Vol. 3, No. 13 (July 01, 2010)

National interests and international friendship: Confusion and conflict

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

It is a fundamental proposition of world politics that countries do not have permanent friends but only permanent interests, but it is an equally powerful reality that in an age of mass politics, the expectation of friendship as the basis of relations between countries—if not in fact friendship itself—has profound consequences for the ways in which countries conduct relations with each other.  And the tensions between the two have been very much on display in Azerbaijani-American relations during the last month.

The widely reported comments in Baku by an unidentified American official that “there is only thing [the United States] really care[s] about right now, and this is Afghanistan” not only sparked a debate in Azerbaijan as to whether that means the United States cares about Azerbaijan but also revealed some fundamental misunderstandings among Baku commentators about the nature of relations between countries in general and between the United States and Azerbaijan in particular, misunderstandings that threaten the broadening and deepening of a relationship that has been growing for some years.

The most dangerous of these misunderstandings was clearly that a single statement by a single and obviously junior official means more than the repeated visits to Baku by senior American officials, including one to be made in early July by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and by the efforts of U.S. policy makers to involve Azerbaijan in a variety of activities ranging from economic development of the energy sector to the expansion of democracy in Azerbaijan itself to security relationships in NATO and elsewhere.  Washington’s actions belie the implications of a statement that went viral not only internationally but in Azerbaijani circles as well.
Indeed, this single statement became the occasion for Azerbaijani commentators of various stripes to compile a list of American actions that supposedly provided “proof” of what this unnamed individual had said.  The US has not had an ambassador in Baku for a year, the US did not invite President Ilham Aliyev to the counter-proliferation summit, the US has criticized Azerbaijan on human rights, and the US has failed to move in the directions Baku would like on the events of 1915 and Article 907 are all things that one or another writer has adduced as evidence that Washington is against Azerbaijan or doesn’t care about it.

In none of these cases have the authors pointed to three other more important pieces of evidence about the relationship between Washington and Baku.  First, these writers and speakers have ignored the ways in which the policies of the US Administration as opposed to some in the Congress have underlined the importance Azerbaijan has in Washington.  Second, these commentators have ignored the reality that the United States as a variety of interests in the world and naturally views Azerbaijan in terms of these broader interests.  And third, these authors have failed to understand that many of “the facts” they adduce as evidence are in fact evidence of something else.

To give but one example: the gap between the presence of American ambassadors in Baku is not evidence of the lack of concern in Washington about Azerbaijan but just the reverse.  The complex way in which individuals are considered for such positions and the multitude of parties involved in the process often means in the American context that the more important the country is for the US and the more challenging the problems both countries face together, the more likely it is that the process of selecting, nominating and confirming a senior American representative—especially when that process starts at the beginning of a presidential administration rather than later—often is protracted.  

As a country that recovered its independence less than 20 years ago, Azerbaijan has faced a greater range of challenges than most.  Not only does it face the serious problems arising from the occupation of part of its territory—an occupation whose seriousness means that Azerbaijanis often define all issues in terms of that tragedy—but Azerbaijan and its people have had to navigate in a world where relations between countries are more complicated and multi-tiered than ever before. 

Learning to do so has not been easy.  In some ways, the attention that Azerbaijanis pay to each and every statement by officials, identified or not, of officials from major powers is a testimonial to their maturity.  Azerbaijanis understand far more than other peoples just how important their relationships are with other countries.  But these relationships are not about friendship alone: they are first and foremost about national interests.  And it is critically important not to confuse the two.

Azerbaijanis are an extremely hospitable people who place an extraordinarily high value on politeness and friendship.  Those are all good things, but they are not a sufficient basis for evaluating the foreign policies of other countries or the way in which bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and any one of them are developing.  Indeed, worrying about friendship alone, even in a world where frequent public statements have devaluated such terms as “strategic partner” and “international friend,” is an approach fraught with risks.

Instead, Azerbaijanis need to focus on their national interests as well as the national interests of others.  When they do that, they will see that the national interests of the United States are remarkably congruent with many of theirs—not identical but quite similar and thus the basis for genuine as opposed to hypocritical cooperation—and they will be better able to proceed than if they respond in a febrile fashion to every media report to the contrary.