In a mud-walled schoolroom in Gaza, Palestinian children listen, big-eyed with wonder, to stories of the great medieval warrior Salah al-Din Ibn Ayyub, liberator of the holy city of Jerusalem. Kazakh students hear, in awe, of the great Turkic civilisation that spanned Asia. In Bosnia, locals celebrate the Turkish team’s triumph; an immigrant taxi driver corrects his passenger’s grasp of Ottoman history.
And in a restaurant nestled deep in Pakistan’s mountains, when visiting Turkish tourists ask for the bill, the waiter tells them: “Erdoğan has paid the bill”.
The 2017 election advertisement issued by the Islamist-leaning Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or Justice and Development Party, the ruling party, tells the story President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sold since he took power in 2002: of a Neo-Ottoman Empire, with Turkey emerging not just as the heart of economic and cultural power across Asia, but also the authentic custodian of global Islam.
In New Delhi, some are worried at what this story might mean for India. Allied with great powers China and Russia, the thinking goes, a new Istanbul-centred caucus of states could give Pakistan greater leverage in shaping the world than it has enjoyed in decades. India, the thinking goes, could face sharper diplomatic battles over Kashmir, and a hostile neighbour with ever-greater access to both capital and military technology.
There’s another lesson, though, to be drawn from that 2017 advertisement: Even though the idea of national greatness can seduce electorates, every delightful dream must, inexorably, end in an unpleasant encounter with daylight. The foundation of the Turkey-Pakistan axis is soap opera, not statecraft.
Islamabad’s hopes of expanding its influence through the Axis of the Pious are, on the face of it, silly. For all the hype surrounding its growing relationship with China, Pakistan is desperately dependent on the International Monetary Fund, and a clutch of G20 donors. The grandiose ambition underlying the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has dulled: there is, a scholar Andrew Small who recently noted, a “change in scale from the aspirations that once characterised the scheme, which one Chinese official characterised as moving from ‘mega projects’ to ‘peanut projects’”.
Ankara isn’t doing that much better. The Turkish Lira has lost almost a third of its value against the United States dollar and more than 30 percent against the Euro, since the beginning of 2020. Erdoğan was forced to push out his own son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, and dismiss the head of the Turkish central bank — but neither move has solved the long-simmering problems in a country once hailed as a remarkable economic success story.
The idea that a new Turkish-led economic order could transform makes little sense. Trade between the two countries hovers around $600-$800 million—a less than impressive number that’s unlikely to expand anytime soon, given Islamabad’s historic inability to grow its exports, a problem recently underlined by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Pakistan and Turkey have developed a military relationship — Ankara has purchased the Islamabad-manufactured MFI-17 Super Mushshak training aircraft, for example, and there are unconfirmed claims its F16 combat-jet pilots are being trained by the Pakistan Air Force.
In the grand scheme of things, though, this amounts to very little: Neither state is a significant military technology powerhouse, nor has the industrial foundations to become one in short order.
Erdoğan’s—expensive—foreign policy ambitions have served mainly to undermine confidence of the western investors critical for its growth. From 2003-2009, Turkey’s foreign policy was led by Western-educated pragmatists within the AKP — first, Abdullah Gül, and then the Ali Babacan— who shaped what came to be known as the “zero problems” strategy.
Long-standing problems with Iraq and Syria over the Kurdish issue were resolved; peace was secured with Kurdish insurgents.
Then, in 2009, came the so-called Arab Spring. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu — earlier Prime Minister — saw the opportunity to push forward an ideological agenda aimed at rebuilding West Asia with Turkey at its centre.
According to Davutoğlu, Turkey’s new project was to build a kind of born-again Ottoman Empire in which Istanbul would “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus” by backing democratic Islamist parties linked to the AKP’s own ideological fountainhead, the Muslim Brotherhood.
The end result, though, has been isolation — not power. Ankara’s efforts to rewrite maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean at the expense of Greece and Cyprus has incensed its NATO partners, especially France.
Ankara’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, similarly, has ended in what Turkey sees as a political win.
The win, though, has come at the cost of damaged relations with Iran, which, as expert Eldar Mamedov has pointed out, see the country mired in long-term sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict, with long-term implications.
Turkey’s decision to sponsor jihadists fighting in Syria — an effort to marginalise its Kurdish opponents — led to significant blowback in the form of terrorist bombings. It isn’t hard to see that more tragedy could lie ahead.
The reasons for Turkey’s outreach to Pakistan aren’t hard to grasp: By backing causes like Kashmir, or criticising India’s less-than-roseate record on minority rights, Erdoğan is seeking to demonstrate leadership of the Muslim world.
From history, though, the limits of such gestures are also apparent. It’s now generally forgotten that Turkey supported Pakistan in both the wars of 1965 and 1971 — even offering military assistance — but with no impact of consequence on the course of events. The core fact then, as now, was that Ankara was a bit of a player—not a genuine power.
In 1958, the United Kingdom-led Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey into the Central Treaty Organisation, or CENTO—an alliance designed to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle-East, and the wider Muslim world.
Less than a decade passed, though, before CENTO’s members realised the alliance was about protecting Western interests, not their own: the United States and United Kingdom lined up on India’s side during the China war of 1962, and Turkey gained no support for its ambitions in Cyprus.
Then, in 1964, a new axis began to form outside of CENTO, between Turkey, Iran, Pakistan. In 1965, Pakistan heard the words it wanted to hear: “The Governments of Turkey and Iran”, an—inelegantly-worded—communiqué read, “reaffirms the solidarity which links Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and declared that they are ready to support Pakistan, a brother country and ally”.
Nice words, though, mean little. The $5 million in military aid Turkey was willing to provide in 1965, did nothing to tip the military balance. In 1971, Iran loaned in the spring of 1971, Iran loaned Pakistan about a dozen helicopters and other military equipment for use in West Pakistan to replace similar equipment transferred what is now Bangladesh.
This added up to little: the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — determined the relative balance of strategic power, not smaller states. The alliances Pakistan and Turkey formed from 1964 on gave only the illusion of security, not the real thing.
For the most part, the Turkish-Pakistani relationship is an aesthetic: An aesthetic independent of any rational consideration of tactical means or strategic ends. The relationship allows Imran Khan to market himself as a nationalist hero, building alliances with the Muslim world to beat off the predatory West and its Saudi Arabian allies.
Erdoğan’s imperial mission, similarly, offers his voters a sense of agency and purpose: Prosperity may be out of reach, but their sacrifice is for the larger cause of greatness.
From his gargantuan, 250-bedroom official residence—a building four times the size of the Palace of Versailles, with carpets worth $10 million, and so many spas, pools and bathhouses that the heating bill runs to almost $1 million a year — it may appear to Erdoğan that he has secured his place in history.
The palace is the greatest built by any Turkish leader since Sultan Ahmet III, whose Abode Of Felicity stood on 30 marble columns with a pool before it, at the end of a great axis of symmetrical facades behind which his courtiers lived.
But he likely knows this: in 1730, rebellious janissaries, or élite palace guards, led Ahmed III into jail, where he would die six years later.
Illusions, then, come at a price. In its pursuit of imperial greatness, Ankara has undermined its relationship with the Western powers key to its growth. It is rapidly alienating economic partners like India. It risks the prospect of becoming mired in conflicts from which there is no prospect of gain. Islamabad’s course of action, similarly, offers no genuine prospect of securing territorial gain in Kashmir—only undermining any prospect of a normalised relationship with New Delhi, that would bring with it significant economic gains.
The real lesson for Turkey and Pakistan—or, for that matter India—is a simple one: the Great Game is not a sport for the poor.