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From Houston to Baku: America's Local Foreign Policymaking

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Increasingly, American foreign policy is being shaped in cities beyond Washington -- in places like Houston, Texas. While the ongoing crisis in Ukraine with Russia raises energy prices and financial concerns for Americans broadly, businessmen in America's fourth largest city are busy seeking out new opportunities. As President Obama visits Asia, while trying to simultaneously keep a foot in Europe and the Middle East, Texan politicians have been welcoming foreign investment and touting the benefits of America's energy revolution. More gas at home means more jobs, economic expansion and an improved trade balance, along with the possibility of exporting liquefied natural gas beyond America's borders to rebalance the geopolitics of global affairs. The shifting of American foreign policymaking to local hubs like Houston is most apparent in some of the most neglected areas of the world, namely the Turkic region of Eurasia.

The traditional monopoly of foreign policymaking by the Washington elite is being broken by American business and citizen diplomacy. A good example of this is Houston's sister cities relationship with Baku, the capitol of Azerbaijan -- a critical energy supplier, guarantor of regional stability, and ally of America, Israel and Europe that is now more pivotal for American interests in Eurasia (thanks to Russia's recent aggression) than at any point in its history. The fact that Houston, not D.C., is Baku and Istanbul's American counterpart, and has become the hub for bilateral U.S.-Turkic economic relations, is telling in and of itself. A dynamic Turkic-American and business-led community in Houston has leveraged opportunities and an entrepreneurial pioneering spirit to create strong economic ties linking the heart of Texas with Eurasia.

American foreign policymaking has traditionally sidelined the Turkic world in favor of larger geopolitical prizes. In particular, American policy has underappreciated smaller regional players like Azerbaijan because of challenges related to its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and complicated internal developments since Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union. Yet states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, which are creating oil and gas business partnerships with Azerbaijan, are passing resolutions on foreign policy issues in their statehouses and educating both their federal and state representatives about this part of the world regardless of Washington's disinterest. Therefore, rather than following guidance and talking points from the State Department or White House on Baku -- which at any rate have been minimal -- these state leaders are championing greater engagement in the local language of energy, investment and partnerships.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, dubbed the "Deal of the Century," put Azerbaijan on the map for most Americans during the Clinton Administration and positioned the Turkic world to be a leading energy hub. Yet rarely in Washington does one hear about the new deals of the century such as the Southern Energy Corridor or the energy finds in the Eastern Mediterranean or Caspian that are likely to reshape the 21st century. One does, however, hear about these new developments in the boardrooms of Houston's energy companies.

Even beyond the energy deals, the fact that Azerbaijan is still opening its airspace as a transit hub for U.S. forces as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and was the first Muslim-majority nation to send its armed forces to serve alongside American forces in Iraq is commemorated by everyone from congressmen to governors, who command the National Guard units that served with Azeri soldiers. Given that Azerbaijan until last year served on the UN Security Council and most recently voted with America against Russia's aggression in Ukraine, ironically it has been state leaders, more than diplomats, that have been encouraging Washington's policymakers to pay closer attention to Baku as global events continue to unfold.

Even while American policymakers at the national level fail to engage with Azerbaijan and the Turkic world, Russia, for its part, is continuing a long tradition of involvement in the region -- in both the positive and negative senses. The crisis in Ukraine serves as a powerful reminder of how often history repeats itself, particularly in Eurasia. It was on an expedition through Baku that Tsar Peter the Great envisioned a global Russian empire whose linchpin would be a warm-water port in Crimea for his imperial navy. Coincidentally, Baku was Stalin's old stomping ground as a young revolutionary (and bank robber). Today, the shadows of history loom large over the region, where President Putin is asserting his own ambitions for Russia to recreate the power of the Soviet Union, whose demise Putin once declared as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century." While Peter the Great captured the great Eurasian cities of the time with 18th century military force and Stalin rolled in with precision after World War II, Putin has created a modern equivalent of systematic economic manipulation and forceful interference in former Soviet republics. The pattern of Russia's manipulation of Crimea against Ukraine, Transnistria against Moldova, South Ossetia against Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh against Azerbaijan is startling, and flaunts all international norms in the 21st century.

While Washington is perceived in the region as conducting telephone diplomacy, Moscow is aggressively reasserting itself with both irregular and regular troops on the ground. Whether by sequestering ships in the Crimean harbor this year, demanding Russian soldiers continue maintain radars in Gabala, Azerbaijan in 2012, or invading Georgia in 2008, Putin is proving again that he will take controversial and unilateral action to maintain Moscow's influence. As a result, Russia's neighbors like Azerbaijan are left wondering what the West will do to counter these efforts and support their long-term interests, especially in light of their efforts over the years to reorient toward the West. Despite seeming anachronistic to Washington, Moscow's tactics have been ruthlessly effective and pragmatic in a way that both Baku and Houston bemoan. Economic sanctions against Russia and its energy companies will hit Houston more than perhaps any other American city. Therefore it is in everyone's interest to carefully recalibrate America's relationships throughout the Turkic world to fully leverage the private sector's investments in the natural resources of this region. As a result, any silver lining will come from Houston rather than Washington during these dark days and it's in America's best long-term interest to encourage economic engagement and pragmatic diplomacy at this local level.

Just as Texas is the historic result of an independent country proudly joining the United States while preserving its own and Mexican heritage, Azerbaijan is the culmination of three elemental tendencies that accentuate the pivotal nature of its geographic position. It is culturally and religiously infused with Persian heritage, while ethnically and linguistically Turkic, and historically part of the Russian and Soviet empires. Sitting at the heart of Eurasia's powerful cultural forces where old empires overlap and modern states compete, Baku's natural gas resources can boost energy diversification the way that Houston in the heart of Texas is leading America's energy revolution. As a result, just like Eurasia's future is likely to play out in and around Azerbaijan, America's future foreign policy may be playing out as much in Houston as it is in Washington these days.

This post was originally featured on War on the Rocks, an influential web magazine on strategy, conflict and foreign affairs.