Keystone States - A New Category of Power

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College and a former Editor of the bi-monthly foreign policy journal The National Interest. The views expressed herein are his own.


THE 2015 United States National Security Strategy stresses the importance of working with “capable partners” and recognizes that changes in the international system have created opportunities to pursue “new forms of cooperation” in assembling coalitions to address critical global security issues. By what criteria, however, are we to identify which states qualify as “capable partners?”

China’s “General Framework for Foreign Relations” (Zongti waijiao buju) encapsulates the traditional thinking as to which countries matter. Like many other nations, China draws a distinction between those states capable of setting the regional agenda whilst having a voice in determining the overall global agenda (a ‘great power,’ or daguo, with the ‘superpower,’ or chaoji daguo, at the top of the pyramid), and other states which to varying degrees are agenda-takers rather than agenda-setters (the ‘normal power,’ or putongguo, followed by the small power, or xiaoguo, and the worst category, the ‘weak state,’ or ruoguo).
In recent years, Chinese foreign policy analysts have also identified a new category, the mid-level ‘powerful state’ (zhongeng qiangguo) that possesses sufficient military and economic wherewithal to influence international politics.

There are other ways to quantify a state’s importance in the international order. For instance, Ian Bremmer has developed the concept of the ‘pivot state’—a country capable of maneuvering between different major powers and blocs.

Building on these and other ideas, we can categorize countries based not simply on their own internal capabilities, but also on the roles they play in stabilizing different regions of the world.

These are the “keystone states.” As the name implies, a keystone state gives coherence to a regional order—or, if it is itself destabilized, contributes to the insecurity of its neighbors. Such countries are important because they are located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings. A keystone state, even if it is ‘small’ (xiaoquo in the Chinese taxonomy)—may nevertheless be important to regional or global security beyond what its own domestic capabilities may merit. Increasingly, they will emerge as the most important of the “capable partners” identified by the 2015 National Security Strategy.

The security and prosperity of almost all countries is now dependent on a series of transnational economic, security, and political networks, which transfer capital, information, goods, and services across borders. For instance, Egypt—regardless of the size of its gross domestic product—is of particular importance to the health of the global economy because, in terms of the physical infrastructure of the world wide web, the main fiber optic cables that facilitate data transmission between the Pacific Rim, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe all traverse its territory. Any disruption of those systems would have an immediate negative impact on internet connectivity throughout the Eastern Hemisphere.

Geography is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for defining a keystone state. The Central African Republic, for instance, connects different regions of Africa, but it lacks a crucial second component: integrative power.

Drawing on the work of Amitai Etzioni, this refers to the ability to generate positive relationships. Integrative power can be derived from a number of sources: the existence of important transit and communications lines that are vital for trade traversing its territory; the position of the state to promote regional integration and collective security among its neighbors; its role as a point of passage between different blocs, or its position overlapping the spheres of influence of several different major actors, thus serving as a mediator between them; or its willingness to take up the role as a guaranteed barrier securing neighbors from attack.

One particularly important role that a keystone state may play is to ensure that if one of its neighbors collapses or falls into chaos, it will act as a cordon sanitaire to prevent the further spread of the impending contagion.

In short, a keystone state connects and protects its neighbors.

Jordan as Guardian Keystone
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as national security expert James Jay Carafano has observed, fits the geographic definition of a keystone state par excellence: it sits at the center of a region connecting Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. For much of the twentieth century, however, Jordan was part of the frontline of the Arab world ranged against Israel, and also part of a band of conservative Arab monarchies that sought to stem the tide of revolutionary regimes aligned with the Soviet Union.

Wracked by external defeat in the 1967 war and by civil war in 1970–1971 (during which the PLO attempted to seize control of the state—a conflict into which other Arab states, Israel, and even the superpowers were drawn), King Hussein realized that the very survival of his country would depend on disengaging Jordan from the larger conflicts of the region. It would not be enough, however, to declare neutrality; Jordan had to be able to demonstrate that it could enforce that neutral stance.

As tensions between Israel, Syria, and Egypt worsened in 1973, raising the prospect of another general Middle Eastern war, Jordan made it clear it would neither participate nor allow its territory to be used as a staging ground. As King Hussein bluntly told Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in September 1973, “no one is going to use our country to attack anyone.”

Jordan maintained this commitment during the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis. After the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, Jordan came under immense pressure to join the anti-Iraq coalition. King Hussein’s decision to keep Jordan openly neutral (and even, in February 1991, to appear to “tilt” in favor of Saddam Hussein by calling for a ceasefire and negotiations after the start of the allied air campaign) was intensely criticized in public by Western officials, but the strategic logic of that position soon became apparent. Jordan offered an outlet for Iraq to the outside world for trade and contact, whilst providing guarantees that Iraq’s western frontiers would not be attacked; in turn, Jordan’s commitment to defend its own frontiers provided reassurance to Saudi Arabia that there would be no assault on its territory emanating from any sort of Iraqi hook through Jordan.

Most significantly, the Jordanian commitment to serve as a bulwark reassured Israel that its eastern borders would be secure from any sort of spillover from the conflict. As a result of King Hussein’s public questioning of the need to use force against Iraq and his condemnation of intra-Arab fighting, he gained heightened credibility among his subjects, many of whom opposed the coalition’s efforts to expel Iraq from Kuwait by force. This helped provide the king with the cover he needed for improved ties with Israel, leading to the 1994 conclusion of a peace treaty.

King Hussein’s successor, Abdullah II, has continued this pattern of reassuring neighbors and keeping open lines of communication with all of the great powers—giving countries that otherwise were strategic rivals, or even outright enemies, a common stake in maintaining the stability of the Jordanian regime.

Today, Jordan works to contain the unrest generated by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) on territory wrested from the governments of Iraq and Syria. Jordan must work to guarantee that hostile elements do not attempt to traverse its territory to threaten other states in the region.

One problem that Jordan faces is that the country lacks a domestic base to sustain its keystone role. The country relies heavily on outside assistance—extensive military, political, and economic aid from the United States, the European Union, and other Arab states—provided out of a recognition that subsidizing Jordan’s stabilizing and insulating role is far cheaper than coping with the after-effects of additional instability in the Middle East. This was the key argument advanced to win support in the U.S. Congress for creating a free trade agreement between Jordan and the United States. It has also been a critical factor in the willingness of international financial institutions to provide aid and loans on generous terms to Amman.

Other keystone states, however, can rely on their own formidable indigenous capabilities to act in this capacity, and can use the keystone position to augment their power.

Indonesia as Keystone Integrator
In a 1997 New York Times column, Thomas Friedman characterized Indonesia as the keystone of Southeast Asia and the linchpin of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which offered the countries of the region the ability to deal with the major powers from a position of near-peer equality. Southeast Asia had historically been a region at the mercy of outside imperial powers. During the Cold War, the region was at risk of serving as a proxy battleground between the superpowers. During the era of President Sukarno, Indonesia itself attempted to play off the United States against the Soviet Union and China for aid and assistance, whilst building up its military forces in an effort to achieve regional dominance. This provoked the Konfrontasi with neighboring Malaysia in the early 1960s and brought Indonesia into conflict with the militaries of the United Kingdom and Australia.

Sukarno’s successors, starting with General Suharto, reversed these trends. Rather than having Indonesia be at odds with its immediate neighbors and engage in Cold War maneuvering with the major powers, Jakarta resumed a more openly neutral stance (albeit with a tilt towards the West) and moved to improve relations with the surrounding countries. In particular, the conclusion of the Konfrontasi with Malaysia not only ended what might have become a destabilizing conflict that would have ripped the region apart, but also paved the way for closer cooperation between the two states, leading to an historic 1967 summit meeting which laid the foundations for ASEAN.
The push to create ASEAN suited Suharto’s own preference for asserting Indonesian influence through integration, rather than Sukarno’s previous efforts at intimidation and dominance. The new organization was to be based on the Indonesian political concepts of musyawarah (consultation) and mufakat (consensus). Through ASEAN, Indonesia would help to create a distinct Southeast Asian zone where the states of the region would become more inclined to cooperate with each other and reduce their dependence on, and vulnerability to, external powers.

Indeed, by banding together, the small countries of the region might even be in a position to push back against a great power (Chinese commentators, in recent years, have raised the query as to whether ASEAN is an example of xiaoguo qifu daguo—the small able to pressure the large).

Suharto’s decision to reduce defense spending helped to unleash the country’s economic potential (Indonesia’s economy, the largest in Southeast Asia, is now projected to reach a gross domestic product of some $2 trillion by 2020). It also allowed Malaysia and Singapore to focus on their own development. Indeed, by embracing Indonesia’s keystone role, Suharto forged a close friendship with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, leading to a shared vision where Indonesia and Malaysia’s size and potential could be married to Singapore’s enviable geographical position as the gateway to Southeast Asia, serving as one of the nodal points of the global economy.

Growing regional stability has helped to attract foreign investment and enabled ASEAN to draw in additional members. In turn, ASEAN’s dynamism has propelled a series of free trade agreements with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Meanwhile, China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and America’s U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement (combined with the potential for most ASEAN states to join the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership) position Southeast Asia as the vital economic keystone between the world’s two largest economies.

ASEAN is now poised to serve as the critical interconnector between East Asia (especially China, Korea, and Japan) and South Asia (most notably India), helping to propel Asia forward as the new center of gravity for the global economy.

In addition, building on a Malaysian proposal, ASEAN initiated the East Asia Summit (EAS), which brings key global powers—starting with China, Japan, and Korea, and now expanding to include other key players, such as India, Russia, Australia, and the United States—into dialogue with Indonesia and other ASEAN members. Other than the G20 summit (and unless the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum is expanded), the EAS is the only forum which brings together the Chinese, Korean, Russian, and American presidents, along with the Indian and Japanese prime ministers.

ASEAN’s convening power is further enhanced by the Asia-Europe Meeting
(ASEM), the only format where the finance ministers, foreign ministers, and heads of government of all the countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Eurasia, and Europe meet on a regular basis. Thus, Indonesia’s keystone approach, as former foreign minister N. Hassan Wirajuda told the UN General Assembly back in September 2005, paves the way for “the evolution of a new equilibrium in the Asia-Pacific region that will consolidate peaceful engagement of the regional powers with one another.”

This balance, however, depends on the willingness of President Joko Widodo and his government to continue to commit Indonesia to the next stage of ASEAN economic and political integration. If Indonesia falters in this role, it will become much harder for ASEAN to take its place as one of the world’s key players, and to insulate Southeast Asia from any potential future Sino-American rivalry.

Other keystone states must also cope with the challenge of mitigating the risk that potentially destabilizing rivalries between great powers play out on their territories—but may choose a strategy of joining with powerful neighbors to shape their initiatives “from the inside.”

Kazakhstan as Bridge Builder
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has repeatedly described his country as a bridge between East and West in all of its facets—a point of interconnection in terms of different cultures, religions, trading routes, transport lines, and economic connections. Within its own borders, Kazakhstan serves as the meeting point between European/Christian, Turkic/Islamic and East Asian populations.

In laying out the goals of its “Kazakhstan-2050” development strategy, the leadership emphasized the importance of Kazakhstan’s keystone role in ensuring the country’s prosperity and security, highlighting the importance of facilitating the “Western Europe-Western China” transport corridor and developing the overland linkages that would connect the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East to the growing markets of China and the rest of East Asia.

When Kazakhstan achieved independence in 1991, there were ongoing worries that the new state would be torn apart by geopolitical rivalries between the major powers. To forestall this, Nazarbayev and his advisers embraced a Eurasian vision designed to position the country at the meeting point of Europe and Asia, and transform what otherwise might be a disadvantageous geographical position (landlocked and caught between two great powers) into a source of strength and stability. Nazarbayev promoted Kazakhstan’s membership in a wide variety of international and regional organizations, drawing on its claims to be a European, Asian, and Middle Eastern state, assuming leadership roles in both the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Diversifying economic partners has been part of this strategy. Helped by a generous natural resources endowment—but also as a result of deliberate government policy—Kazakhstan, despite being sandwiched between Russia and China, has drawn a good deal of its foreign direct investment from the West (including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and the Netherlands), as well as Japan and South Korea, helping to balance the advantages of its close proximity to China and Russia.

Kazakhstan has also worked to keep its portfolio of major trading partners diversified, maintaining profitable economic and business ties with the European Union, the United States, Turkey, Canada, Japan, and South Korea, as well as with other Eurasian states like Uzbekistan and Belarus, preventing any overdependence on Russia and China. Indeed, Europe still accounts for more than 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s trade and nearly half of its investment.

At the same time, all of Kazakhstan’s principal neighbors have some role to play (and thus a stake) in how its hydrocarbons reach critical markets. Some continue to traverse the old Soviet-era routes through Russia. The new Caspian Production Consortium line transports Kazakh oil to the Black Sea terminal at Novorossiysk—but, in return, the Russian state pipeline monopoly, Transneft, must share ownership with the Kazakh government and oil companies. Kazakhstan also exports via new lines directly to China, as well as sending oil by tanker across the Caspian Sea to be piped along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Until international sanctions curtailed the practice several years ago, Kazakhstan conducted oil swaps with Iran, allowing Astana to take possession of cargoes exported via the Persian Gulf.

Yet while Kazakhstan has diversified its relationships beyond Russia and China, it has never marginalized its two powerful neighbors. Kazakhstan seeks to affiliate itself to the principal geopolitical and geo-economic proposals of its two great power neighbors, but in so doing it seeks to then modify arrangements from within as a participating member, in order to safeguard Kazakh interests.

Thus, Nazarbayev committed Kazakhstan to becoming a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—China’s efforts to secure its western periphery and thereby prevent encirclement—and of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Union, Russia’s efforts to regain some of its economic and political influence among the states of the former Soviet Union. By joining these, however, Kazakhstan demanded a share in their governance and assurances that its ties to other countries would not be negatively impacted.

The trick of Kazakh diplomacy is how to develop effective engagement beyond Russia and China without tripping red lines in both Moscow and Beijing. Thus, for 20 years, Kazakhstan has forged a security partnership with NATO, but rejects full membership. Indeed, by keeping its territory free of any foreign military presence, Kazakhstan reassures both Russia and China that their security is not threatened. At the same time, using its limited, constrained relationship with NATO, Kazakhstan has attempted to position itself as an honest broker for a sustained security dialogue between the Atlantic Alliance, SCO, and CSTO, as Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov underlined at the 2013 Munich Security Conference.

Despite its Path to Europe program, Kazakhstan decided to create a common market in partnership with Russia and Belarus, so that joint efforts might give them better leverage vis-à-vis the EU and China. Given the high degree of cross-border trade already existing between Russia and Kazakhstan, it made sense to push for economic integration. Yet, in return for accepting Russia’s proposal for membership within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Astana insisted on equal representation with Moscow, as well as the deletion of all noneconomic provisions from the treaty document, so that there would be no loss of Kazakh political sovereignty.

The EEU, however, does not represent the culmination of Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan as the keystone of the region. The next step is to expand the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to move beyond security and on to economic development—and in particular to knit together the economies and transport systems of the entire Eurasian plain.

In this effort, Kazakhstan seeks to position itself as the bridge that would connect European Russia with China’s western provinces, and to connect Kazakhstan’s own prosperity to the overall development of China. To that end, Nazarbayev has endorsed China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, and Zhenis Kasymbek, Kazakhstan’s transportation minister, has outlined a $20 billion investment program to enable Kazakhstan to take full advantage of the opportunities to more closely integrate Kazakhstan’s economy with China’s.

Kazakhstan’s size, economic potential, and energy wealth has allowed it to position itself as a credible middle power in the same category as countries like Australia or South Korea. Smaller keystone states might instead adopt an approach which emphasizes the importance of equidistance.

Azerbaijan as Caspian Balancer
Elkhan Nuriyev, an Azeri diplomat and academician, has described Azerbaijan as the “keystone” of the Caspian region—defined both by its geographic position at the crossroads of key transport corridors that connect Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and also by the country’s ability to simultaneously balance good relations with the United States, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the Member States of the European Union. Farhad Amirbayov, the president of the Baku Interbank Currency Exchange, describes Azerbaijan as maintaining a “linking position” between different blocs and major powers, where their spheres and interests intersect in the Caspian region, noting that “Azerbaijan, due to its multicultural, multilingual character and connectedness with different civilizations and countries, can expect an interesting role as a link in the future.” This is certainly one of the reasons it has been invited by Turkey, the current chair of the G20, to take part in the work of this critical global forum.

Historically, the Azeri lands formed part of the contested borderlands between great imperial powers, most notably caught in ancient times between the Parthian and East Roman realms and, in a more modern period, between the trilateral rivalries of the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many experts predicted that a newly-independent Azerbaijan would find itself tossed about as one of the prizes of the new great game, particularly because it holds title to some seven billion barrels of oil and 35 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Instead, for the last two decades, Azerbaijan has carved out an independent position for itself, careful not to align itself too closely to any one bloc.

This requires careful management of the country’s international relations to avoid zero-sum situations where a gain made by one country in its relations with Azerbaijan must automatically come at the expense of another. In turn, by avoiding making any of its partners believe that its interests are continually being ignored or even actively disregarded, the government in Baku creates incentives for all the major actors in the Caspian basin—even those actively at odds with each other—to maintain the status quo.

Initially, post-Soviet Azerbaijan, particularly under its second president, Abdulfaz Elchibey, hoped that a close connection with Turkey would, in turn, pull Azerbaijan into the Euro-Atlantic bloc and mitigate the geographic realities of neighboring Russia and Iran. Such an effort, however, did not help to produce stability, especially in a country that had seen approximately 20 percent of its territory detached by Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Elchibey was overthrown in a coup in June 1993, paving the way for Heydar Aliyev to become president. Aliyev took a more pragmatic approach to Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, realizing the importance of acknowledging the interests of all of the country’s key neighbors. However, Aliyev followed a different keystone strategy than Suharto in Indonesia and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan. Despite its abundance of energy, Azerbaijan—in terms of its overall economy, territorial size, and population—was too small to follow the Kazakh strategy. Nor could the ASEAN model be duplicated, both because of the lack of any reconciliation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and because of the legacy of past failures to create a pan-Caucasian identity.

Instead, Aliyev conducted Azeri policy on the basis of two principles: using a sliding scale—moving closer to one set of partners in order to gain leverage against others, but never fully falling into the orbit of any one of the major actors; and exploiting Azerbaijan’s geographical position at the nexus of two critical east-west and north-south trade routes.

Initially, that meant Azerbaijan had to address its overdependence on Russian economic and transport links that were an inheritance of the Soviet Union.

Like Elchibey before him, Aliyev continued the effort, in the so-called “Contract of the Century” (which would create the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, to operate the first new post-Soviet oil concessions), to attract a wide range of international investors—with European and American firms playing prominent roles. But Middle Eastern companies also joined—part of the outreach to the Arab world—and Asian ones were later also brought into the consortium. Aliyev also insisted that the Russians receive a stake in this project, and was apparently considering offering a share to the Iranians—ultimately demurring from this approach when it was made clear that, according to U.S. law, American firms would be unable to participate in any project if the Iranians had equity. Moreover, while moving ahead with plans to develop the first major Eurasian oil export line that completely bypassed Russian territory—the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that turned Turkey into an alternate transit country for Caspian hydrocarbons to reach international markets—Aliyev also negotiated an agreement that sent a regular stream of Azeri oil northward to Russia, to its export terminals at Novorossiysk.

Turkey (and the West) was thus assured of independent access to Azeri hydrocarbons, while Russia was still given a share of the fees associated with the transit of Azeri oil.

Moving beyond pipelines, the Azeri government is positioning Baku as the critical juncture for cargo transit between the trans-Caspian routes, which tie Central (and ultimately East) Asia to the Mediterranean basin, and the north-south corridor, which runs from the Baltic coast to the Persian Gulf. This latter route is of critical importance not just for Iran, but also for India, which relies on it for land access to central Eurasia.

Significantly, despite some pressure from the United States, Baku did not choke off Iran’s access to these lines of communication. Anticipating that the end of the nuclear standoff between Iran and the international community is in sight, Azerbaijan is poised to reap the benefits when Tehran is fully reintegrated into the global economy through the full utilization of the Caspian-to-Persian Gulf corridor.

Aliyev (and his son and successor Ilham Aliyev, who became president in 2003) also extended this balancing act to national security matters. Azerbaijan twice signed agreements to allow Russia to retain control of a strategic radar site on the Caspian Sea, but also developed a partnership relationship with NATO and, in pursuit of closer strategic ties with the United States, dispatched military forces to join U.S.-led coalitions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has worked to strengthen the position of the non-Russian states in Eurasia—in particular by expanding cooperation with the so-called GUUAM bloc (including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Uzbekistan)—but drew the line at open opposition to Russia, effectively remaining neutral during the Georgia-Russia conflict of 2008 and the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia.

Indeed, a hallmark of the Azeri approach has been the embrace of formal neutrality—Azerbaijan joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 2011—while remaining open to cooperation with different organizations and blocs. Azerbaijan leveraged its geographical position to become an important supply depot and stop-off point in the so-called Northern Distribution Network to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan; these linkages became even more critical after several interruptions occurred with the supply lines running through Pakistan. President Ilham Aliyev praises the high level of strategic cooperation with NATO, yet, like Nazarbayev, eschews any push to seek full membership.

More recently, in keeping with the principle of the sliding spectrum, Baku has warmed up its security ties with Moscow and increased its purchases of Russian weaponry. Yet Azerbaijan has also made it clear that it has no plans to join Russian-led Eurasian organizations. In addition—despite its security ties with the United States and the cultivation of a defense relationship with Israel—Baku has also made it clear that it would not allow its territory to be used as a base for any assault against its southern neighbor, Iran.

Aliyev was also able to give the Iranian National Oil Company a stake in the Shah Deniz gas project—along with European, Russian and Turkish firms—and to win from Washington an exemption from U.S. sanctions on Iran’s participation. Hikmat Hajizadeh, who served as President Elchibey’s ambassador to Russia, notes that the current administration seeks to send a message to all its neighbors that “we are a neutral country and there can be no danger to you via our territory”—the very definition of a keystone state.

As the juncture where the European Union’s eastern initiatives encounter the westward end of pan-Asian development efforts and the northern extension of the Islamic world, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as one of the main dialogue partners between different critical regions of the world.

Emerging Keystones?
Two other potential keystones that would be essential to realizing the various Chinese, American, and European “New Silk Road” proposals that would connect the Pacific Rim basin, the Euro-Atlantic community, the Greater Middle East, and the Eurasian space, can now be considered.

South Korea
Because of the Cold War division of the Korean peninsula, South Korea (ROK) has for the last seventy years functioned as an island, with no land links to the Asian continent. By virtue of its alliance with the United States and the stationing of American military forces on its territory, South Korea has served as an American beachhead in the Asia-Pacific, giving Washington a jumping-off point to project power through the theater. The Demilitarized Zone with North Korea and its maritime borders with China functioned for many years as the front line dividing an American and a Soviet/Chinese security sphere in Northeast Asia. South Korea, in essence, had no ability to play any sort of effective keystone role, and for reasons of sheer national survival had to adapt to the role of being the frontline of the Western-oriented Pacific states against the existential threat posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and China normalized relations with Seoul a year later. North Korea remains an implacable foe, but both post-Soviet Russia and China have sought ways not only to expand their economic ties to the south, but to unlock the Korean peninsula’s potential as an important node between seaborne Pacific trade and land-based Eurasian connections.

In turn, South Korea has dramatically expanded its economic ties with former foes and entered markets that until recently were closed to it. China is now South Korea’s leading trading partner (and South Korea is China’s third). South Korea today, in the words of Han Sukhee, a professor at Yonsei University, must “dually manage its security, which is grounded in the ROK-U.S. alliance, and its economic wellbeing, which is dependent on the ROK-China strategic cooperative partnership.” This can be either a source of tension or a way to position South Korea as a Kazakhstan-style bridge builder.

The ROK is already positioned as a keystone, as the node of a nascent Asia-Pacific economic community, enjoying free trade agreements with both China and the United States, as well as with the countries of ASEAN, and participating in both Chinese- and U.S-led initiatives.

In pursuit of a more keystone-oriented approach, the current president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, has proposed a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI)—an effort to harmonize Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” Vladimir Putin’s “New East” program, and Barack Obama’s “rebalance” within the Asia-Pacific region. South Korea is expected to take the lead in building trust among its neighbors, with an eye to laying the basis for greater cooperation.

Guided by what has sometimes been labeled “trustpolitik,” Park hopes to launch discussions of existing disputes across Northeast Asia, which have impeded relations (such as the disputes over maritime zones between China, Korea, and Japan) via a diplomatic process that could, over time, lay the basis for an institutionalized mechanism for dispute resolution.

Park has also put forward a “Eurasian Initiative.” It complements similar proposals advanced by Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan for a unified system of trade, energy, and transport links across the entire greater Eurasian space. This would be followed by the economic integration of the entire region. The Korean port of Busan would be the node to connect the Pacific Rim with the Eurasian heartland, with routes running through a North Korea that has been incentivized by Beijing and Moscow to then connect and meet up with Russian and Chinese lines into the heart of Eurasia along the New Silk Road. In turn, moving out from Busan, goods could move throughout the Pacific maritime region to the Western hemisphere and Oceania.
The major wild card, of course, is North Korea. Unrelenting hostility from the Kim Jong-un regime could doom these prospects. A major decrease in the North Korean threat, however, might allow Seoul to give firm security assurances to Russia and China that would decrease concerns that South Korea would continue to act as a beachhead for a U.S.-Japan axis on the Asian continent. The ROK might then move into a more truly balancing role between the Pacific powers (Japan and the United States) and the Eurasian powers (Russia and China).

Afghanistan is another keystone (whose borders were crafted to separate British India from the Russian, Chinese, and Persian Empires) that, properly stabilized, interconnects all the major regions of Asia. The overthrow of Zahir Shah in 1973 and the attempt to create a Marxist republic eroded Afghan neutrality, and as different factions vied for total control of the country, they found external sponsors—including Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan, China, and the United States—anxious to prevent the complete defeat of their clients and the loss of spheres of influence inside the country, which could give them some strategic leverage against their rivals.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in March 2015, outlined a strategy that relies on Afghanistan’s keystone position as a way to move forward after four decades of conflict, by giving all the major players a durable stake in the country’s stability and prosperity.

This builds on the “Heart of Asia” initiative (the Istanbul process), which sees Afghanistan as the necessary keystone to integrate South, East, and Central Asia with the Middle East (and beyond to Europe), and to provide a foundation for confidence-building measures and joint economic and security projects that would reduce tensions in Asia between historic rivals.

Given that different Afghan factions receive aid from different neighbors, a negotiated domestic political settlement must occur simultaneously with a regional understanding that would restore the conception of Afghanistan as a neutral buffer zone. A degree of autonomy for the Taliban-dominated regions of the south would give Pakistan a greater sense of security along its northwest frontier, whilst securing China’s trade links to the southwest. Similarly, decentralization would allow the heartlands of the former Northern Alliance to retain their links with India, Iran, and Russia.

For this vision to work, any future Afghan government would have to adopt elements of both the Jordanian and Azeri models. Afghanistan would have to be able to give absolute assurances to all its neighbors (as well as to more distant powers, like the United States) that its territory would never be used as a springboard for an attack against another country—and other countries, in turn, would have to cease any efforts to interfere in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs.

Afghanistan would have to adopt a position of effective neutrality—cooperating with different alliances without becoming too closely identified with any particular one—which might be difficult for the United States to accept, given its massive investment in the country over the past decade.

Nevertheless, a non-bloc Afghanistan may be the best way to prevent ongoing rivalries—between, respectively, India and Pakistan, India and China, China and the United States, Iran and the United States—from destroying the fragile foundations of Afghan reconstruction. This, in turn, could help spur the development of a general regional non-aggression pact, helping to contribute to strategic stability.

When Keystones Fail
In contrast, the current crisis in Ukraine highlights the pitfalls for a state that has been positioned by geopolitical and geo-economic factors to play a keystone role, but because of domestic political factors, makes a conscious decision to reject that role and—by design or by accident—ends up disconnecting a region.

The Ukrainian political leadership has been far less successful in emulating Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan’s flexible, responsive strategy in dealing with its larger neighbors—in part because of an unwillingness to embrace both the opportunities, as well as the limitations, of the keystone role.

The Ukrainian leadership over the last two decades neither took steps to reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia nor to embrace an Azeri-style approach that would balance constituencies in the country, pushing for closer integration either with the West or with Russia. In addition, no Ukrainian version of Nazarbayev’s Eurasian vision emerged that could sustain both elite and popular buy-in for assuming a keystone role.

Instead, recent history has been marked by sudden swings and reversals of policy on questions such as membership in NATO, the European Union, and the Eurasian Union. The desire on the part of a significant portion of the Ukrainian governing elite, as well as the general population, not to be left “out” of the West—hoping that full inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic world would compensate for Ukraine’s unfavorable geographic position vis-à-vis its eastern neighbor—meant that proposed compromises, such as Ukraine adopting a middle position between European and Eurasian zones, were never put in place.

As a result, Ukraine could not emulate Kazakhstan’s proactive approach in attempting to shape the institutional parameters of its relationships with Brussels and Moscow—and former President Viktor Yanukovych’s gamble that he could successfully maneuver between the EU and the EEU led to his deposition.

The ongoing conflict makes the keystone approach infeasible for Ukraine. Based on the assessment that Kyiv is committed to full integration with the West, the Russian strategy appears to be to amputate portions of Ukraine to serve as a de facto buffer zone, while taking steps to redirect transport links to Europe that cross Ukrainian territory, re-routing them through other states like Turkey. In turn, if the Ukrainian government is committed to the geopolitical choice it made in 2014—like the South Korean government during the Cold War—it must adjust to becoming a frontier state, while its Western partners contemplate how much support they can offer.

Embracing Keystones
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the world is evolving in the direction of what he calls nonpolarity. In such an environment, why would major powers want to support keystone states, rather than expand the number of their exclusive allies?

An effective keystone state can serve as a pressure-release valve in the international system, particularly as the transition to conditions of nonpolarity continues, by acting as a buffer and reducing the potential for conflict between major power centers. In contrast, those states which find themselves on the fault lines between the world’s principal powers and blocs, but are unable to navigate the currents, face heightened risks to their own security—as we are witnessing in Ukraine—which in turn spills over to neighboring countries.

Moreover, in an era of growing budgetary austerity, it is a cheaper investment to strengthen a keystone state’s capabilities than deal with all the negative consequences that result when a keystone buckles. After the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011, the resulting outflow of weaponry and personnel from post-conflict Libya temporarily overwhelmed Mali—a keystone that links sub-Saharan and North Africa—strengthening a plethora of radical and criminal organizations, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, that are security threats not only to regional governments, but to Europe and the United States.

Thus, even if many keystone states take up a position of nonalignment with any of the major blocs (in part to reassure their neighbors that their territories will not be used as staging points for their rivals), they often accept security assistance from the United States or other major actors in order to better secure their regions from disruption.

There has been a great deal of attention paid to the rise and decline of great powers in the twenty-first century. Yet the real driver for international peace and security may be the strength of a network of keystone states. In the future, we may no longer rank countries simply on the basis of their domestic stock of military and economic power, but on what they can contribute to sustaining the global system upon which the prosperity and security of a growing majority of the world’s population depends. 

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