Terra Nullius | India turning Turkey

Could a bold foreign policy for India end similarly as Turkey? 

Turkey’s bold foreign policy is failing. As a country, Turkey wants to be the leader in the Middle East while at the same time, it wants to appease the west, especially the European Union. It also wants to be a secular democracy that manages to balance a religious identity but within the garb of modernity and cultural tenacity. The recent anti-government protests have stained its democratic and secular credentials in the international community with most countries supporting the protests or the citizens right to protest. 

Leading the Middle East is an Icarian ambition. The concept of a unified Middle East, in itself is non-existent because of three reasons. First, there is a huge religious and sectarian divide in the Middle East. Despite the dominance of Islam, the religious and hence political fabric of the region is fragmented with each country following different interpretations. The wide diversity in ethnic populations only adds to the regional divisions. The Shia-Sunni differences along with the sectarian and regional divides are too large and historically complex to be solved and the idea of a unified political “Muslim world” in the contemporary era, does not exist, let alone have the capacity to coexist. Second, each of the Middle East nations has its own agenda and self-interest. A united Middle East, parallel to the European Union is not possible. Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia– each country has its own terse economic, political and social interest. Breaking these interests is hard and integrating them is almost impossible. Third, each of these countries has a complicated history and relationship with the US and simultaneously Europe. On one hand, the unified west is looked at with suspicion, while on the other it is used for manipulation and self-interest. 

Turkey’s position in this regional web becomes even more complex. If it leans too much to the west, then it loses credibility within the region. If it leans over to the Middle East, then finds cracks in its relations with the western nations. In its quest to be a leader in the Middle East, it has lost the focus for the membership into the EU– once a primary agenda with regard to its foreign policy. Turkey also lost the plot with Syria. It got involved in the humanitarian aspects, while stayed away from any direct interference in the conflict. It retaliated when Syrian regime attacked the Turkish borders but never took a hard realist stance. It needed a certain level of Machiavellian strategy to emerge as a leader in such a chaotic region and Turkey’s internal politics and leaders did not allow for this. It failed to stand out politically, militarily and diplomatically while handling the situations that sprung up, despite being a relatively stable country in the region. It lost credibility in the region because it lost the nuance necessary to handle the intricacies of the contemporary Middle East situation and hence its otherwise tight foreign policy faltered. 

My colleague Pavan Srinath asked a question via email: Could a ‘bold’ foreign policy by India end up similarly? It is hard to predict an answer to this question. A bold foreign policy for India may not be the same as Turkey’s bold foreign policy. Also, India’s goals with regard to its foreign policy are markedly different from Turkey as is its society and population. More importantly, India is situated in a completely different neighbourhood and the political power play among countries in the subcontinent is different. India being a nuclear power, with its unblemished democratic track record and promise of economic growth, has a very different position in the region in comparison to its neighbours. While Turkey is trying to understand the changing nature of politics in the Arab world, India does not face such a situation or a threat of a subcontinental spring. India’s advantages in the region, could ensure that a bold new foreign policy does not go the Turkish way.

At a superficial level, India and Turkey have a lot in common. Both are secular democracies, with one foot in their political, social and cultural history and the other in the realities of the contemporary era. If India did adopt a bold foreign policy, it could fail for two reasons. One, where internal politics, partisan ideologies and parliamentary logjams ensure that a stable and unanimous national front is not maintained in the international arena and ensure that any bold foreign policy India forms does not find domestic consensus. Two, if India harbours the ambition to be leader in its neighbourhood and also wants strong ties with the western nations but somewhere, fails to balance between the two, appeasing or displeasing sides and hence becoming clumsy with its diplomacy.

While one can speculate, it is impossible to predict either outcome for India with surety.  What do you think? Could a bold Foreign policy for India end similarly as Turkey? 

(This post was written with inputs from some of my colleagues at the Takshashila Institution.)