south20caucasus

20th Century writer, feminist and modernist, Virginia Woolf aptly said, “you cannot find peace by avoiding life”. Many speculate that we will face a world war in the near future, with ISIS increasing in numbers and outreach, and recent hostility between Russia and the West tightening the bolts of global tension. As extremism hit our own turf last week in San Bernardino, it is vital, more than ever before, that the United States considers and rallies its allies, friends and resources. Yet enormous opportunity remains underutilized. Even worse, opportunity in the form of staunch and lasting friends have been sidelined for the sake of politicking, at a rate and risk we cannot afford to carry on.

Positioned at the geographic and diplomatic sidelines of those tensions, are countries like Azerbaijan that are looking to build a safer and more tolerant world. In a region torn by wars and conflicts, Azerbaijan has proven to be a safe and stable community of many cultures, a nation that embraces engagement, inside and out. Azerbaijan constantly crosses over deeply established geopolitical divides, dealing with seemingly incongruent partners all at once, such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States and Israel.

Despite offering a tangible template for peace in the Muslim world, Azerbaijan endures a bizarre relationship with the U.S., simultaneously serving as a staunch international ally, and frequently, and unpredictably, thrown under the bus of American public and political discourse. Like the State of Israel, Azerbaijan deals with a level of day-to-day security risks unimaginable to the U.S.. Similarly, Azerbaijan is hit with an all-too-common departure from reality when these threats are addressed by U.S. policy and rhetoric, as violence committed against Azerbaijan is often framed with a detached relativity that is emblematic of Israel’s daily experience in the Western media. Bias isn’t a strong enough word to define it.

Located between Russia and Iran, the 95% Shia Muslim Azerbaijan operates outside of the box, regionally and globally, currently and historically. This secular democracy granted women the right to vote even a year before the United States, and has created state sponsored programs, fostering a multicultural environment that allows practitioners of every faith to flourish. It is a place where Christians and Jews have lived side by side with Muslims for centuries. It is a country where interfaith harmony, tolerance and multiculturalism is a lifestyle.

In 2014, Congressman Mike Turner said “Azerbaijan continues to be an important partner with the United States in counterterrorism efforts and initiatives to bolster energy security with strategic allies. With its natural resources of oil and gas, Azerbaijan is a key component to help our strategic allies in NATO and other European countries diversify their energy resources…”  The U.S. State Department and NATO have repeatedly credited this small eastern Caucasus nation as a major partner in the global fight against terrorism.

Yet the same State Department rarely returns the favor. Azerbaijan has yet to receive full-scale U.S. support in its ongoing conflict with Armenia that continues to occupy large swath of Azerbaijan’s territory in and around its Nagorno-Karabakh region. And arguably worse, the State Department has made limited effort to educate U.S. lawmakers on the facts of brutal military occupation and total ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijan’s territory by Armenia; on the U.N. Security Council resolutions that unequivocally support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and demand the complete withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied areas; as well as on the European Court of Human Rights ruling decrying Armenia for ethnic cleansing. And this all happens while Armenia remains the most important ally of Russia and Iran in the region, housing the second largest Russian military base in the world and helping Iran to avoid international sanctions.

And there also sickening double standards at play. When Russia annexed Crimea and created havoc in Eastern Ukraine, there was a strong outrage and push-back from the United States, both from the Administration and Congress. We heard many statements in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However when it comes to the expansionist policies of the same kind pursued by Armenia with Russian support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the United States remains eerily quiet. This kind of confusing and schizophrenic policy behavior by the U.S. just emboldens the forces of hatred and expansionism the world over. Actions like these from a friend, and in such an uncertain time as today, is disappointing and takes for granted a relationship that is built on shared values and visions.

With more refugees per capita than any other nation in the world, Azerbaijan also offers a unique approach to managing what has become a global crisis. Azerbaijan invests billions of dollars in building housing for refugees, and constantly strives to heal and progress despite a manifold of challenges, such as the military occupation of its lands or shielding itself against radicalism and extremism, despite sharing a long border with Iran or being not so far from Syria and Iraq.

We must maintain the strong ties that have formed with our allies from around the world that have continued to support our efforts to build peace in the region. Azerbaijan’s pragmatic and open approach to diplomacy and commerce stands above and beyond what most imagine possible, considering the real dangers this country faces, as it strives to maintain security and even to flourish, while surrounded by extremism and instability, in every direction.

There is a huge disconnect in our world, with a lack of honest global dialogue – a dialogue that is much needed and could be the most promising option to lead us into a peaceful future. The U.S. can’t afford to remain on the sidelines, playing with and pushing back favorites as if international diplomacy was a speed dating game. Too much is on the line for half-heartedness. If our nation is unwilling to look at those champions across the globe, like Azerbaijan, and take their hand to lead us on this path toward peace, a path hopeful yet in many ways unknown, then we are literally choosing to remain blurry to the world we face, if not willfully blind.