlights the challenges in fields such as biotechnology, where the lack of trust between nations and heightened security competition disrupt co-innovation, potentially impeding the development of critical medicines, therapeutics and vaccines.

“I think that defines the challenge that we are facing, which is how not to ignore security but de-securitize, particularly some areas of technology where there is commercial and public benefit for Kazakhstan. The opportunity is to try, as I said, to leverage some of the contradictions among external partners, but also, frankly, to demand more from its partners, for example, that more value-added is left in the region when countries invest here,” said Feigenbaum. 

For Central Asia, this is where the opportunity lies. “For a region like this, escaping from that security trap and focusing more on the positive benefits of economic integration, particularly because you are sitting astride very rapidly growing regions of the world – that’s the opportunity,” said the expert. 

American investments in Central Asia

Analyzing the landscape of American economic involvement in Central Asia, Feigenbaum points out significant disparities, with a pronounced focus on Kazakhstan.

According to the Kazakh Invest national company, the total influx of American investments in 2022 increased by 82%, reaching $5.1 billion. Since 2005, the United States has invested over $95 billion in Kazakhstan.

The 2023 report released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, also shows that Kazakhstan is leading in terms of investments. Out of $10.6 billion invested overall in the region in 2022, Kazakhstan accounted for $6.1 billion. 

Focus on trade in diplomatic engagement

Discussing American diplomatic engagement through the C5+1 framework, a diplomatic platform launched in 2015 to boost cooperation between Central Asia and the United States, Feigenbaum offers a historical perspective, noting the existence of a prior Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with all five Central Asian countries.

“When I was in the Bush administration, the United States had something called a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with all five countries of Central Asia. In fact, in a world where the United States mostly has bilateral TIFAs, it was the only regional TIFA that the United States had in the world with multiple countries,” he said. 

The expert suggests that to enhance economic engagement in the region, the United States should redirect its focus from diplomatic discussions to initiatives that leverage American strengths in technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, capital markets, and English language education.

He went on to suggest creating a parallel framework that goes beyond C5+1, evolving from the historical TIFA model into a public-private partnership.

The interview is available on our YouTube channel.

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