The world is remaking itself. Amid pressing economic challenges and multinational security concerns, new alliances are forming. Global commerce along with governments are bringing down borders, opening relationships and creating opportunity. Kazakhstan, like most emerging democracies, is cautiously optimistic, with a pragmatism steeped in the hard lessons of history. Policies have consequences; alliances can liberate as well as captivate. With the stroke of a pen, superpower leaders like Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia can reverse a decade of tepid relations to put forces and agendas into motion that affect all of us.
Nowhere in the world is the influence more keenly felt than in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, positioned as we are between Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan. Here, a breeze in global diplomacy among nations like Russia, the United States and China can have the impact of a blinding windstorm, leaving us to wonder about our role and influence within these relationships.
Bellicose nations rattle sabers to garner attention and receive a concession here and there; certainly, their tactics make the nightly news. Others push America and Western democracies to the brink before backing off and waiting for another strategic push in their quest for a place among nuclear nations. Emerging democracies like Kazakhstan, on the other hand, while not the focus of media attention, have a responsibility and role to play on the global stage that is far more consequential to the welfare of freedom-loving nations.
The objective of Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev to cut their nuclear arsenals by a third is indicative of that role. The current size of those arsenals was influenced greatly by a decision our nascent democracy made 18 years ago to permanently shut down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, which set the stage for a decision to safely dispose of 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles we had inherited from the Soviet Union, each tipped with 10 nuclear warheads. To put this in perspective, North Korea, which the world cautiously watches, is believed to have enough plutonium for only a half-dozen atomic bombs.
Keeping the weapons could have made Kazakhstan a larger player in our potentially volatile region, and surely the world would be more aware of us today. There were some who encouraged us to keep the arsenal. But larger considerations, including the role and responsibility of emerging democracies like ours, weighed heavily in the decision. Our focus was on building a new economic and political model in Kazakhstan, and we had a firm belief that our future and welfare rested on commercial and security relationships in the West.
Our desire was to engage in what I like to call cooperative leadership, pragmatic and constructive engagement with the myriad and often complex forces in our region. This was the philosophy that prompted us to dismantle our arsenal and pursue relations not only with the United States, but with Russia, China, Iran and, in fact, all nations that see opportunity in Kazakhstan.
On Aug. 29, we celebrated the anniversary of our decision, and the philosophy of cooperative leadership that inspired it continues to benefit Kazakhstan and our relationships throughout the world. A dedication to democratic values, the rule of law, transparency, tolerance and open trade has led to stability and a strong, well-educated middle class. This increasingly firm foundation at home enables us to play an important role among nations abroad, providing strategic engagement and opportunities for cooperation among countries that often may be overlooked, as well as among those who may not be inclined to work together otherwise.
Sharing common values of freedom and peaceful development, democracies firmly support each other. That is why since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that shocked the entirety of mankind, Kazakhstan has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against international terrorism and today provides much-needed assistance for the stabilization of Afghanistan.
As an emerging democracy practicing cooperative leadership, Kazakhstan is able to encourage dialogue even among adversaries. Our recently concluded third annual Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is only one example, with spiritual leaders attending from almost every faith and nation to promote tolerance and understanding. Likewise, our quest to establish an international nuclear fuel bank to be governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which would allow nations like Iran and others to openly and honestly pursue their energy agendas, finds support among leaders in the United States, Russia and China. Recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres proposed Kazakhstan as the site for a historic meeting with key leaders from his country, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic world.
This is how emerging democracies can make a difference. In the absence of the entrenched and sometimes dogmatic divisions of the past, young entrants on the global stage of freedom can offer an environment for pragmatic solutions. Mr. Obama understands this. Two weeks after his election, he called to discuss regional cooperation, nonproliferation measures and energy cooperation. At that time, and many times since in public statements, he has favored pragmatism as the basis for civilized statecraft.
Some have suggested this is an inadequate approach for charting the new direction in foreign policy that Mr. Obama has promised. However, I believe those criticisms are misconceived. Pragmatism is necessary in nation-building and more likely to evoke a positive response from allies than an ideological crusade. Emerging democracies understand this challenge, undertaking in decades an experiment that has engaged America for much more than 200 years. Cooperative leadership is the important role we can play and the example we can set for others.
Nursultan Nazarbayev is president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.