The Edges of Civilizations: Turkey and India in the 21st Century

A few months back I traveled to Turkey with my family. After the trip, I penned a short article comparing Turkey’s development with India’s. Rather than any pointed analysis, it’s more of a meditation on the pasts and futures of Turkey and India, united as they are by their cosmopolitan identities.

It was published by the Center for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey, a new think-tank founded by my friend Umit Sonmez at the London School of Economics. The article is available here and below.

A Turkish language translation is available here.

The Edges of Civilizations: Turkey and India in the 21st Century

Research Turkey

– April 5, 2012

Two of the world’s multicultural nations, Turkey and India, are emerging from the stupor of their first decades. Reassessing domestic dogmas and old strategic doctrines, New Delhi and Ankara are repositioning themselves as leaders of the 21st century world in remarkably similar ways.

At the end of 2008, Levent Bilman, the Turkish Ambassador to India addressed a small audience at a New Delhi think tank. As a diplomat ought, Ambassador Bilman recounted the values and interests his home and host countries shared: Central Asian stability, global trade, counter-terrorism, and democracy key among them. One common trait I was surprised he missed, however, was how both countries straddle cultures, each having deep roots in multiple civilizations.

Turkey is of course the geographic and cultural bridge between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam, and arguably between tradition and modernity. India, at the center of the Indian Ocean – which, as journalist Robert Kaplan writes, is the “nexus of world power and conflict in the coming years” – sits astride the Dharmic, Islamic, Western, and Confucian worlds, unites thousands of languages and cultures within a single nation, and faces its own challenges reconciling the contemporary with the customary.

In an age of globalization, the ability to communicate, trade, and connect across cultures is perhaps the key source of success. Turkey and India, more than most, are ideally poised to take advantage of this new era. Yet it is taking time for both countries to realize the destiny inherent in their identities. Though left with the historical legacies of the many empires that called Anatolia and the subcontinent home, Turkey and India have struggled to define themselves in the modern era.

Turks built a nation on the mantle of Ataturk, a Europhile and ardent nationalist who sought to turn the lives of Turkish citizens on their heads in the name of progress. India’s charismatic founding fathers – Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru set an equally high bar for their successors, a Tryst with Destiny, as Nehru put it on the eve of India’s independence from Britain. The way these aspirations would unfurl, however, left much to be desired.

Authoritarianism and military control continue to mar the Turkish nation, while hierarchy and poor governance have kept India mired in poverty and corruption. India strengthened its democracy but accepted a ‘flailing’ state apparatus. Turkey, on the other hand, sacrificed democracy for a strong state.

And yet the consequences have been remarkably similar: The political, cultural and entrepreneurial aspirations of the Turkish and Indian people were stifled, respectively, by a draconian “deep state” and an economy that was closed to the world. The national narratives of a ‘terrorized’ Ankara and the oppressed Kurds could be substituted nearly verbatim for those of New Delhi and the Kashmiris (with Syria and Pakistan playing “the foreign hand”). For generations, the polities of both countries accepted these realities as the unavoidable costs of ambitious national experiments.

Further afield, New Delhi set out to control South Asia through its own “Monroe Doctrine,” a strategic orientation that boxed India into the subcontinent and raised tensions amongst its regional neighbors – the consequences of which we are still seeing in the ‘Af-Pak’ region. Similarly, Turkey long remained on the edge of NATO’s security umbrella in an effort to become the frontline of Europe, causing friction with its neighbors and essentially shunning the Middle Eastern and Central Asian components of its heritage.

Yet today, both countries have begun to question the dogmas that defined their national development through the twentieth century. In addition to throwing off the bureaucratic socialism that had long entrenched social and economic hierarchies, India’s citizens have risen up demanding an end to the endemic corruption that has robbed the country of rupees and opportunities. Even the downtrodden are more able than at any time in India’s history to take their destinies into their own hands. The slow revocation of the atrocious Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gave India’s army a free hand in Kashmir, and an opening of dialogue have the potential to write a new future for the troubled region.

In Turkey, governments and civilians alike are demanding a new order. No longer are people content to follow the Army’s every dictate, to stay out of the streets when journalists are jailed for challenging official versions of events, or to be denied the ability to practice the religions and speak the languages they wish. Prime Minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to reach out to the Kurds, though progressing in fits and starts, promise to turn the page on a particularly dark portion of Turkish history. Though much remains to be done, it is difficult to deny the changes underway in both countries.

The revolutions in Delhi and Ankara’s global worldviews follow remarkably similar lines. After decades of trying to dominate the subcontinent, India is increasingly looking beyond South Asia for its strategic needs, developing trade, energy, political, and military ties with countries along the Indian Ocean rim and beyond. Likewise, Turkey is seeking what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calls “strategic depth,” by harnessing the assets that its geography and history have given it, and extending the edges of Ankara’s sphere of influence.

Davutoğlu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” echoes Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s foreign policy doctrine that sought conciliation with the other countries of South Asia. Turkey is finally using its multi-civilizational legacy to bridge conflicting parties from Bosnia to Syria, Israel, and Iraq. As India faces similar challenges in reconciling its interests with the US and Iran, for example – it must learn to use its own “unity in diversity” to its advantage.

Of course, comparisons cannot be taken too far, considering the differences in Turkey and India’s colonial histories, geographies, and cultures. But what is most important is, as I was told by an American official in Istanbul – though she just as easily could have been speaking of India – that “people here realize that things are getting better than they used to be.”

In an era when the contours of globalization are meeting tumult in some places and resistance in others, this is perhaps the best sign of whether Turkey and India will meet – or exceed – the dreams of their founders.

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This entry was posted in Central Asia, Governance, India, South Asia, Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

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