Bringing America Back to the South Caucasus | Opinion

If there was ever a time for America to be back in the South Caucasus, it is now—in both words and deeds.

As tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region erupted into war last fall, the United States was conspicuously absent from diplomatic efforts to quell the fighting.

From the campaign trail, Biden called on the Trump administration to collaborate with European partners to de-escalate the conflict, which was accompanied with an expression of concern that American and European passivity granted Moscow a free diplomatic hand in the region. European and American involvement remained marginal, however, and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire. Turkey was another important external actor in the conflict as ally of Azerbaijan, but it collaborated with Moscow in the process of nudging the belligerents to lay down their arms.

After four years of U.S. disengagement from the world under former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden emphatically declared at the Munich Security Conference in February that "America is back." If there was ever a time for America to be back in the South Caucasus, it is now—in both words and deeds. Moscow may be at the center of military peacekeeping efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh, along with Turkey, but the U.S. is uniquely positioned to engage in peacebuilding efforts as an actor trusted by Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike and as a state with unsurpassed capabilities to make such an effort successful.

All too often, calls for U.S. engagement rely on the logic of zero-sum competition with other states, especially when it comes to engagement in the post-Soviet space. We do not share this perspective. U.S. engagement in the South Caucasus should not be competitive. Competition with Russia and Turkey—the most relevant other states in the region—would only undermine the cause of building a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Only the U.S., acting in concert with Russia and Turkey, is likely to prevent another escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and translate the ceasefire into economic and infrastructural projects that would benefit both sides—projects that will facilitate interdependence and restore broken intercommunal links.

Nagorno-Karabakh
A photo taken on November 26, 2020, shows a view of the town of Stepanakert/Khankendi. KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images

U.S.-Russia relations may have their own challenges right now, but that does not preclude cooperation in other areas of strategic importance for both countries. We believe peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one such area. The political leaderships of both Armenia and Azerbaijan should know that they cannot play one great power off the other to pursue hardline policies as such behavior will be confronted by the united opposition of all relevant external actors in the region—including the United States. Such coordination can only be achieved through cooperative engagement by the U.S. in the South Caucasus.

In addition to political engagement in the region, the U.S. should embark on a serious humanitarian effort and help rebuild the severely damaged physical infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh. It should encourage private sector investment by American companies that would bring innovation and economic opportunity. It should make funds available for projects that require joint participation by Armenian and Azerbaijani companies. The U.S. should also facilitate projects devoted to combating demonization of the other side among both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Among other things, grants should be made available for serious, scholarly investigations into the history of the region, including the considerable history of coexistence and cooperation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, in order to confront the current intellectual dominance of those who have weaponized history for political ends.

There must also be an effort to discourage the partisans of both sides in the U.S. from exploiting the conflict for political or economic gain. Certain members of the U.S. Congress should ask themselves a simple question: Do they really help Armenia, and the cause for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, when they take every opportunity to call for punitive measures against Azerbaijan? The less visible, but no less consequential partisans of Azerbaijan in Washington should ask themselves a similar question: Will it help the cause of peace and stability in the region if they succeed in portraying Armenia as a country with interests incompatible with those of the U.S.?

The South Caucasus is at a critical juncture. A ceasefire is a necessary but not sufficient condition for durable peace. Armenia and Azerbaijan will need help to build that peace. The United States is in a special position to influence the peacebuilding process given its unique capabilities and the trust it enjoys in both societies. Recent history has shown that continued instability in the South Caucasus does not enhance either U.S. prestige or its influence in the region. The Biden administration should take up the responsibility of bringing America back to the South Caucasus. Such engagement would be both a noble task and one that furthers U.S. interests in the region.

Emin Milli is the founder of Restart Institute and former director of Meydan TV in Azerbaijan.

Arman Grigoryan is associate professor in the International Relations Department at Lehigh University.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.