Turkey’s Dynamic Resurgence in the New Global Era

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan gesturing

In a recent article in Newsweek, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan branded the EU “geriatric” and “comatose.” This reflects not only Ankara’s frustrations with the EU accession process, but also the global transformations of the early 21st century.

China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey are among the leading new global economic players. While much attention has focused on the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, the Turkish story is quite captivating.

On the basis of current trends and projecting forward to, say, 2025, we might envisage the newspaper headline: “Ankara delays EU accession application to New Turkish Economic Sphere.”

Back to the past: Turkey and the ‘West’

Along the “if you can’t beat them, join them” lines, following the defeat and collapse of the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire, the new Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk. It underwent a thorough process of “westernization.” Throughout the second half of the 20th century, Turkey was an integral part of the Atlantic alliance. The reform process initiated by Atatürk and subsequently intensified also seemed to make the EU Turkey’s “natural” destination.

Three external events/developments occurred that altered the paradigm.

One, the EU kept prevaricating over Turkey’s application for membership, a number of its leaders were openly hostile and the goal posts kept moving. Turks, feeling discriminated against and ostracized, became disenchanted.

Two, the U.S. and U.K. invaded Iraq, Turkey’s neighbor, in spite of Ankara’s opposition. The invasion has not only traumatized Iraq, but indeed the whole region.

Three, the new globalized world order has been diminishing the economic importance of the West, especially Europe, and opening up more opportunities in the East.

Internal dynamics

Turkey has had a rough political and economic 20th century. The 21st started off very badly with a massive financial crisis in 2001. As with a number of the other re-emerging countries, however, the crisis proved the opportunity to carry out really radical reform that, ironically, otherwise might not have been politically feasible. Turkey under the extremely skillful management of then-Finance Minister Kemal Derviş started its reform process and then with the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, underwent thorough and successful reform.

The financial sector has considerably strengthened, inflation has been brought under control, growth has increased, as have exports and both inward and outward investment. The Turkish economy generally and Turkish enterprises in particular have become much more global.

Turkey has been growing its soft power through the growing economic influence of a number of Turkish major multinational groups, notably Koç, Sabancı, Turkcell, Enka and Turkish Airlines.

In addition to the established players, this last decade has seen the rise of a new and very dynamic entrepreneurial group emerging from the “Anatolian Tigers” cities, such as Çorum, Denizli, Gaziantep, Malaya, Kahramanmaraş, Kayseri and Konya, which have prospered through the entrepreneurial efforts of their SMEs.

There has been political stability. In the 2002 elections, the AKP gained two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, leading to the first single-party government in two decades. The government has continued with reforms and policies adopted by the previous government of liberalization and openness.

The Islamist nature of the AKP causes anxiety among some Turks. The current political situation can appear to be in violation of the founding profoundly secular principles of the Kemalist Republic. Some (especially women) worry that AKP policies on, for example, the veil may be the thin edge of an Islamist wedge. Supporters, however, argue that the AKP is moderate and its religious dimension should be seen in the same light as, say, the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, in Germany.

Turkey is by no means just one big bed of roses. There are problems both internal and external. Unemployment is a big issue, especially youth unemployment, which stands at close to 30 percent. It may be linked to another major weakness: education. The average Turk spends seven years in school, compared to 11 in the EU. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, rankings, Turkey and Mexico share the dubious distinction of being at the bottom of the OECD league in all three disciplines: reading, mathematics and science.

Though there have been improvements in the situation regarding the Kurds, who represent almost 20 percent of the population, efforts will need to continue.

The current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” sounds great in practice but is not all that easy to implement. Relations with Armenia remain extremely sensitive, not only due to the legacy of the deaths at the time of World War I, but also over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Cyprus question remains the major thorn in the Turkish side and the major obstacle to joining the EU. Finally, while Turkey had traditionally been seen as a strong ally of Israel, relations have been frayed recently, which, ipso facto, complicates Ankara’s relations with Washington.

New Turkish economic space

Though Turkey does have a number of critical issues that need addressing, there can be no doubt that we are witnessing in this new global era a resurgent Turkey. One of the main manifestations of this resurgence has been the return of Turkey to closer economic, political and cultural ties with its neighbors.

Turkish firms are active and prominent players in Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the Balkans. In 2004, Turkish contractors rebuilt the 16th century Ottoman bridge in Mostar that had been destroyed during the Bosniak-Croat war. This new Ottomanism was initiated by İsmail Cem İpekçi, foreign minister from 1997 to 2002, and continued by his successors.

The fastest growth in trade is with Syria, Iraq and Iran. But Turkey is also active globally, forging close economic and political ties with China, India Brazil and Africa. Turkey, therefore, has a revived national engine that is leading it to become a prominent regional and global actor

The word “bridge” (between East and West) is often referred to in respect to Turkey. For most of the second half of the 20th century, however, the bridge saw little traffic. Now Turkey has moved from being a peripheral power to becoming one of the 21st century’s pivotal nations.

Ian Morris in “Why the West Rules – For Now,” reminds his readers that “the West” – in the sense of “Western civilization” – encompasses not only Europe, but also the Middle East and Egypt. “The West’s” roots lie in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Christianity came from the Middle East, as did the rediscovery of Greek philosophy. The division between East and West has been arbitrary, artificial and the cause of conflict.

The EU has been a great success in the 20th century. We are now in a new era. Europeans need to reconsider their place in this rapidly changing firmament. It is likely to be dominated by the two big gigantic regions, China/Eastern Asia and India/South Asia, each of which will have a combined population of 2.2 billion by 2025. The U.S. is likely to remain a key player, but as recent years have shown the Atlantic Alliance is increasingly frayed as U.S. priorities turn to the Pacific. The combined population of this energy-rich Ottoman space will be 800 million. The population of the EU will be 450 million.

It is to be hoped that in spite of the setback in 2025, Ankara and Brussels will persist in seeking to find the means to realize the great potential of the synergies between the two regions: of an aging but reasonably wiser Europe joining forces with the youthful vitality of the countries of the New Ottoman Economic Space.

Zeynep Dereli is the director of Atlantic Council’s Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum. She is a guest lecturer in the IMD MBA program. Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of International Political Economy at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, the Founding Director of The Evian Group @ IMD and co-editor, with his son, Fabrice, of Peace and Prosperity through World Trade, Cambridge University Press, 2010. This article was originally published in the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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