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The Complexity of Central Eurasia

Since the end of the Cold War, global international relations are more clearly a "complex system," a self-organizing network rather than a top-down hierarchy. Superpowers (or at least one), great powers, and regional powers still exist, but middle-level phenomena have become important drivers in a world that now self-organizes from bottom up.

Before the USSR disintegrated in the early 1990s, the late Turkish President Turgut Özal's strategic vision provided a bridge between the concepts of "Southwest Asia" and Central Asia. The concept of "Southwest Asia" emerged as a focus in US strategic thought after the 1979 Iranian revolution. To Southwest Asia there is being added the so-called "Northern Tier," not just in strategic thinking but as a result of events on the ground. This process creates a new and larger geopolitical entity that extends from Turkey in a crescent east-northeast through Kazakhstan. The Caucasus, which historically has been part of an extended Middle East, is regaining its role as a crossroads among continents. Central Asia is recognizing its cultural links with Southwest Asia while it puzzles out its relations with Russia.

One way to see Central Eurasia is to employ seven scales of analysis, even if one focuses on only a few of them at a time. The first and finest scale of analysis is the national scale - i.e., state level - of analysis where each of the Central Asian countries may be taken separately. (This scale of analysis subsumes a yet finer scale, that which analyzes subnational differentiations such as the contrast between northern and southern Kazakhstan.) Second, there is the regional scale of Central Asia itself, which takes the five former Soviet republics as a whole and also considers their transnational cultural and demographic interrelationships. Third, the "macro-region" of Greater Central Asia includes "political" Central Asia (i.e., the five former Soviet republics) plus their cultural and economic connections with such neighboring regions as western China, southern Russia (including southern Siberia), northern Afghanistan, and northeastern Iran.

Fourth is the "meta-regional" scale of Central Eurasia, a still broader construct. Although "Central Eurasia" is sometimes used as a shorthand designation of the former Soviet territory, it is perhaps more apposite to adopt the definition from the CESS website, that it "include[s] Turkic, Mongolian, Iranian, Caucasian, Tibetan and other peoples[, and] extends from the Black Sea region, the Crimea, and the Caucasus in the west, through the Middle Volga region, Central Asia and Afghanistan, and on to Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet in the east." The collapse of the Soviet Union did not assure the consolidation this crescent-shaped "meta-region" containing the Caucasus and Central Asia as an acknowledged new region in geopolitics or energy geo-economics. Expert opinion is that this required three things: international financial and industrial interest in the impressive natural resources in the region, the political will of the only remaining superpower, and the free and rapid exchange of information possible only through the Internet and other electronic telecommunications. These three conditions have all taken hold in a decade.

In a broader historical and cultural sense, Central Eurasia (like Greater Central Asia) includes portions of Russia and China. However, the latter are fully integrated at a fifth, "mega-regional" scale of analysis, including not only Russia and China but also the whole of South and Southwest Asia, from India and Pakistan through Iraq and Turkey, to which we may refer simply as Eurasia. A sixth scale of analysis is Greater Eurasia, from Spain to Sakhalin and Spitzbergen to Singapore, including the European Union and its family of institutions. Finally, the seventh scale of analysis is the global scale, which adds the United States, American transnational corporations with a global reach, and worldwide international organizations having especially an economic, industrial or financial vocation.

It is not necessary to treat all these scales of analysis together, although it is useful to employ the first and the seventh together so as to anchor any discussion. These "scales" of analysis differ, both in conception and in application, from what are traditionally considered to be "levels" of analysis in international relations. This difference means that they are not stacked upon each other in a mechanistic manner, even though it is convenient to discuss them sequentially for expository purposes. The levels are not strictly hierarchical, meaning that they also are not "nested." Rather, as in any "complex system"—i.e., a system where the behavior of the whole is not predictable from analysis of its components and where properties of the system emerge from one scale into another—these scales of analysis overlap; and what one sees depends upon where one stands.

Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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Excerpt first published as part of “The Complexity of Central Eurasia,” Central Eurasian Studies Review, vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 2–3.

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