Empire and identity: A letter to a Chinese friend
Like it or not, China will play an important role in Western Asia, because the imperative of energy security and the rollout of the “One Belt/One Road” require it to do so. As China engages with this unruly region, the seeming irrationality and self-defeating behavior of its minor powers are a source of endless frustration to China, which looks at Western Asia through the rational eyes of commercial interest, and offers investments on the grand scale that stand to benefit all of its states.
When we last spoke some months ago in Beijing, Turkey’s President Erdogan infuriated you. Turkey meddled where it had no competence—in nuclear negotiations with Iran, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with Hamas in Gaza, with ISIS in Syria, and with Uyghur rebels in China’s Xinjiang province. Not long from now, I predict, you will be furious at Iran’s meddling in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and perhaps Azerbaijan. Why, China asks, do the petty pretenders to empire in Western Asia risk their own well-being with adventures of this sort?
The answer lies in the toxic combination of two historic circumstances. The first is profound internal problems arising from the failure of most Middle Eastern countries to adapt to modernity. The second is a sense of national identity left over from their past days of imperial glory. Islamist leaders like Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei believe that reviving the imperial identities of Persia and Turkey respectively will lead them out of internal crises which threaten the integrity of these states.
It is helpful to contrast their behavior with China’s. Recently I heard a former director of CIA explain that China’s “nationalism,” for example its assertive stance in the South China is an attempt to distract popular attention from economic weakness at home. That is wrong for three reasons: the economy is not that weak, the Chinese are not so gullible as to be distracted, and—most important—there is no such thing as Chinese “nationalism” in the Western sense of the term. China is not a nation as the West understands it, but a civilization that has assimilated hundreds of nations into a common culture. By the same token, China’s civilization demands historic integrity: It will never concede territories to which it has an historic claim, from the South China Sea to Tibet. That is a matter of China’s identity, not a piece of opportunistic demagoguery. Outside the historic reach of Chinese civilization, China’s interests lie in commerce and stability.
Chinese civilization has proven its robustness in the modern era; not so the rumps of failed empires in Western Asia, who have crashed against modernity rather than mastered it. Iran’s present leaders do not view their intervention in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrein and other neighboring states as elective wars, but as an existential requirement for Iran’s future. Behind its aggressive façade Iran faces galloping demographic decline and an epidemic of social pathologies, and its leaders believe that a new Persian imperial identity is the only alternative to rapid internal decay. Iran’s failure of identity in the face of modernity can be gauged by the collapse of its fertility rate from seven children per female in 1979 to only 1.6 in 2012. The number of military-age Iranians will fall by almost half between 2010 and 2020 due to the earlier collapse in the birth rate, and the number of prospective mothers between the ages of 20 and 30 will fall by a third. By mid-century, a third of Iranians will be older than 60, the fastest-aging population in the world.
By 2050, a third of Iranians will be over the age of 60. By 2090, at present fertility rates, Israel will have more military-age men than Iran.
As Mehrdad Farahmand wrote in the BBC on July 18:
The idea of rebuilding the Persian Empire might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not solely the product of the wilder imaginations of some Arab politicians. There are influential political and military figures in Iran who still firmly believe what they chanted during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s: “The road to Qods (Jerusalem) passes through Kerbala.”
To them, bringing the whole Islamic world under the leadership of Shia Iran and paving the way for the 12th Imam to return to rule the world after more than a thousand years, is not just a dream.
This is a dangerous delusion, among other reasons because most Shia Muslims outside Iran live in Pakistan or India and can have no conceivable influence on the region. Iran must deploy its own declining population and small pockets of Shia allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to assert its influence through dangerous adventures. By placing over 100,000 missiles in the hands of the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, it has set a tripwire for regional war.
Underneath the Islamist establishment and its Revolutionary Guards, ordinary Iranians no more believe in the teachings of Mohammed than the Chinese believe in the teachings of Karl Marx. A different regime might abandon the imperial fantasies of the Islamist government and tap the talents of the gifted Persian people. Regimes do not collapse of their own weight, and the P5+1 deal with Iran strengthens the present regime enormously. Its imperial ambitions are not a matter of calculation but identity, and it will pursue them until it is prevented from doing so.
Turkey’s impulse to meddle in the region, meanwhile, will only get worse. Turkey faces a demographic crisis of its own: the birth rate of its Kurdish minority is double that of ethnic Turks, and by 2040 half of its military-age men will speak Kurdish as a first language. Erdogan has warned repeatedly of a demographic doomsday for his country. The ascendance of the Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in the June parliamentary elections not only robbed Erdogan of the parliamentary majority he needed for constitutional change, but showed him the grim future of ethnic division. Turkey responded by conducting 150 bombing raids against Kurdish targets in Iraq, over Washington’s protests.
Erdogan is stupid to believe that he can support ISIS against the Syrian regime and contain it later, you observed when we last met. He is even stupider to believe that he can support ISIS against the Kurds, which is what he is doing at present. The Turkish analyst Burak Bekdil notes that ISIS terrorist attacks on Turkish soil have “so far mainly targeted President Erdogan’s ideological/political foes: Alevis in the Reyhanli bombing, and the Kurdish political movement in four separate bomb attacks…Erdogan is hostage to jihadists of his own making.” A war with the Kurds will tear Turkey apart.
Nothing can stop the demographic ascendancy of the Kurds, and it would seem an extreme of folly to ally with ISIS in order to stop the Kurds. But Erdogan cannot help himself. It is in his nature to do so. Turkey’s attempt to construct a secular national identity under Kemal Ataturk and his successors failed, most of all because it ignored the Muslim hinterland of Anatolia, the so-called “black Turks” (as Erdogan describes himself). Erdogan and his party offered a different, “neo-Ottoman” identity for Turkey, blending with the assertion of Turkish leadership in the Muslim world.
Turkey embraced Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian military expelled with overwhelming popular approval in July 2013 after the Brotherhood government brought Egypt’s economy to the brink of collapse. Turkey embraced the Gazan terrorist group Hamas just before Hamas was humiliated in the 2014 rocket war with Israel. Turkey intervened unsuccessfully in Syria’s civil war. At the same time Turkey helped Iran launder billions of dollars to circumvent international sanctions. Erdogan courted Russia for years, but an exasperated Vladimir Putin warned Erdogan last week that his support for ISIS would lead to war. “Turkey has gone from ‘zero problems’ to ‘zero friends,’” wrote Piotr Zalewski in Foreign Policy.
To make matters worse, Turkey’s debt-fueled economic boom has left Erdogan with a collapsing currency and stock market and a stagnant economy.
Nonethless, Erdogan seems to be doubling down on the same failed policy, using ISIS not only as a bludgeon against foreign enemies like Syria’s Bashir al-Assad, but against domestic opponents as well. With ISIS in a full-scale war against Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, Turkey’s support for the extremist Sunni organization brings Turkey’s imperial fantasy into direct conflict with Iran’s imperial fantasy.
It is in Erdogan’s nature to do so. Like Persia, the rump of another failed empire, Turkey could choose to accept a gradual decline, and achieve a modest degree of prosperity as one Western terminus in the One Belt/One Road project. It could dispense with the Kurdish problem easily by encouraging the Kurdish southeast—an economically depressed and strategically irrelevant spur of the country—to secede and form part of a Kurdish state. That would require a different kind of Turkish identity, as different fron the Kemalist nationalism of the past as from the Islamic expansionism of the present.
This is not impossible; Turkey has an outward-looking, educated elite that has chafed under the brutal, reckless rule of the Anatolian hinterland. Egypt seemed lost to Islamic extremism under the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi, but now is governed by Gen. Fatah al-Sisi, who believes in reform of Islam to separate religion and state. Egypt’s pan-Arabist ambitions of the 1960s were the main cause of instability in the region during the 1960s; Egypt has become a leading force for regional stability.
Western Asia needs more leaders like al-Sisi, who can put national prosperity and security ahead of the imperial fantasies of failed empires. Turkey and Iran, by contrast, have undermined their international position and damaged their economies by devoting their policy to imperial delusions rather than national self-interest. Their present governments cannot change their nature, but the countries can.
Persia, to be sure, might choose to accept its decline with a modicum of prosperity, like another former imperial power, namely Japan took after World War II–but only after it was defeated. With only 1.4 children per female, Japan’s population will fall by half during the present century and its median age will rise from an already-high 46 years to 60 years. More adult diapers are now sold in Japan than baby diapers. Japan’s magnificent culture, admired by millions of Chinese tourists every year, may not outlast the present century. Fears of a return to Japanese aggressiveness are overblown: countries that can’t populate their rural villages don’t go looking for Lebensraum overseas.
Before its defeat, Japan constructed a new imperial identity out of elements of its feudal past: the Samurai warrior-code Bushido, absolute loyalty to superiors, Seppuku rather than surrender, the deification of the Emperor after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Japan inculcated this imperial identity to rally its people to confront the Western powers with whom it sought to compete. But Japanese imperial identity also demanded a sense of national superiority and contempt for foreigners—including China, in contrast to Japan’s traditional admiration for Chinese culture.
Ambassador Khoon Choy Lee explains, “Ever since the sixth century, the Japanese leaders and people often praised Japanese national traits in an effort to compensate for Japan’s indisputable inferiority. Yet, this feeling of inferiority remained until the Meiji Restoration of 1868. After that event, a superiority complex was rapidly born from Japan’s amazing success in modernization.”
Indoctrination into Japanese imperial identity made it possible for the Japanese Imperial Army to commit atrocities against the Chinese and other peoples on a horrific scale. One Japanese veteran, Shiro Azuma, wrote about the Nanking atrocities, “We were taught that we were a superior race since we lived only for the sake of a human god—our emperor. But the Chinese were not. So we held nothing but contempt for them… There were many rapes, and the women were always killed. When they were being raped, the women were human. But once the rape was finished, they became pig’s flesh.”
Japan’s brutality during the Second World War erupted out of a sense of vulnerability. It saw itself as an island people late in arrival to the modern world, encircled by imperial powers who threatened to sever its access to raw materials and foreign markets. It made enemies out of countries that might have been allies against the Western powers, and brought its own ruin upon itself. China has had a tragic experience with an imperial ideology born of fear, and this should help Chinese leaders to make sense of aspects of Western Asia which otherwise might seem entirely irrational.
For example: One of the weirdest things about Western Asia and North Africa is the Muslim obsession with the six million Jews in the State of Israel. Some Western analysts insist that a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict is a precondition for peace in the region, not because the 5,600 square kilometers of the West Bank have any inherent strategic importance, but because so much emotion is vested in it. Considering that hundreds of thousands have died and nearly 20 million have been displaced in the region since 2011, that seems crazy. But why is the perception so widespread?
The State of Israel was created by a United Nations mandate, accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs. The 1947-1948 war led to an exchange of populations (700,000 Arabs left Jewish-held territory, and 800,000 Jews left Arab countries from Morocco to Yemen), similar to the Greek-Turkish exchange of the 1920s, the India-Pakistan exchange of 1947, and many similar events). That should have been the end of the matter. The Arab nations refused to assimilate the Arab refugees of 1947 and kept them segregated as political hostages, demanding their return to the Jewish zone, as well as the return of all of their descendants. That of course would liquidate the Jewish State, and that is why all the peace negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Arabs have foundered: a peace compatible with the continued existence of the Jewish state was never on the table.
This is especially poignant in Iran and Turkey, two Muslim countries which made progress towards modernity under their previous secular governments, but have reverted to political Islam. The “Persian Empire” and “neo-Ottoman” versions of imperial identity claim the religious authority of Islam as their justification. Turkey was for hundreds of years the seat of the Islamic Caliphate; Persia claims to lead Shia Islam in an apocalyptic struggle for the leadership of the Muslim world. In either case, the prosperity of a Jewish State in the historic home of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem as its capital, is a challenge to the imperial identity that Turkey and Iran have attempted to construct.
China has worked in Western Asia under the assumption that balance of power would keep the peace, and the prospect of economic prosperity would motivate the petty powers of the region to work together. That is true in Egypt, but only after Egypt went to the brink of ruin and pulled back at the last moment. It is not true either in Turkey or Iran, who continue to foment war—with each other, and in the case of Iran, with Israel. It is not enough for China to come to the region bearing gifts in the form of infrastructure and technology. China should draw on its own vast experience of empire and identity to understand the fault lines in Western Asia and how to bridge them.
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