| ||Istanbul Forum goals look good on paper|
By Egemen Bezci and James Warhola
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Turkey has recently used the Istanbul Forum for Economic Cooperation Between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as a platform for advocating increased regional integration among itself and these two countries, primarily in order to promote economic development but also to help resolve an array of seemingly intractable political, social, and security problems.
This forum was established in October 2007. In advocating increased regional integration, Turkey has also implicitly presented itself as a sort of "model" for much of the region to its geographical east. Can these ventures - increased regional integration and Turkey serving as exemplar - succeed? In considering this question, it is useful to bear in mind global experience with such efforts in the late modern era.
After World War II, French statesman Robert Schuman aimed to create a supra-national organization between European states that would foster re-construction and help prevent war. The European Coal and Steel Community emerged from his and others' efforts in the latter 1950s, aiming at technical and commercial cooperation and assistance among six European countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and then-West Germany).
The ECSC has of course since developed and expanded into the 27-member European Union. It is debatable whether Dr Schuman intended for the ECSC to expand its brief to the extent to which the present EU has done, but the European unification project did create a level of welfare, solidarity and prosperity for its member states, and avoid major war, in a manner that arguably would not otherwise have been possible.
Notably, other regions of the world have since engaged in similar projects of economic and political regional unification, such that by the early 21st century there are almost as many supra-national, regional economic-political organizations as there are independent countries.
Further, these organizations typically expand the domain of their activity as time goes on, generally from economic cooperation, to increased political cooperation, and in some cases into the security domain as well (for example, the African Union's Peace and Security Council).
Turkey has recently pursued varying degrees of regional integration with the countries within its perceived orbit of significant influence. Some view this as Turkey revisiting its implicit "Ottoman fantasies", which is to say, reasserting itself as the dominant power among the Moslem peoples of much of Eurasia and the Middle East.
Regardless of whether one accepts such an interpretation of Turkey's foreign policy under the AK Party for the past decade, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's vision for Turkey and its religiously-fraternal neighbors has begun to bear similarities to EU-architect Schuman's early vision for Europe.
Signs of Turkey's intent in this regard have been evident for some time, and are underscored by recent activities and statements coming from the Istanbul Forum for Economic Cooperation Between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In mid-May of this year, while on an official visit to Pakistan, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered at a joint press appearance with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani that "Turkey will never leave Afghanistan on its own and will be in the country until their 'Afghan brothers' say the Turkish mission is done."
Likewise, in June of this year the Turkish government's European Minister Egemen Bagis offered in Istanbul at the World Economic Forum: "We have a calling to make Istanbul one of the world's top financial centers - we see this as a realistic aim and this conference is the latest event to illustrate that ... Turkey is an island of stability but also a source of inspiration to the region. Istanbul is the most western part of the East and most eastern part of the West."
The Istanbul Forum aims, among other goals, to foster increased private sector cooperation as well as increased governmental cooperation between Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The forum is organized by the chambers of commerce of the respective countries and envisions political cooperation stemming from economic and business cooperation.
In the short run, their activities encompass targets such as improving the investment climates in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and encouraging entrepreneurship both in and among them as well. The forum seeks to share Turkish experience of private sector development with the Afghanistan-Pakistan axis, thereby drawing them more closely into the Turkish orbit of influence.
The powerful and influential Turkish Chamber of Commerce is directly involved in this, seeking to make its affiliated think-tank, The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey largely responsible for this aspect of the forum's activity.
These are all noble and laudable goals, and if they materialized, could doubtless help serve to stabilize the exceptionally volatile, vulnerable and precarious political economy of the Afghan-Pakistan region. The question is whether they are they plausible, and here past experience may shed helpful light.
In the previous decade, the Turkish Chamber of Commerce attempted a similar pattern of triangular economic cooperation among Israel, Palestine and Turkey in an endeavor called The Ankara Forum.
However, security concerns among the erstwhile partners caused most of its proposed agenda to come to grief. Moreover, the breakdown in Turkish-Israeli relations after the Mavi Marmara incident, where nine Turkish citizens were shot dead by Israeli commandos in May 2010, led the Ankara Forum's activity to lapse even further.
Prevailing regional realpolitik triumphed over well-intended initiatives for advanced economic cooperation through the Ankara Forum. Concrete and well-thought-out steps will need to be taken to enable the Istanbul Forum to avoid the fate of the Ankara Forum and thus survive its embryonic stage. Serious obstacles are present, however.
A number of specific challenges obstruct the sort of increased cooperation among Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that might lead to an integration process even remotely resembling the EU - even in the distant future.
First, these countries all suffer from violent insurgencies to one degree or another, and these directly threaten smooth economic cooperation and an attractive investment climate.
Although Turkish economic development displayed an impressive growth rate in the last decade by averaging well over 7% annually, Kurdish guerrilla attacks on construction projects and on energy pipelines in southeastern Turkey make the investment climate there highly problematical.
Circumstances are even worse in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where secessionist activities are compounded by insurgent radical religious parties.
Second, unstable political dynamics in the region, including Turkey's forlorn "zero-problem-with-neighbors" foreign policy, complications arising from the Arab Spring (Syria, principally), and strained relations with Russia and also with Israel will preoccupy Turkey's foreign policy agenda with realpolitik engagements in a manner that will make regional integration very difficult.
Third, Turkey's already rather strained relations with Iran and Iraq have also preoccupied Turkish policy-makers, complicating their efforts to focus on resolution of the regional fallout from the Arab Spring and its particular consequences for Turkey.
Finally, Afghanistan and Pakistan face insufficient administrative structures and a yet high level of centralization of decision-making which disables local administrative units from engaging independently in the sort of economic activities the Istanbul Forum seeks to promote.
To be sure, the Isyanbul Forum's laudable intent to foster such activity is a step in the right direction, but it will have to experience dramatic success before such structures could begin to serve as a foundation for an increasingly integrated supra-national union. The inefficient political sovereignty over large areas of Afghanistan (to put it politely), and to some degree even Pakistan, only further compound the problems of regional, supra-national integration.
Turkey itself is still seeking to solve crucial domestic problems - particularly the Kurdish question, the issues of secularism and democratic consolidation, and a viable new constitution; nonetheless it has already emerged as a pivotal country in which the necessary compromises among democracy and security, secularism and Islam, and free-market economics are more functional than in many of its neighbors.
Turkey has arguably arrived at an uneasy but reasonably stable harmony amid complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory values, such as secularism vs Islam, free-market economics vs its traditionally statist economy, the liberated vs traditionally subjugated status of women, and others.
This uneasy harmony, however, does not constitute solid evidence that the "Turkish model's" structure of values could be successfully adopted by other countries in the region.
For instance, expanding women's entrepreneurship - a key goal of the Istanbul Forum's sixth meeting in November 2011 - has been successfully advanced in Turkey for decades, due to the Kemalist experience under Ataturk where strict rules regarding women's rights were implemented, and to the crucial place of women in Turkish social movements ever since the mid-19th century.
The likelihood of replicating these in Pakistan does not appear good, and even less so in Afghanistan.
The formation of social values in Turkey followed quite different paths. Moreover, as noted above, realpolitik in regional affairs such as exigencies in the Turkish-Russian relation, the Turkish-US relation, or the Turkish-North Atlantic Treaty Organization relation could easily triumph over an economically liberal internationalist vision of Turkish decision makers to continue with increased integration with Eastern neighbors.
Even before the Arab Spring emerged, Turkey and Syria endeavored to follow an economic-oriented political rapprochement, yet power politics between them and Syria's own internal conflict have more recently brought the two countries to the brink of war.
It is questionable at best whether Turkey's current efforts with Pakistan and Afghanistan will lead to concrete achievements that could prevent a similar lapse into a level of animosity that would scuttle further integration.
European integrationists' vision in the post-World War II era was to create, stepwise, a functionalist pattern of evolution that would hopefully result, over time, in an increasingly integrated Europe that would be correspondingly more prosperous and more secure.
While this is possible for Turkey and its would-be integrated neighbors, doing so is almost certain to require more sincere and concrete contributions by all parties involved to first establish workable regimes within those these countries which can not be overthrown by the sensitive balance of power in the region.
Turkey is farther along in this prospect than Pakistan and certainly than Afghanistan, but movement in the direction of increased stability, security, and functionality within these two countries appears to be a prerequisite of increased integration among all three, and not an outcome from premature integration.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
James W Warhola, PhD is Professor and Chairman Department of Political Science, The University of Maine, USA. Egemen B Bezci, MA, is an independent political analyst based in Istanbul, Turkey.