Turkey’s Pivotal Future

Turkish Cypriot Vote

It wasn’t exactly Page 1 news last month when Turkey responded to a Congressional committee labeling the murder of Armenians a century ago “genocide” by freezing its diplomatic, defense and energy ties to the U.S.  

But then, it seems no matter what, Turkey is rarely front page news, a result of its success: it’s not getting nukes or aiding terrorists. It doesn’t have lots of oil. It does have a large and growing middle class. This just underscores the reality that its strategic importance to the U.S. is something too few Americans fathom.

But Turkey is arguably of central importance to U.S. foreign policy. It is an economically dynamic, modernizing, democratic and Islamic nation.   It’s a member of both the G20 and the UN Security Council.  It’s   at the geographic crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

In short, Turkey is one the most pivotal of a host of emerging regional and global actors that will increasingly shape the global order in this century. It is also at a historic juncture in its domestic polity, with challenges of how to manage its Kurdish minority problem and its civil-military relations.  The latter is playing out in efforts to reform its constitution, the outcome of which may determine the character of Turkey’s polity and its relationship to the EU.

Brave New World

While the recent flap over Congressional action will ultimately fade, the episode may be emblematic of how the often messiness of  the American foreign policy process, with its unusual Legislative vs. Executive dynamic, may have unintended consequences that complicate the pursuit of American interests in the untidy and grayer geopolitical landscape of the post-9/11, post-economic meltdown world. It certainly is unlikely to help persuade Turkey to support UN sanctions against its neighbor Iran.

It might be said that being a Single Superpower meant never having to say you’re sorry. But as power and wealth diffuse around the globe, shaping a more fragmented and diverse strategic landscape, the U.S. will have increasingly less margin for error and require more agile, clever diplomacy to shape outcomes. As World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a recent speech,  “a New Geopolitics of Multipolar Economy needs to share responsibility while recognizing different perspectives and circumstances, so as to build more mutual interests.”

The relationship between long-time NATO ally Turkey and Iran  illustrates the complex emerging geopolitical dynamics that the U.S. will increasingly need to navigate. During the Cold War, the Soviet threat set parameters for the foreign policy of Turkey as well as other NATO allies.  Absent that threat, Turkey has increasingly pursued an expansive diplomacy based more on a mix of geography, history and culture than allegiance to the West. It is aptly described in a recent article in a Turkish journal by Suat Kınıklıoğlu, deputy chairman for external affairs of the ruling AK Party and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Turkish Parliament:

Turkey’s neighborhood policy is devised to reintegrate Turkey into its immediate neighborhoods, including the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. We aim to deepen our political dialogue, increase our trade and multiply our people-to-people contacts with our neighbors in the form of sports, tourism and cultural activities. When Egon Bahr formulated his Ostpolitik in the 1960s, no one asked Willy Brandt whether Germany was lost. God bestowed upon Turkey a geographical position that fundamentally requires for us to engage with the East and the West, the North and the South. This is neither a choice nor a luxury —  it is a necessity.

This approach has been described as “no problems with neighbors,” a sort of  omnidirectional diplomacy by Ankara. Some see a bit of neo-Ottoman nostalgia at work. In any case, Turkey has actively pursued economic and diplomatic interests that position it as an increasingly important regional actor. It has played a broker role in Israeli-Syria talks over the Golan Heights. It has ties with Israel as well as Iran. Not least, Turkey has become an energy bridge, with oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and Russia to Europe. It has far more trade with Russia and then with the U.S.

What Does it Mean?

What all this adds up to is a more complex relationship to the U.S., as we saw in 2003, when Ankara refused to cooperate with the U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Like other emerging G20 actors – Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa – on any given issue, these newly enfranchised they can be the "swing vote" determining whether multilateral cooperation to address global problems will succeed. Given U.S. deep involvement in the Greater Middle East, Turkey can play a helpful role in fostering cooperation. But its position is hardly automatic.

Turkey is often overshadowed by flashier emerging developments like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia India, China) who almost unnoticed in the U.S. media, held their second Summit in Rio de Janiero last week.  The numbers are often recited: China is now the world largest exporter, Asia now has a GDP larger than the U.S., etc. The BRICs and other emerging actors like Turkey are altering the global geo-economic balance. The challenge ahead is whether their growing sense of enfranchisement will translate into taking on a growing share of responsibility in providing public goods that have disproportionately tended to be the burden of the U.S., the world’s 911. And that is where the challenge of pursuing a more agile, smarter U.S. diplomacy comes in.

Robert Manning is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency. Photo credit:  Reuters Pictures.

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