How Turkey Is Chasing China to Become the Next Big Thing

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 US 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.

Mediation Central

A friend to all sides, Turkey is offering its services as a diplomatic middleman, even in places where it was persona non grata not long ago. “Not many people would imagine that the Serbians would ask for the mediation of Turkey between different Bosniak groups in the Sandjak region of Serbia,” observes Sule Kut, a Balkans expert at Bilge University in Istanbul. “Turks were the bad guys in Serbian history. So what is happening? Turkey has established itself as a credible and powerful player in the region.”

It’s not just the Balkans. The new Turkey is establishing itself as Mediation Central. Teaming up with Brazil, Turkey fashioned a surprise compromise meant to head off confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program (which the Obama administration managed to shoot down). Along with Spain, it initiated the Alliance of Civilizations, a U.N. effort to bridge the divide between Islam and the West. It also tried to work its magic in negotiating an end to the blockade of Gaza, removing obstacles to the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, bringing Syria and Israel together, resolving the brouhaha around the cartoon depiction of Mohammed, and hosting U.N. meetings on Somalia.

“Zero problems with neighbors” is a great slogan. But it’s also a logical impossibility. Turkey can’t embrace Hamas without angering Egypt and Israel. It can move closer to Russia only at the potential expense of good relations with Georgia. Rapprochement with Armenia angers Azerbaijan.

Nor was Ankara’s attempt to transcend zero-sum thinking an easy task during the “with us or against us” years of the Bush administration. In addition, there are the periodic tensions that arise around US congressional resolutions on the Armenian genocide, still a touchy issue in Turkey. Washington has indicated its growing unhappiness with Turkey’s increasingly active role in the Middle East, particularly its overtures to Syria. As a result, Turkey has had to finesse its relationship with the US in order to remain a key NATO ally and a challenger to American power in the region.

As with China, the United States is willing to work with Turkey on some diplomatic issues even as it finds the country’s growing influence in the region a problem. In turn, Ankara, like Beijing, is trying to figure out how it can best take advantage of the relative decline in US global influence even as it works closely with Washington on an issue-by-issue basis.

The greatest challenge to Turkey’s zero-problems paradigm, however, is its ever more troubled relationship with Israel. The US-Turkey-Israel troika was once a solid verity of Middle Eastern politics. A considerable amount of bilateral trade, including military deals, has linked Turkey and Israel, and that trade increased dramatically during the AKP era.

But Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza—and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s subsequent excoriation of then-Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos—began a process that is tearing these former allies apart, while boosting support for Turkey in the Arab world. In October, Turkey cancelled Israel’s participation in a military exercise, throwing lucrative military contracts between the two countries in jeopardy. In the wake of the recent Gaza-aid debacle in international waters, the rift threatens to become irreparable. When Israeli commandos seized a flotilla of ships attempting to break the Gaza embargo, killing nine Turkish citizens, Turkey spoke of severing diplomatic relations.

With Israel increasingly isolated and American mediation efforts seriously compromised, only Turkey is emerging stronger from what can now only be seen as the beginning of a regional realignment of power. Once viewed with suspicion throughout the area where the Ottomans ruled, Turkey may now be the only power that has even a remote chance of one day brokering peace in the Middle East.

Return to Ottomanism?

Neo-Ottomanism is not exactly a popular phrase in Turkey today. The leadership in Ankara wants to be clear: they have no intention of projecting imperial power or reestablishing the modern equivalent of the Ottoman caliphate. However, if you look at the friendships that Turkey has cultivated and the trade relations it has emphasized—Syria, Armenia, Greece, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans—you can see a map of the old Ottoman empire reassembling itself.

In other words, just as the AKP has turned geography to its advantage, so it is transforming an imperial albatross into the goose that lays golden eggs (in the form of lucrative trade deals). In a similar way, China has tried to revive its old Sinocentric imperial system without stirring up fears of the Chinese army marching into India or the Chinese navy taking over the South China Sea, even as it—like Turkey—also establishes friendly relations with old adversaries (including Russia).

Still, even this amiable version of neo-Ottomanism can raise hackles. “We want a new Balkan region based on political values, economic interdependence, and cooperation and cultural harmony,” Foreign Minister Davutoglu said nostalgically at a conference in Sarajevo in October. “That is what the Ottoman Balkans was like. We shall revive such a Balkan region… The Ottoman centuries were a success story, and this should be revived.” A furor followed among some Serb commentators, who viewed this romanticized version of history as evidence of a Turkish desire to Islamicize the Balkans.

What Turkey means by its vision of Balkan harmony may prove critical in the context of European integration. The Ottomans and Western Europe fought a succession of wars over control of the Balkans. Today, the E.U. and Turkey compete for influence in the region, and much hangs on Turkey’s prospects for joining the 27-member European organization. Although Turkey began the process of meeting requirements for joining the Union, the talks stalled long ago. In the meantime, some European leaders like French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy have spoken out against Turkish membership, while the spread of Islamophobia throughout Europe has dimmed what enthusiasm may still exist for bringing Turkey on board.

In Turkey as well, public support for membership has declined from 70% in 2002 to just over 50% today. In fact, Turkey’s turn toward the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa has in part been a reaction to the fading of the E.U. option. Fine, the Turks are saying, if you don’t want us, we can play with others.

And play they have, particularly when it comes to the energy game. If oil had been discovered in its territory just a little sooner, some form of the Ottoman Empire might have survived as the wealthiest energy player in history. The riches of Iraq, Kuwait, and Libya all once fell within the territorial limits of its empire.

Today, Turkey lacks energy wealth, but has worked assiduously to ensure that a maximum number of oil and natural gas pipelines flow through the country. Europe and the United States have funded a series of pipelines (like the Nabucco pipeline from the Caspian Sea) that use Turkish territory to bypass Russia and lessen Moscow’s ability to blackmail Western Europe by threatening to withhold energy supplies. Turkey hasn’t stopped there, however. It negotiated directly with Russia for another set of pipelines—the South Stream, which goes from Russia to Bulgaria through Turkish territorial waters, and the Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline that would transport Russian and Kazakh oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through Turkey.

Turkey now relies on Russia for 60% of its energy imports and Iran for another 30%. In this sense, “zero problems with neighbors” could just as easily be understood as “zero problems with energy suppliers.”

Turkey is also a builder. Of the top 225 international contractors, 35 are Turkish, second only to China. Like China, Turkey asks no difficult questions about the political environment in other countries, and so Turkish construction companies are building airports in Kurdistan and shopping malls in Libya. Despite political tensions, in 2009 they were even involved in nine projects worth more than $60 million in Israel.

Finally, there is culture. Like the Confucian institutes China is establishing all over the world to spread its language, culture, and values, Turkey established the Yunus Emre Foundation in May 2009 to administer cultural centers in Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Israel. Turkish schools have sprung up in more than 80 countries. Turkish culture has also infiltrated Middle Eastern life through television, as Turkish soap operas spread the liberal cultural values of moderate Islam. “The Turkish soaps have been daring and candid when it comes to gender equality, premarital sex, infidelity, passionate love, and even children born out of wedlock,” writes journalist Nadia Bilbassy-Charters.

Beyond Ottomanism

Turkey’s leaders may not themselves be comfortable with the neo-Ottoman label—in part because their ambitions are actually much larger. Their developing version of a peaceful, trade-oriented Pax Ottomanica takes in Turkey’s improved relations with sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific. Turkey declared 2005 the “year of Africa” and accepted observer status in the African Union. In 2010, it has already opened eight embassies in African countries and plans to open another 11 next year.

At the pan-Islamic level—and a Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, now heads up the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, the leading international voice of Islamic states—Turkish leaders think in terms of the ummah, the global Muslim community. For some critics, Turkey’s Islamic character and its ruling Islam-influenced party—as well as its recent attacks on Israel—suggest that the country is on a mission to reestablish, if only informally, the Islamic caliphate. In the most extreme version of this argument, historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has argued that Turkey’s fundamentalism will strengthen to such an extent that, in a decade’s time, it will resemble Iran, even as the Islamic Republic moves in the opposite direction.

This is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the AKP and its intentions. Islamism has about as much influence in modern-day Turkey as communism does in China. In both cases, what matters most is not ideology, but the political power of the ruling parties. Economic growth, political stability, and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency. Turkey is becoming more nationalist and more assertive, and flexibility, not fundamentalism, has been the hallmark of its new foreign policy.

In 1999, Bill Clinton suggested that if Ankara launched a reformist movement, the twenty-first century could be “Turkey’s century.” Turkey has indeed heeded Clinton’s advice. Now, Europe and the United States face a choice. If Washington works with Turkey as a partner, it has a far greater chance of resolving outstanding conflicts with Iran, inside Iraq, and between the Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention simmering disputes elsewhere in the Islamic world. If the European Union accepts Turkey as a member, its economic dynamism and new credibility in the Muslim world could help jolt Europe out of its current sclerosis. Spurned by one or both, Turkey’s global influence will still grow.

By all means, get that Lenovo computer, buy stock in Haier, and encourage your child to study Mandarin. China can’t help but be a twenty-first-century superpower. But if you want to really be ahead of the curve, pay close attention to that vital crossroads between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It won’t be long before we’ll all be talking Turkey.

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. His past essays, including those for, can be read at his website. He would like to thank Alexander Atanasov, Rebecca Azhdam, and Noor Iqbal for research assistance.


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Mother Jones was founded to do things differently in the aftermath of a political crisis: Watergate. We stand for justice and democracy. We reject false equivalence. We go after, and go deep on, stories others don’t. And we’re a nonprofit newsroom because we knew corporations and billionaires would never fund the journalism we do. Our reporting makes a difference in policies and people’s lives changed.

And we need your support like never before to vigorously fight back against the existential threats American democracy and journalism face. We’re running behind our online fundraising targets and urgently need all hands on deck right now. We can’t afford to come up short—we have no cushion; we leave it all on the field.

Please help with a donation today if you can—even just a few bucks helps. Not ready to donate but interested in our work? Sign up for our Daily newsletter to stay well-informed—and see what makes our people-powered, not profit-driven, journalism special.

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