There is a point where three great powers -- Russia, Turkey and Persia -- meet: the Caucasus. At the moment they converge in a country called Azerbaijan. That fact makes Azerbaijan a battleground for these three great powers, which have competed with each other along various borders for centuries. Until 1991 Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, as was the rest of the South Caucasus. But as the Russian border moved north, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were once more unveiled by history. Of the three, Azerbaijan won the geopolitical prize of bordering the three great regional powers.
It also emerged as a major energy producer. At the end of the 19th century, half of the oil in the world was produced in Azerbaijan, whose oil fields around the capital, Baku, were developed by the Nobel brothers, famed for dynamite and prizes. This is where they made their fortune. I had the pleasure of dining at their mansion a few years ago, a guest of government officials. Whatever others might have thought in that elegant house, I thought of Hitler urgently trying to reach Baku and its oil, and the fact that his disaster at Stalingrad was actually part of his attempt to seize Azerbaijan's oil fields. Azerbaijan was once the prize of empire. It is now independent in a very dangerous place.
The United States: An Adolescent Global Power
I have visited Azerbaijan several times since 2008, when I published a book called The Next 100 Years, which identified Azerbaijan as geopolitically critical in the emerging global system. This brought with it an invitation to visit Azerbaijan and see the place on which my theory focused. Since I continue to regard Azerbaijan as critical both in the struggle emerging in the Caucasus and to the United States, I continue to visit and continue to enjoy dinners that never end and rounds of toasts that test my liver. But I never forget one thing: Hitler risked everything to get to Baku and its oil. He failed to reach it, and the history of our time turns on that fact.
My latest trip had to do with a conference on U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. There are a small number of people in the United States who care about Azerbaijan and most of them were there, along with some congressmen, state representatives and a large numbers of Azeris. Compared with my first encounter with Azerbaijan, the number of people interested in the country has risen dramatically.
Conferences on subjects like this are global. You can be in Washington, Singapore or Baku and it all looks the same. When you are in my business, you meet the same people several times a year. Sometimes they have something new to say; sometimes I have something new to say. It is too infrequent. What is interesting is the people you don't normally meet: the local academics, government officials, businessmen and others. Over time you create a group of friends in the countries you visit. These are the ones from whom you learn the most. And in Azerbaijan, you listen to their desire to be friends with the United States and bewilderment at American indifference.
This is a recurring theme in my travels. Everyone is unhappy with the United States either for doing something or not doing something. In either case, they feel let down by the United States, and I am somehow personally at fault. In general I give as good as I get. But in the case of Azerbaijan, I'm on the defensive. They feel let down by the United States, and they are. This isn't a question of sentiment. Nations don't have friends and whatever my friendships in Azerbaijan -- friendships that are real and important to me -- the United States must pursue its interests. My problem in answering is that I believe that working with Azerbaijan is in the American interest and that holding back is taking unnecessary risks. I don't like criticizing my country in another country, so I try to shift the discussion to something else. It rarely works.
My own interest in Azerbaijan requires greater explanation. In The Next 100 Years I forecast a number of events, beginning with the serious weakening of the European Union and the increase in relative power of Russia. Russia had its own problems, but between Europe's dependence on Russian energy and the fact that Russia had cash available to buy assets in Europe, the decline of Europe meant a more powerful Russia. The countries that would feel that power would be those bordering the former Soviet Union -- a line from Poland to Turkey and then from Turkey to Azerbaijan, the eastern anchor of Europe on the Caspian Sea.
I wrote that the United States, withdrawing from its wars in the Islamic world, would be increasingly cautious and uncertain. The United States would continue to be the dominant power in the world, economically the most viable and with the most powerful military, but an adolescent power without foresight or balance in its actions. I argued that the United States had not been the dominant global power until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Until then the United States had shared domination and competed with the Soviet Union in a Cold War that had been frequently hot and where it wasn't clear that the United States would win. Between Korea, Vietnam and some other, less well-known engagements, nearly 100,000 Americans died in the "Cold" War -- almost as many as died in World War I -- a fact that most people don't appreciate. And when we look back on Korea and Vietnam, it is hard to imagine this period as the American age.
The United States won the Cold War because the Soviets knocked themselves out. But a win is a win and the United States stood alone, really amazed to be where it was, talking about New World Orders, but truly clueless as to what it would do later. First it imagined that war had been abolished and that it was all about making money. Then it imagined that it would spend the next century with only Islamic terrorists on its mind. Now it seems to have decided that it will avoid involvement in the world -- although how a country with nearly 25 percent of the world's gross domestic product and control of the oceans avoids involvement is beyond me.
Specialists in U.S. foreign policy divide into two camps. One camp is the realists, who argue that the United States should pursue its national self-interest. That seems reasonable until you ask them to define what the national interest is. Another camp consists of idealists, who want to use American power to do good, whether building democracy or stopping human rights abuses. It's a good idea until you ask them how they intend to do it. Usually the answer is to intervene but only kill bad people. I assume they will wear signs.