Towards extending the Turkish academic agenda by Nukhet A. Sandal*

May 28, 2012, Monday/ 17:56:00

In academic conferences, one cannot help but notice the growing Turkish presence.

What is direly missing, though, among these Turkish academics is an interest in the developing world. This curious gap affects how we think about international relations and how limited our horizons are when we are talking about global politics. Almost all Turkish political science (including international relations) scholars are working on Turkey, the European Union, the Black Sea/Central Asia or the Middle East. These are indeed the geographic regions we have the most interest in and we are producing quality work in these areas. For a country that has looked to the West (the European Union) but has an interest in the East (Central Asia), our traditional interests naturally reflect this foreign policy of the past 80 years. Even the Middle East is a very new addition to our academic interests. We still have only a few scholars, most of them assistant professors, who go to the region regularly, speak fluent Arabic, are familiar with the culture and know a network of policymakers and intellectuals. The expertise is even more limited when it comes to Israel and Iran. However, isn’t it interesting that we do not have even a small group of scholars who follow the developments in the most vibrant regions of the world economically and even politically? Every businessperson knows that without knowledge of China, India and Brazil, you are doomed to lose in the long term. So how come we believe that we can afford to not have expertise on these regions?

Being an expert on a country is not just following English-language newspapers of that region and writing academic articles about it. It requires an excellent command of the local language(s), access to political sources as a result of years of field research plus substantial travel in the region and a refined understanding of the culture. An “expert on China” means a scholar who speaks Chinese proficiently, travels to China regularly and brings back the experience through conferences, publications and possibly through consulting with businesses and government. A year ago a prominent Chinese scholar asked me whether I was willing to go to his university to give a talk on the potentials of Turkish-Chinese cooperation. I politely rejected him as this is far from being my field, but I was also curious about the absence of scholarly circles in Turkey who are enthusiastic about establishing such ties, not only with China but also with Latin America and India. These are the kinds of initiatives that yield much more money than the initial investment dedicated to the education of the scholars. Even mere expressions of interest in scholarly exchanges to these countries will no doubt open the door for initiatives. This is a very significant step that not only the Turkish government but also Turkish companies and civil society should take.

We should immediately embrace these new areas of interest, and our government should start encouraging and funding research in these areas. We are now boasting that we have a more vibrant foreign policy agenda. This is great news and a requirement of being called a “middle power.” However, in practice, we are still confined to our immediate surroundings. In newspapers, we need columns reflecting on the developments in multiple regions and how these moves affect the global economy as well as security. Such an approach will also extend our horizons as a country, creating more diverse sources of interest. It is commonsensical: If we do not have a critical number of intellectuals who can analyze vital countries like China, Brazil or India from inside, it is highly unlikely that we will develop meaningful relations with the major actors of the 21st century.

Finally, we should not be afraid of exploring new cultures and should encourage the next generation to go beyond an interest in the EU, NATO and Central Asia. Once again, we always need scholars working on these areas as well, but we have close to no experts on Brazil, India, China or Sub-Saharan Africa. In Europe and the United States, students go to these countries even at the undergraduate level and stay for a year, sometimes with their own funds or with university support, or through funding agencies in these countries. It is not unfair to partly attribute this gap to our own conformism. We still see Latin America, South Asia and East Asia as “far away,” possibly not as stable and comfortable as Europe or the United States, and even worse, as “irrelevant.” However, the next 20 years will not be as forgiving as the previous 20 if we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Today is the time we must mind this gap.

*Dr. Nukhet A. Sandal is an instructor at Brown University in Providence, RI.

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