Interviews | Politics | Central Asia

Slow Anti-Americanism in Central Asia

“U.S. power can inadvertently shift politics even in regions like Central Asia where the United States is remote.”

Catherine Putz
Slow Anti-Americanism in Central Asia
Credit: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Imagine symbols as resources. Now consider the United States as a symbol quarried by social movements in Central Asia for different reasons, and to different ends. It’s this line of thought that Edward Schatz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, follows in his new book “Slow Anti-Americanism: Social Movements and Symbolic Politics in Central Asia.” The United States — “symbolic America” — is a resource mined by various social movements in Central Asia. From Islamists to human rights activists to labor movements, symbolic America has had its uses in distant Central Asia. Anti-Americanism, Schatz argues, isn’t always a rising tide, though it is often depicted as such. Reality is much more complex than that. In the following interview, Schatz discusses the power of symbols, how Central Asian social movements have used the United States in framing their efforts, and more with The Diplomat’s managing editor, Catherine Putz.

You note in the introduction to the book that because the U.S. as an actor has, for much of the Central Asian region’s history, largely been absent, it’s a good region in which to study the power of the U.S. as a symbol. What are some of the attributes of symbolic America in Central Asia today? 

That’s right. The idea is this: the power of the U.S. extends well beyond its material reach. Because the U.S. stands as a symbol — a complex one with many facets — U.S. power can inadvertently shift politics even in regions like Central Asia where the United States is remote. In the book, I write about a “hegemony from a distance,” which is meant to capture how Central Asians in the decades after the Soviet collapse tended to experience the United States.

American hegemony is obviously in decline. The storming of the Capitol last week put an accent on that process. But, here’s the thing: even with its power relatively diminished, the United States as a symbol continues to matter. Unlike other great powers, the U.S. continues to make universal claims. It continues to advance a model of economy and polity that should theoretically apply to every nook and cranny around the globe.

Contrast China. Yes, there may now be a “Chinese model,” but China talks the talk of a “quiet rise,” insisting that it will not impose its model on anyone else. That’s a lot of rhetoric, but it does mean that China as symbol operates differently than the U.S. as symbol.

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So, to your question. In Central Asia today, symbolic America matters because of the claim to universality. Beyond that, we want to look at the various facets of the symbol. So, consider human rights. Though it is easy to forget because we are on the heels of the Trump administration, the U.S. long stood for robust human rights protections — especially the protection of political, civil rights. The reality was enormously more checkered because U.S. rhetoric about human rights protections easily outpaced its practice at home and abroad. But this remains a facet of a complex symbolic America — and one that I think will not disappear in the coming years.

Consider another facet: neoliberal economics. In Central Asia the U.S. can also represent the pinnacle of laissez faire capitalism, with its suggestion that unhindered profit-seeking is by definition a virtue. Again, the reality is more checkered because the U.S. — even before Trump’s economic nationalism — has long been much less laissez faire than it claimed to be. But no matter: in terms of how this plays out on the ground in places like Central Asia, the claim is what matters.

There are a number of other facets to this complex symbol, but I think this gives you the idea.

Why did you find geologic metaphors — specifically the movement of sediment as through a waterway and the uneven, but meaningful, process of sedimentation — useful in understanding anti-Americanism in Central Asia?

The book is about anti-Americanism. On the one hand, the concept has an intuitive ring to it; it is not hard to conjure up an image of what it means. On the other hand, if you dive a bit deeper, it is enormously slippery and deserves a lot more critical attention than it typically gets. Usually, when we learn about anti-Americanism, it is because someone is burning a flag or someone offers a critical statement or someone commits a terrorist attack against U.S. interests. These are the easily visible manifestations of anti-Americanism. What I was struck by in studying Central Asia over the years since the mid-1990s is just how gradual the process can be. Ordinary people gradually started to shift their depictions of the United States. Social and political actors gradually started to shift what they saw the U.S. as representing.

So, I was motivated to capture how change can occur slowly, and these geologic metaphors made sense. The idea is that even when no one is shouting slogans, burning flags, or committing acts, there is a lot of ferment. There’s always something going on. The geologic metaphor, especially the metaphor of sediment, allows me to show that raw material that may be invisible to the naked eye can nonetheless travel over great distances and, with time, effect major change. Of course, with politics “slow” means decades, not the centuries of actual geologic change, but the metaphor seems apt and useful.

In what ways do mobilizers of various social movements — from Islamists, to human rights activists, to labor movements — use symbolic America in the framing of their efforts? Over time, have these framing efforts shifted with changing views on the United States?

They definitely do use symbolic America as they pursue their own agendas — agendas that are largely local. The bulk of the book details how this occurs, but the general idea is that when social movement actors link their local struggles to something globally resonant, this can give their efforts greater significance. Think about it from the perspective of an individual. Say I am a resident of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan, and I am out of work or underpaid or have other grievances. It is one thing if I am facing these difficulties in isolation and it is entirely another if I am one of potentially millions of people engaged in a common struggle around the globe. 

So, this is the job of what the social movement literature calls “framers.” The idea is that real, material grievances exist, but what sense people make of these grievances depends upon how grievances are “framed,” in other words what aspects of reality are highlighted and what aspects are ignored or downplayed. 

Over time, America as a symbol shifts as the image of the U.S. moves from being overwhelmingly positive in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse to much more ambivalent and multifaceted. This has implications for framers. So, Islamist framers by the late 1990s can amplify their critique of, for example, moral degradation by linking their efforts to what they see as America’s lack of moral values. Human rights actors who have linked their efforts to the U.S. as a symbol start to distance themselves from the U.S., to reframe what they stand for. Labor mobilizers, as I show in the book, opted not to link their efforts to critiques of U.S.-style capitalism, and this exacerbated their ongoing weakness.

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The fact that change started in the 1990s is important. We tend to focus on the big events — things like 9/11 and its aftermath. The reality is that many changes are afoot before and in between such big events. 

Some downplay the importance of social movements in the politics of authoritarian countries and may then also set aside the value of assessing how such movements use, or don’t, the symbol of the United States. What are some of the distinctive qualities of social movements in authoritarian states, like those of Central Asia? Do such movements matter?

Great question. There has been a lot of excellent scholarship on authoritarianism in the past decade or so; it shows that beneath what sometimes looks like an unchanging authoritarian monolith, there is flux, flow, and even contestation. The fact that it pales by comparison to what we see under democracy doesn’t change the point: There’s a lot going on.

One of the things that is going on is social mobilization. Clearly, mobilization has its limits. So, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, street protest tends to be minimal because authoritarian regimes round up opposition figures and even ordinary people as they try to clip the wings of social movements. But I try to show in the book, for example, how surprisingly disruptive labor protest has been in Kazakhstan over the past decade. All of this in spite of a wide range of dirty tricks the regime employs to prevent it from happening. Moreover, with digital technologies, mobilization can take a wide range of forms.

Nonetheless, it is true that social mobilizers don’t have the kind of “oxygen” that they’d have under democratic conditions. So, you’re right: This makes social mobilization different under authoritarianism. In the book, I argue that this elevates the role of resonant symbols because — think about it — people who might have hard time meeting in person or organizing around explicit social or political agendas nonetheless can be united by the common symbol and the emotional punch that it delivers. And symbols circulate rather more freely than people do.

In what practical ways does Russia, and Central Asia’s lasting linkages to Russia, influence regional perceptions of the United States?

Absolutely. Geography and history are not fate, but they matter. Even with the rise of Chinese influence across Central Asia, the region still remains in the shadow of Russia’s power and Russia’s cultural influence. This is where the idea of sediment is useful. In spite of the Soviet collapse, Central Asians to this day continue to overwhelmingly receive information via Russia and its media — either directly or indirectly. As Russian depictions of the U.S. rapidly deteriorated by the late 1990s, they traveled like sediment through media channels into Central Asia. And just like sediment can become part of the “bedrock” of its new location, today it is hard to distinguish what is “Russian” versus what is “Central Asian” about depictions of the United States.

But as the metaphor suggests, there are any number of often slow-moving changes afoot. It will be fascinating to see what impact China as an actor and a symbol has on Central Asian politics and societies in the coming decades. With the Belt and Road Initiative and the mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang, for examples, China is having a hard time sustaining the claim that its rise is a “quiet” one. How this plays out in Central Asia of course remains to be seen.