Image: fifg via shutterstock.com
How small parts of the world suddenly became very important to US security in 2020

It has long been customary at the Washington Post when a senior member of the news staff leaves the paper to create a mock front page with headlines, articles, and photos about his or her career.

The one my colleagues made when I departed in 1999 poked fun at me with an article bearing this headline: “Affairs of Very Small States.”

My colleagues were joking about my years covering foreign policy and the State Department when I wrote about issues and conflicts in places few Americans had heard of and fewer still cared about —“countries whose names ended in -stan that nobody could keep straight,” as the article described them.

My view was different. I thought of 1914, when the assassination of an Austrian nobleman archduke and his wife by a Serbian terrorist in Sarajevo ignited a global conflict that killed millions and brought down empires. If a seemingly obscure matter was important enough for the State Department to see potential danger and devote time and energy to it, I figured it might have long-term effects or implications that were not readily apparent.

The events of the past several weeks have brought a measure of vindication. Two of the places I wrote about that amused my colleagues were the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and Western Sahara. More than two decades later, those disputes are back in the news, still unresolved, and still dangerous.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mostly Armenian enclave inside the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces seized control of most the territory.

The Armenians acted in spite of the peacemaking efforts of an international group appointed in 1992 by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now known as the OSCE). The group was dubbed the Minsk Group, even though the co-chairs are Russia, the United States, and France and it has never met in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, which is not a party to the conflict.

This fall, a much better armed Azerbaijan went back to war in a successful effort to regain what it had lost. Hundreds died and thousands of Armenian settlers were displaced before a cease-fire brokered by Russia on November 9 formalized a humiliating defeat for Armenia.

Russia had backed Armenia in the conflict, while Turkey supported Azerbaijan, raising the possibility that the United States could be drawn in because Turkey is a NATO ally. Russia and Turkey are also on opposite sides of an unrelated civil war in Libya. Russia refrained from a military confrontation with Turkey, but has stationed 2,000 peacekeeping troops in the region. The United States joined in approving the cease-fire agreement and in a statement by the Minsk Group saluting Russia for its intervention.

“The Co-Chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group call upon Armenia and Azerbaijan to continue implementing fully their obligations under the November 9 statement, in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts, as well as their previous ceasefire commitments,” they said in statement. “The Co-Chair countries highlight the significance of measures taken by the Russian Federation, in agreement with Azerbaijan and Armenia, to guarantee the non-renewal of hostilities. They also call for the full and prompt departure from the region of all foreign mercenaries, and call upon all parties to facilitate this departure.

“What lessons should President-elect Biden draw from these dramatic events?” Lyle J. Goldstein, a professor at the Naval War College, wrote afterward. “First, he should realize that the U.S. does not need to intervene and mediate in every dispute across the globe. It must be realized that the new multipolarity is not a disaster for US interests, but actually can lead to decent outcomes. Second, regarding Moscow as a ‘bad actor’ in all circumstances is clearly inappropriate and likely to constitute a perennially destabilizing factor in world politics if such a ‘New Cold War’ gains further traction.”

Western Sahara is a Colorado-size, mostly desert territory on the Atlantic coast of Africa, between Morocco and Mauritania. It was formerly a colony of Spain. Morocco forced Spain out in 1975 by sending in about 350,000 settlers, escorted by Moroccan troops, and claimed sovereignty despite the armed resistance of a nationalist force called the Polisario Liberation Front, which was supported by neighboring Algeria.

An unstable truce has prevailed since a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations in 1981, leaving tens of thousands of Western Sahara people stranded across the border in Algeria. About two-thirds of the territory is under full Moroccan control. Between that area and the Algerian border is a no-man’s-land patrolled by a U.N. force.

The region is vital to Morocco for economic as well as political reasons. As one business analysis noted, “The former Spanish colony, home to less than a million people, has valuable resources including fish-rich Atlantic waters, phosphates, potential oil reserves and, for Rabat, a strategic road south to lucrative West African markets.”

Most countries and the African Union have refused to recognize Moroccan sovereignty. Until a few weeks ago the United States was among them. Then the Trump administration abruptly changed the game, accepting Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s agreement to establish normal relations with Israel.

A “Fact Sheet” issued by the White House on December 11 said President Trump was “rejecting the status quo and driving toward the only serious, credible, and realistic solution to the Western Sahara conflict.”

No other country has followed where the White House has led.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who sought a permanent solution in vain as the U.N. Secretary General’s “personal envoy for Western Sahara” from 1997 to 2004, excoriated the administration for its decision.

“President Trump’s recent proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was an astounding retreat from the principles of international law and diplomacy that the United States has espoused and respected for many years,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “This rash move disguised as diplomacy will contribute to the existing deadlock in resolving the long-standing conflict between Morocco and the people of Western Sahara over the status of that territory. Further, it threatens to complicate our relations with Algeria, an important strategic partner, and has negative consequences on the overall situation in North Africa.”

There are other relatively unknown places in the world where unresolved issues of sovereignty, borders, and control have the potential for wider conflict that could jeopardize U.S. interests. The lesson of Nagorno-Karabakh and Western Sahara is that it is easy, but potentially dangerous, to ignore them.

More from