Small Ties Bring Great Opportunities


By Christine Arakelian  and Michael Rubin 

With threats from Russia, China, Iran and its proxies growing, developing strong ties with Armenia may seem like a low priority. It should not. Strong ties with small, democratic buffer states in dangerous neighborhoods create not liabilities but opportunities for diplomacy and conflict-resolution.

President Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, entered office intent on a pivot to Asia. Their logic was compelling. China was a near-peer rival, and North Korea brandished its nuclear arsenal. Forces of altruism do not fill vacuums, however, and soon the Middle East drew American attention back as extremist and terrorist groups threatened the region. Global leaders cannot afford to be absent in any region that illiberal forces covet and threaten.

Rather, the United States must establish a presence not only diplomatically and in some cases militarily, but also economically. Diplomacy must be more than talk, but a whole of government approach.

Here, Armenia can play a unique role. A buffer state that sits astride the historical fault line dividing the Greek, Russian, and Persian worlds, Armenian civilization dates back millennia with links extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent. Even today, Armenia is home to not only ancient churches but also Persian mosques and ancient Roman temples.

Buffer states historically keep peace by separating potential combatants. If Turkey, Iran, or Russia is able to dominate Armenia, scenarios for war multiply. This is why Turkey and Azerbaijan’s demands for a pan-Turkish corridor across Armenia secured by Turkish forces is so dangerous.  Moreover, it is unacceptable to India’s economic and security interests because Turkey and Pakistan are aligned, and hence, any tacit US support will undermine its larger, more important security interests of anchoring India within a Western economic framework.  It also explains Iran’s statement that any Turkish or Azerbaijani alternation to Iran’s border with Armenia would lead to military intervention.

A natural element of buffers is emigration. The greatest export of many small buffers is emigration. Armenian communities exist in multiple Arab countries, Iran, Russia, Europe, and the United States.  That diaspora is today an asset, allowing Armenia to create bridges for the US where none currently exist without any conflicts of interest.

Consider Iran: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Director of Central Intelligence Bill Burns have repeatedly sought to work through Oman and Iraq, both countries with agendas inimical to American security interests that supports groups who target Americans. Armenia, though, is democratic and Western oriented. Armenia’s ties across geopolitical blocks also make it the perfect location for U.S.-Russia backchannels to discuss Ukraine, or to discuss Syria

Buffer states also play an economic role. As large economic blocs like China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union expand their reach, pro-Western buffers like Armenia can provide hubs for U.S. and European commerce without posing military threats to rivals.  Buffer states are also ideal location for unified customs data architecture to catalyze commerce across the region. Just as the United States benefits from having the dollar be the preferred currency for trade, ownership and design of customs data forms standards that reap commercial, intelligence and security rewards.

Buffers can also order and amplify trade blocs. The U.S. trade framework for the region remains scattershot. To date, Washington has proposed economic configurations such as the India-Middle East Corridor and the U.S.-Central Asia Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.  As a small democracy situated between these trading blocs, Armenia could enable the United States to merge its existing India, Middle East, and Central Asia configurations into a combined economic juggernaut to challenge China, anchor India within a prosperous Western democratic framework, and allow U.S. and local companies to operate at scale.

The age when the United States can rest on its laurels is over. It cannot take small nations for granted. Rather than view the cultivation of ties with buffers like Armenia as a distraction from more pressing security problems, a wiser policy would recognize that small investments in democratic, Western-leaning countries like Armenia can pay huge diplomatic, security, and economic dividends.

Christine Arakelian is a Fellow at the Armenian Society of Fellows. Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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