The language of cross-border love

ISTANBUL — Let’s face it, the United States and Mexico haven’t always been the best of neighbors. Over the last two years Mexico’s drug wars have claimed 10,000 lives and issues of immigration have frayed greatly at the U.S.’s already limited patience. Meanwhile, American narco-dollars have made Mexico the main conduit for Colombian cocaine, and an estimated 90 percent of the weapons used by Mexican drug cartels come from the U.S.

So how can these two countries — which share a 2,000-mile border and centuries of history — strengthen such dysfunctional ties? Parag Khanna, Director of the Global Governance Initiative and Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, suggests for those on both sides of the Rio Grande a surprising teacher: Turkey.

Khanna is the author of "The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order," a book that led him to be names one of Esquire’s “75 most influential people of the 21st century.”

GlobalPost spoke with Khanna about the lessons Turkey offers on how to attain a more ideal union between the U.S. and Mexico.

GP: You argue that the U.S. and Mexico can learn from the relationship between the European Union (EU) and Turkey. What similarities do you see between Mexico and Turkey in that respect?

PK: In Washington and among the media, the new trend has been to label Mexico a “failed state.” Such language is revealing because to call it that the U.S. is admitting that their policies have also failed. I thought that was quite shocking.

I compare Turkey to Mexico in the sense that the U.S. has always had a very transactional policy towards Mexico. We have an energy relationship with them, we have an immigration relationship with them and there are remittance flows between the two countries. But while that transactional relationship is there, it hasn’t really been strategic since NAFTA. And now you see that many people are turning their back on NAFTA including, perhaps, the Obama administration. To me, that smacks of all that Europe has managed to avoid doing in their relationship with Turkey, despite all of the xenophobia in Western Europe.

For the last 40 years there has been a customs union, massive foreign investment and huge remittance flows between Europe and Turkey. They are working towards membership and accession [into the European Union] and retooling the Turkish economy. There are all kinds of binding agreements between the two sides, despite the fact that they don’t really like each other in a lot of ways. So for me it was just shocking that it was the “xenophobic Europe” that was having the success while we are not.


Now no one would call Turkey a failed state, of course. Turkey is not only a rich country historically but today is a true regional power and a very confident one. It has tons of internal issues, of course, and every year we are worried there is going to be a soft coup. But the fact is you would never call it a failed state.

I really wanted to emphasize that the multidimensional strategy of engagement that Europe has had towards Turkey despite all of the high-level rhetoric. It works, and I don’t think there is any denying that. Now that doesn’t mean that there has to be an end state for the policy for have been a success; in this case membership into the EU. It is Turkish stability, prosperity and various forms of integration and cooperation with Europe that are the benchmarks of success, not whether a Turkish citizen has a EU passport. With Mexico, now, none of those things are happening. So for me there is a very stark contrast between the two relationships.

What similarities do you see between Turkey and Mexico?

I don’t want to overdo it; they are clearly both unique states. But look, they are two of the poorest members of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], they are relatively similar in population size, they have a similar strategic geography and similar proximity to great powers — all of these structural similarities, demographic similarities, socio-economic similarities. Historically they have no commonality whatsoever but I do think that the contemporary structural and socio-economic similarities are similar enough that it is a fair comparison.

How do you think Turkey has benefited from its close proximity and relationship with Europe?

The list goes on and on really. Remember, now it’s a politicized issue but back in the 1950s Turks had a massive amount of respect for Europe. There are stories that you will hear from Western diplomats that Turkish farmers would wear suit jackets in the fields to try and prove that they really were European. This is prior to what is now being called the “neo-Ottoman” return, which has led to a greater sense of Turkish nationalism and pride and a sense that it deserves a lot more respect.

Today it is the remittances and economic issues that are the building block of all of this. Something like 80 percent of the FDI [foreign direct investment] into Turkey comes from EU countries. That is an overwhelming share.

And now you have the geographic continuity because since 2007 you have Bulgaria and Romania in the EU. So the elements of trade, finance and politics all tie the region together. Europe also influences Turkey socially, such as encouraging rights for the Kurds and for women. All of these kinds of things that the EU has been slowly, subtly forcing on Turkey in the last few decades. So the economic and political modernization process of Turkey has been drastically accelerated due to its relationship with the European Union.

How does the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico differ from that of the EU and Turkey?

Well, Mexico as a polity is clearly not all that mature of a democracy. The PRI’s [Institutional Revolutionary Party] lock on power was only just broken so you don’t really have a strong, multiparty democracy; you have one main party and a couple of fringes. That’s only recently changed. So it’s still not a mature polity, it doesn’t use its strategic resources well.

Worse, the U.S. has thus far been unable to liberalize the energy sector there. So while the country’s main source of revenue is oil, it’s completely mismanaging it. And I think that in part that is really a failure of the part of the U.S., a real lack of engagement.

Also, the internal inequalities are so massive. Now for Turkey and Mexico this is one other thing they have in common. They both have very, very high levels of inequality. But only one of those countries is taking real steps to address that, through restructure, investment, and job creation. And that is Turkey, not Mexico.

And then you’ve got destabilizing social factors, whether it’s swine flu or the drug war. So you’ve got these vast discrepancies, the vulnerabilities and volatility, and the U.S. has simply not been able to diminish that.

What should the U.S. learn from the EU’s relationship with Turkey and how can that be applied to Mexico?

The U.S. needs to look and see that multi-dimensional relations and binding countries on multiple levels of cooperation is a good thing. When you have an inescapable geographic proximity you would prefer to have your neighbor be your friend rather than your enemy. Now Mexico is by no means an enemy. It functions strategically under the American security umbrella and will for the next 200 years at least I imagine. So the issue is to work on more areas of cooperation rather than less.

We need to put development money in so we can diminish migration. Remember what you have happening in Europe. You do have a lot of third-generation Turks who are growing up in a state of limbo in Europe and others are also integrated. But you also have a huge number of Turks who doesn’t go to Europe at all or, if they do, return to Turkey because, quite simply, it’s a better place to be then it was before. It’s the same thing that is happening in India. It’s the same thing that is happening in China. It’s happening in Kurdistan even. Its happening in lots of countries that are starting to develop because people are going home and realizing that they can have a good life here. Not a lot of people are doing that in Mexico, are they?

You’ve got more illegal migration than ever before. So if the U.S. wants a strategic, long-term, developmental partnership with Mexico it shouldn’t be questioning NAFTA it should be building the so-called “North American Union”, a term that is very consciously designed to reflect something more EU-esque, something much more similar to the EU’s relationship with Turkey.

More GlobalPost dispatches about Turkey:

Healing a populist rift with Turkey

Young Turks: a question of identity

Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa