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Yrd. Doç.Dr. Salih BAYRAM
slh_bayram@yahoo.com

The Case for Neighboring Countries Studies

The Case for Neighboring Countries Studies

One of the five pillars of the CICR is neighboring countries studies. Together with Turkish studies, nearby regional studies, continental studies, and global studies, it serves both as a geographical and research focus. The question is, do we really need another sub-field within the discipline of international relations? This article will try to make the case for a theoretically sound focus on neighboring countries and map out its relationship with existing areas of study, which would also give an idea of the studies this division will conduct in the future.

First of all, we need to make the observation that the term neighbors, as it is generally used in the discipline of international relations or international conflict resolution, refers to countries sharing land borders, not to countries sharing a sea between them. Thus, the phrase “Turkey’s neighbors” generally refers to Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but not to Russia or Egypt or Italy. Similarly, neighbors of Italy include Austria, France, Slovenia and Switzerland, but not Tunisia or Libya. To see the limitations of this use, we need only to look at the thousands of Libyan refugees that recently fled (and still are fleeing) to Italy. Thus, a less strict notion of “proximity” would serve as a better foundation for defining neighbors compared to sharing “land borders”, and this is the sense in which I use the term neighbors in the rest of the article.

The second observation we need to make is that, to the best of the author’s knowledge, there is no journal, department, chair or other institutional formation devoted to the study of neighboring countries and the unique issues and problems that arise between them. Sure, there are chapters in some books and probably weeks devoted to the issue in courses on the foreign policy of such and such country, but no institutional formation that goes beyond these. CICR may even be the first organizational body to take neighboring countries as a geographical and research focus, and being so, the task of justifying this focus lies with it.

Obviously, each country has a different set of neighbors, and the phrase “neighboring countries” in the abstract is too general to provide a useful focus. Thus, the field of neighboring countries, if it ever comes to exist, would be most relevant at first with relation to an individual country, say Turkey, but it is conceivable that neighbors in all parts of the world may be sharing some common problems, issues or conflicts, which may be better addressed with the use of a ‘neighbors’ lens.

Among the existing fields of study, the one that comes closest to a ‘neighboring countries’ focus is regional studies. Unlike neighboring countries studies, regional studies does have devoted journals, departments, institutes and other organizational formations, and is a lot more institutionalized field of study. However, it provides a different focus than that of the neighboring countries. For example, Harvard University’s Regional Studies-East Asia master’s program offers courses on China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Mongolia, and it is clear that these countries share a lot in terms of culture, language, social structures, and political issues, among others. However, Mongolia also shares borders with Russia, which is usually not counted as an East Asian country. Thus, a neighboring countries focus would add something not covered by a regional studies approach in the case of Mongolia’s foreign relations. In the case of Turkey, a Middle Eastern regional focus, a Caucasian regional focus, a Balkan regional focus and even a European regional focus would each provide valuable insights, but none would be identical with those provided by a neighboring countries focus.

The concept of neighboring countries, of late, received a boost from the practice in Turkish foreign policy, with Foreign Minister Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s now famous emphasis on “zero problems with neighbors”. Although this emphasis is an important one in terms of providing an orientation and setting a normative goal, the concept of neighbors deserves more in terms of theoretical development and analytical use, and the first step in this kind of an effort would be mapping out its relations with neighboring fields, as no academic field is an island.

What are some of the issues or problems neighbors share with one another? As Italy and other European countries bordering the Mediterranean experienced recently, and Turkey is acutely aware these days, influx of refugees is one. When there are civil wars or other armed conflicts in its neighbors, a country should expect and be prepared for an influx of refugees, and this applies to sea neighbors as well. Thus, a neighboring countries focus would have much to borrow from migration studies, from studies on civil violence and refugees, and from crisis management.

Another between-neighbors issue is how to share natural resources such as water, oil, and valuable mines (or for that matter, the responsibility for protecting them). The recent conflict between Sudan and Southern Sudan, soon to be official neighbors, over the oil-rich Abyei region is just one contemporary example. Disputes between Turkey and Syria over the water flow of the Euphrates, which was high on the agenda of the bilateral relations between the two countries in 1990s, constitutes another example. Studies on the distribution of natural resources and transboundary regimes thus constitute other important fields from which neighboring countries studies would have much to borrow.

Ethnically or religiously defined communities divided between different nation states form another between-countries issue. Many countries have ethnic or other minorities, usually condensed in their border regions, who have kins or co-religious people in neighboring countries, and this has frequently been a source of conflict. We need only to remember the Muslim-dominated, Indian-ruled state of Jammu-Kashmir, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, the Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and Turkish minorities in Greece and Bulgaria. The countries and the ethnic communities in question can learn from the experiences of others in their position, and a neighboring countries focus can provide a fresh perspective.

The geographical proximity between neighbors also means that neighbors face unique threats and have unique opportunities in areas such as drug and human trafficking and assistance n criminal matters. The trans-border nature of these crimes and the requirement for a concerted effort to counter them leaves neighbors little option but to cooperate, and cooperation on similar issues between neighbors in other parts of the world can serve as examples. The US is an important player in Mexico’s war against drug cartels, and European countries relied heavily in the past on Colonel Qaddafi to restrict African immigration by boat to Europe.

Finally, despite the omnipresent phenomenon of globalization, the advances in communication and transportation technologies, and the increasing irrelevance of political boundaries, a great chunk of international trade is inter-neighbors trade. Factors like shared language and culture also play a role, but the main reason inter-neighbors trade is so attractive is cost-related: Transportation costs are usually much lower in the trade with neighbors, who are geographically closer. Despite their historical ties and shared languages with Europe, the greatest trade partner of Latin American countries as a whole is northern America, not Europe.[1] It has also been argued that the reason Turkey was not affected much by the global crisis in 2009 was the increase in its trade with neighbors.[2]

To sum up, we need a neighboring countries focus because it can provide insights not provided by other disciplinary or geographical foci, especially for individual countries but potentially in general terms as well, and because regional studies, the closest to a neighboring countries focus among existing disciplines, fails to capture all aspects of the foreign policy of an individual country, especially when the country in question is located in the periphery of a region,  or as in the case of Turkey, is simultaneously a member of multiple regions. The first step in developing the concept of neighboring countries as a theoretical tool is mapping out its relations with neighboring fields, and I have argued that studies on neighbors have a lot to gain from and can make significant contributions to studies on immigration, refugees, sharing and protection of natural resources, ethnic groups and conflicts, cooperation in criminal matters, and international trade.

Dr. Salih Bayram'ın CV'si için Türkçe / English



[1] See Kahraman Arslan, “Komşularımızla Artan Ticaretin Önemi” (“Significance of the Increase in Trade with our Neighbors”), TurkTrade Journal, June 2006. http://www.turktrade.org.tr/tr/article/c8f43e4c-e5ea-47db-9b4f-5c45a88d5c91/komsularimizla-artan-ticaretin-onemi.aspx

[2] “Bakan Çelik: Türkiye’nin küresel krizi aşmasında kardeş ülkelerle ticari ilişkilerin payı büyük” (“Minister Çelik: Commerce with brother countries played an important role in Turkey’s overcoming the global crisis”), Samanyolu Haber, February 26, 2011.

19.06.2011 08:28
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