Turkey, a Stealth Superpower?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his lawmakers at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, June 1, 2010, a day after Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip on Monday, killing nine passengers in a botched raid that provoked international outrage and a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan accused israel of using state terrorism.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
AP Photo
John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and co-directs its Balkans Project. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

The future is no longer in plastics, as the businessman in the 1967 film The Graduate insisted. Rather, the future is in China.

If a multinational corporation doesn't shoehorn China into its business plan, it courts the ridicule of its peers and the outrage of its shareholders. The language of choice for ambitious undergraduates is Mandarin. Apocalyptic futurologists are fixated on an eventual global war between China and the United States. China even occupies valuable real estate in the imaginations of our fabulists. Much of the action of Neal Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age, for example, takes place in a future neo-Confucian China, while the crew members of the space ship on the cult TV show Firefly mix Chinese curse words into their dialogue.

Why doesn't Turkey have a comparable grip on American visions of the future? Characters in science fiction novels don't speak Turkish. Turkish-language programs are as scarce as hen's teeth on college campuses. Turkey doesn't even qualify as part of everyone's favorite group of up-and-comers, that swinging BRIC quartet of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Turkey remains stubbornly fixed in Western culture as a backward-looking land of doner kebabs, bazaars, and guest workers.

But take population out of the equation -- an admittedly big variable -- and Turkey promptly becomes a likely candidate for future superpower. It possesses the 17th top economy in the world and, according to Goldman Sachs, has a good shot at breaking into the top 10 by 2050. Its economic muscle is also well defended: after decades of NATO assistance, the Turkish military is now a regional powerhouse.

Perhaps most importantly, Turkey occupies a vital crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. A predominantly Muslim democracy atop the ruins of Byzantium, it bridges the Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, even as it sits perched at the nexus of energy politics. All roads once led to Rome; today all pipelines seem to lead to Turkey. If superpower status followed the rules of real estate -- location, location, location -- then Turkey would already be near the top of the heap.

As a quintessential rising middle power, Turkey no longer hesitates to put itself in the middle of major controversies. In the last month alone, Turkish mediation efforts nearly heralded a breakthrough in the Iran nuclear crisis, and Ankara supported the flotilla that recently tried to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. With these and other less high-profile interventions, Turkey has stepped out of the shadows and now threatens to settle into the prominent place on the world stage once held by its predecessor.  In the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire was a force to be reckoned with, spreading through the Balkans to the gates of Vienna before devolving over the next 200 years into "the sick man of Europe."

Today, a dynamic neo-Ottoman spirit animates Turkey. Once rigidly secular, it has begun to fashion a moderate Islamic democracy. Once dominated by the military, it is in the process of containing the army within the rule of law. Once intolerant of ethnic diversity, it has begun to reexamine what it means to be Turkish. Once a sleepy economy, it is becoming a nation of Islamic Calvinists. Most critically of all, it is fashioning a new foreign policy.  Having broken with its more than half-century-long subservience to the United States, it is now carving out a geopolitical role all its own.

The rise of Turkey has by no means been smooth. Secular Turks have been uncomfortable with recent more assertive expressions of Muslim identity, particularly when backed by state power. The country's Kurds are still second-class citizens, and although the military has lost some of its teeth, it still has a bite to go along with its bark.

Nonetheless, Turkey is remaking the politics of the Middle East and challenging Washington's traditional notion of itself as the mediator of last resort in the region. In the twenty-first century, the Turkish model of transitioning out of authoritarian rule while focusing on economic growth and conservative social values has considerable appeal to countries in the developing world. This "Ankara consensus" could someday compete favorably with Beijing's and Washington's versions of political and economic development. The Turkish model has, however, also spurred right-wing charges that a new Islamic fundamentalist threat is emerging on the edges of Europe.  Neocon pundit Liz Cheney has even created a new version of George W. Bush's "axis of evil" in which Turkey, Iran, and Syria have become the dark trinity.

These are all signs that Turkey has indeed begun to wake from its centuries-long slumber. And when Turkey wakes, as Napoleon said of China, the world will shake.

Out of Ottomanism

Constantinople was once an Orientalist's dream. In his otherwise perceptive 1877 guide to the city, the Italian author Edmondo de Amicis typically wrote that old Istanbul "is not a city; she neither labors, nor thinks, nor creates; civilization beats at her gates and assaults her in her streets, but she dreams and slumbers on in the shadow of her mosques, and takes no heed."

Turkey's first wake-up call came from Kemal Ataturk, the modernizing military officer from Salonika who created a new country out of the unpromising materials left behind by the collapsed Ottoman Empire. Decisively ending the caliphate in 1924, Ataturk patterned his new secular state on the French model: strong central power, a modern army, and a strict division between public and private spheres. This was no easy process: Ataturk brought Turkey kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.

In many ways, that kicking and screaming continued throughout the rest of that century. The Turkish military never quite got used to civilian rule. It's seized power four times since 1960. In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkish security forces killed thousands of its own citizens in a dirty war against the Kurds and the Turkish left, and subjected many more to beatings, torture, and imprisonment. The country's leadership maintained a garrison mentality based on a fear that outsiders, aided by a fifth column, were bent on dismembering the country (as outside powers had indeed attempted to do in 1920 with the Treaty of Sèvres).

In the 1980s, however, economic globalization began to eat away at this garrison mentality as then-President Turgut Ozal attempted to reconnect Turkey to the world through export-oriented reforms and a policy of building economic bridges rather than erecting suspicious walls. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, for instance, Turkey refused to choose sides, remaining a friend to both countries.

In the process, Istanbul was transformed.  It became the center of a laboring, thinking, and creating class that faced both westward toward Europe and the United States and eastward toward the Middle East and Central Asia. Even Central Anatolia and its key city, Kayseri, once considered a Turkish backwater, was emerging as a vital center of manufacturing. "While Anatolia remains a socially conservative and religious society, it is also undergoing what some have called a 'Silent Islamic Reformation,'" went the European Stability Initiative's influential 2005 report on Turkey's new Islamic Calvinists. "Many of Kayseri's business leaders even attribute their economic success to their 'protestant work ethic.'"

By the 1990s, the "star of Islam" -- as The Economist dubbed Turkey -- had gone about as far as it could within the confines of the existing Ataturk model. In 1997, the military once again swatted aside the civilian leadership in a "stealth coup," and the country seemed to be slipping back into aggressive paranoia. The Kurdish war flared; tensions with Russia over Chechnya rose; a war of words broke out with Greece over maritime territorial disputes. And Turkey nearly went to war with Syria for harboring the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.

But that stealth coup proved a last gasp attempt to place the uncontainable new political and economic developments in Turkish society under tighter controls.  Soon enough, the military gave way again and the Islam-influenced Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, only enlarging its political base after the 2007 elections.

Zero Problems?

Throughout the twentieth century, geography had proved a liability for Turkey. It found itself beset on all sides by former Ottoman lands which held grudges against the successor state. The magic trick the AKP performed was to transform this liability into an asset. Turkey in the twenty-first century turned on the charm. Like China, it discovered the advantages of soft power and the inescapable virtues of a "soft rise" during an era of American military and economic dominance.

Led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a former academic who provided a blueprint for the country's new good-neighbor policy in his 2001 book Strategic Depth, Turkey pledged "zero problems with neighbors." In foreign policy terminology, Davutoglu proposed the carving out of a Turkish sphere of influence via canny balance-of-power politics. Like China, it promised not to interfere in the domestic affairs of its partners. It also made a major effort to repair relations with those near at hand and struck new friendships with those far away. Indeed, like Beijing, Ankara has global aspirations.

Perhaps the most dramatic reversal in Turkish policy involves the Kurdish region of Iraq. The détente orchestrated by the AKP could be compared to President Richard Nixon's startling policy of rapprochement with China in the 1970s, which rapidly turned an enemy into something like an ally. In March, Turkey sent its first diplomat to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to staff a new consulate there. Today, as journalist Jonathan Head has written, "70% of investment and 80% of the products sold in the Kurdish region [of Iraq] are Turkish." Realizing that when U.S. troops leave Iraq, its Kurdish regions are bound to feel vulnerable and thus open to economic and political influence, Ankara established a "strategic cooperation council" to sort things out with the Iraqis in 2009, and this has served as a model for similar arrangements with Syria, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia.

Détente with Iraqi Kurdistan has gone hand in hand with a relaxation of tensions between Ankara and its own Kurdish population with which it had been warring for decades. Until the early 1990s, the Turkish government pretended that the Kurdish language didn't exist. Now, there is a new 24-hour Kurdish-language national TV station, and new faculty at Mardin Artuklu University will teach Kurdish. The government began to accept returning Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq, as well as a handful of Kurdish guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

This hasn't been an easy sell for Turkish nationalists. In December, a Turkish court banned the main Kurdish political party, and this spring the military launched repeated attacks against PKK targets inside Iraq. But the AKP is continuing to push reforms, including proposed changes in the country's constitution that would allow military commanders for the first time to be tried in civilian court for any crimes they commit.

The elimination of this demonizing of "internal enemies" is crucial to the AKP's project, helping as it does to reduce the military's power in internal affairs.  Reining in the military is a top objective for party leaders who believe it will strengthen political stability, improve prospects for future integration into the European Union (EU), and remove a powerful opponent to domestic reforms -- and to the party itself.

Only a little less startling than the government's gestures toward the Kurds has been its program to transform Turkish-Greek relations. The two countries have long been at each other's throats, their conflict over the divided island of Cyprus being only the most visible of their disagreements. The current Greek economic crisis, however, may prove a blessing in disguise when it comes to bilateral relations.

The Greek government -- its finances disastrous and economic pressure from the European Union mounting -- needs a way to make military budget reductions defensible. In May, Turkish president Erdogan visited Greece and, while signing 21 agreements on migration, environment, culture, and the like, began to explore the previously inconceivable possibility of mutual military reductions. "Both countries have huge defense expenses," Erdogan told Greek television, "and they will achieve a lot of savings this way."

If Turkey manages a rapprochement with Armenia, it will achieve a diplomatic trifecta. The two countries disagree over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is also at the center of a dispute between Armenia and Turkish ally Azerbaijan. Complicating this territorial issue is a long-standing historical controversy. Armenia wants acknowledgement of the Ottoman Empire's 1915 extermination campaign that killed more than a million Armenians. The Turkish government today disputes the numbers and refuses to recognize the killings as "genocide." Nevertheless, Turkey and Armenia began direct negotiations last year to reopen their border and establish diplomatic relations. Although officially stalled, secret talks between the two are continuing.

Other diplomatic efforts are no less dramatic. When Bashar Assad arrived in Ankara in 2004, it was the first visit by a Syrian leader in 57 years. Meanwhile, Turkey has cemented its relations with Russia, remains close to Iran, and has reconnected to the Balkans. This charm offensive makes Chinese efforts in Asia look bumbling.