The Promise of Visionary Pragmatism

07/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Israeli President Shimon Peres visits Azerbaijan in late June this year, it will be exactly one month from the May 28 Azerbaijan Republic Day celebrations. This bears an almost inescapable symbolism as Azerbaijan's national day marked the 91st anniversary of the establishment of the first parliamentary democracy with the majority Muslim population in the world in 1918, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Incidentally, the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic managed, before being invaded by the Russian Bolsheviks, to grant equal rights to all citizens regardless of their ethnicity, religion and gender, rushing ahead of the United States on women suffrage.

Located at the global cultural crossroads of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan stands in a clear defiance of the "Clash of Civilizations" paradigm. Defying stereotypes is not an objective in itself for Azerbaijan; rather it is a result of pragmatic, non-ideological policies. In the area as diverse as the Caucasus (Azerbaijan itself is home to a mix of cultural, religious and ethnic groups, including a 2,500-year-old indigenous Sephardic Jewish community), tolerance and inclusiveness are necessary pre-requisites for development and success. Therefore, Azerbaijan simply follows its national interest, though some Azerbaijanis clearly enjoy the notion of broken stereotypes.

While Azerbaijan's location at the heart of the ancient Silk Road is an accident of history and geography, the precedent set by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918 demonstrates that the nation's vision of pragmatism is not accidental. This points' to the tradition of generally open and moderate predominantly Muslim societies of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Contrary to another myth, the "Muslim world" is as diverse as any other "world" and consists of a rich mosaic of cultures and sovereign nations. For instance, there are overlapping concerns on which majority of Muslims would agree, yet they are also numerous other concerns on which Muslims would, naturally, disagree with each other and agree with some others. For instance, Azerbaijan often disagrees with neighboring Iran, clearly so in the case of the Mr. Peres' visit, yet agrees on an overwhelming majority of issues with its Orthodox Christian neighbor Georgia. Another glaring illustration of the complexity of the region is another neighbor's, Christian Armenia's, close ties to Iran.

President Obama's brilliant speech in Cairo was welcomed by numerous Muslims and others. It presented a more approachable and considerate United States, a departure from another, this time an anti-American, stereotype often perpetuated outside US. Still, the speech seems to have been addressed to the Middle East rather than to all Muslims around the world. This is not to say that resolving the problems of the Middle East is not a high priority, quite to the contrary, this is a central global challenge, which warrants an energetic search for a solution. Moreover, one can be confident that a vast majority of Muslims and non-Muslims around the world would be relieved to see tangible progress towards a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Yet, looking at a diverse international community spanning different continents from the prism of a single issue may be simply misleading. Perhaps, building partnerships based on pragmatic assessment of national interests and addressing specific issues based on their individual merits could be a more productive approach. Helping to resolve the explosive Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and return of the Armenian occupied Azerbaijani territories based on fundamentals of international law and acting as an objective, honest broker can reassure America's friends and reinvigorate its international standing. Reaching out more actively to the moderate nations of the Caucasus and Central Asia opens great opportunities and can set an example of mutually beneficial relations. Such opportunities shouldn't be missed as they both serve the national interests of the United States and its regional partners and enhance global stability.

One example of regional success, in which Azerbaijan played a key role, has been developing of the Caspian energy infrastructure and the East-West energy corridor. With the strong support of the United States, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey in partnership with international energy companies have built the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and the South Caucasus natural gas pipeline. These pipelines don't only deliver Caspian oil to a Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, by-passing the ecologically vulnerable Turkish Straits and the bottleneck of the Persian Gulf, they also, for the first time, link allow for direct deliveries of the Caspian natural gas to the European Union. And the benefits of these projects expand beyond energy as they provide a backbone for the restoration of the once-vibrant ancient Silk Road and promote regional cooperation. Exchange of ideas and strengthening of links along the Caucasus-Central Asia East West corridor is vital for a meaningful integration of this strategically important region with the rest of world.

An encouraging recognition of these linkages came recently from President Obama in the letter to his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Having sent the veteran Clinton-era expert on the Caspian, Special Envoy Richard Morningstar to the annual oil and gas show in Baku at the beginning of June, Mr. Obama asked him to deliver the message to President Aliyev, which described Azerbaijan as "an important and reliable supplier of energy to world markets" and an example of energy development resulting in "rapid progress and access to the best technology." The US President then highlighted the most important aspect of regional projects saying that they "increase regional prosperity and cooperation as well as global energy security, while also offering an invaluable opportunity to address the needs and aspirations of all Azerbaijani citizens."

In his turn, speaking at the oil and gas show, President Aliyev reminded that the development of energy resources is just an instrument for promoting comprehensive development and investing in human capital. The recent history of Azerbaijan's successful cooperation with the United States and regional partners has demonstrated the Caspian's potential. Moreover, as the global importance of natural gas as a cleaner hydrocarbon is increasing and the challenge of energy security is assuming greater urgency, so grows the importance of the Caspian resources in contributing to diversity of energy supplies.

Should Washington elaborate and act on Mr. Obama's recent message to President Aliyev, the United States can help to fully realize the region's awesome promise. Such a progress would make many mutual stereotypes and 'clashes" somewhat obsolete. After all, just as Azerbaijan's pragmatism, the upcoming regional itinerary of President Peres, an experienced seasoned politician, is hardly accidental.

Elin Suleymanov is Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles. For more information please visit www.azconsulatela.org.