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Confederating Central Asia: The Iroquois Model

Image via Facebook / Akorda

The year is 1701. A fire burns inside a colossal wooden Longhouse near modern-day Syracuse, New York. Around it delegates from five Iroquois Nations await a motion.  

Councils of Mohawk and Seneca gather on one side of the fire—as the dominant military and commercial players in this symbolic family, they are imagined to be the “elder brothers.” Across the fire sit their “younger siblings,” the less powerful Oneida and Cayuga, with the Onandaga host delegation imagined as a “middle child.” Their familial titles are not merely tradition—each nation’s precise place in the structure of the Confederacy informs its abilities and function in the delicate balance of power. 

The Confederacy’s borders have grown weak. French outposts flank the edges of Onondaga land in the east and Seneca land faces constant raiding from Great Lakes tribes in the west. The other nations suffer indirectly—it may not be their territory, but the shared economic consequence of lost hunting ground is a league concern, as is the threat to internal security. On the docket today: peace or war.

The procedure is thus: One party introduces a motion; in our case the Seneca proposes peace. The Seneca council debates amongst themselves, and if they fail to reach consensus, the motion dies. Next, their partner nation debates, in our case the Mohawk, and without an internal consensus, the motion dies. Discussion is then kicked across the fire for the Oneida and Cayuga to do the same. If they agree, the Onondaga can either ratify the decision, or if no consensus is reached, kick the discussion back to the Seneca to restart the process. If they disagree, the Onondaga act as tiebreaker, but without Onondaga consensus, the motion dies. Today, the League votes quickly—there will be peace.

Consensus among the Confederacy isn’t necessary, nor is a simple majority sufficient. The carefully constructed checks and balances ensure two things: The “elder brothers” are never pitted against each other, and because of the Onondaga veto, they can never force their will on the three smaller nations. Regional autonomy remains within the individual nations, but questions of shared resources, economics, and foreign affairs are league domain. More than just a security treaty, this arrangement represents a unified system of governance. And because of the unclear, often interlocking traditional lands of the various nations, it represents a way to avoid inter-nation rivalry while still retaining local-level governance.

The year is 2022. In a convention center on the shores of the Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, five nations gather to discuss the future of their region. The summit is an important show of unity culminating in the signing of the largely symbolic “Agreement on Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21st century.” Despite the veneer, the five nations, and the ethnic groups which constitute them, are far more competitive and dynamic than they at first appear. At this summit, only three of the five nations sign the document.

Just a few decades ago, the five Central Asian countries lived under one roof. Under Soviet occupation, resource management, foreign affairs, and grand strategy were managed from the top down, enforcing strict policies of conformity. After Soviet collapse, however, Central Asia fell to a new series of autocrats, replicating Soviet-style governance but splintering Soviet-era regional integration. The challenges soon became clear: Convoluted borders caused disputes, post-Soviet fractionalization resulted in poor resource sharing, and foreign actors threatened domestic security.

At the time of the September summit, deadly skirmishes dot the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, Soviet era hydroelectric projects in Kyrgyzstan coupled with growing desertification threaten Kazakh and Uzbek harvests, and Russia’s growingly erratic behavior coupled with the collapse of the Afghan government presents tangible threats from north and south. The stakes are nothing less than war, drought, and the proliferation of global terrorism. Are the fractured and corrupt autocrats of Central Asia equipped to handle the problems of the 21st century? 

Let’s construct a new Longhouse. Borrowing Iroquois symbolism, the Uzbek and Kazakh Councils would be the “elder siblings,” sitting on one side of the legislature, with the Turkmen and Tajiks sitting opposite them. Because of their size and military strength, Uzbek and Kazakh consensus would underpin the stability of the council, but with Kyrgyzstan holding a veto, the Central Asian powerhouses could not dominate their smaller counterparts. Like the Iroquois, in this model, each nation retains local administration, but when Central Asia speaks it speaks as one.

The Confederacy is not, and was never, a perfect system. Members of each nation’s council were ultimately selected at the discretion of their respective matriarchs, which might have passed for representative democracy for a group the size of the Iroquois, but scaled up for Central Asia’s population of 72 million starts looking a lot more like oligarchy. There are two ways to address this concern; either through the democratic election of council-members, transposing democracy onto a region that hasn’t seen such rule in its modern history, or by simply accepting that a similar system, with some non-democratic selection process (ideally building on traditional central asian leadership models), would still be vastly preferable to Central Asia’s current autocracies. 

In reality, such a system would divest power from the neo-patriarch—the autocrats wearing the trappings of democracy—and create competition among a new strata of political elite. The change may seem inconsequential, but some political science research suggests that a plurality of political elite families forces politicians to engage seriously with public goods like education and healthcare, positively affecting outcomes in education and quality of life for the broader population.

Besides increasing transparency, this new model of integrated governance presents a solution to two of the largest crises facing Central Asia at present. First are the climatological issues such as water scarcity. By geographic happenstance, Kyrgyzstan controls the tributaries of two of the most important rivers in Central Asia, and in recent years their stranglehold has presented an existential threat to downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Some predict that one bad harvest could trigger a desperate Uzbekistan to invade a neighbor in order to defend their water supply, plunging Central Asia into war. The second major issue is the threat to security. The new radical Islamic government on Central Asia’s southern border has come to verbal blows with Tajikistan in recent months, even dispatching Taliban fighters to the border. And the implications of Russia’s bullish behavior in Ukraine poses a troubling threat to all former Soviet states. The Confederacy’s model recognizes that the challenges facing each Central Asian nation are regional in scope and thus require a regional response. A unified Central Asia might be uniquely positioned to meet such challenges.

Detractors of this argument will suggest two things: One, that international communities are often toothless and fracture at the first cooperation problem. And two, that the confluence of interests that keeps these neo-patriarchs in power in their individual nation-states is too powerful to disrupt. Though there would be no formal enforcement mechanism—as happened with the Iroquois—shared economic and security interests would buttress the union. In our modern parlance, interest groups that benefit from peace and cooperation would grow to keep the Confederacy together. This brings us to the second issue: tyrants. It might seem difficult to convince an autocrat to sacrifice their sovereignty, but I believe that in the light of the recent riots in Kazakhstan—which culminated in the dismissal of former Nursultan Nazerbayev—many leaders are realizing how precarious their position truly is. Contrary to undermining their power, a more-democratized agreement like this one might be one of the few ways leaders can preserve sovereignty and avoid a situation like the 2011 Arab Spring.

Despite the wide variety of threats facing Central Asia, a few common points may be extrapolated. Inter-state mediation is hard without economic integration; external threats posed to one are dangerous for all; and regardless of this proposal, a change still may be coming for the autocrats. As long as Central Asia remains fragmented, it will always be subject to the tyranny of great power politics and inter-state fighting. Perhaps the best way to prepare for the challenges of the 21st century is for the region to face those challenges together.