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Stealth Superpower: How Turkey Is Chasing China in Bid to Become the Next Big Thing
Posted on Jun 13, 2010
By John Feffer
This essay was produced by TomDispatch.
Introduction by Tom Engelhardt
You know that something strange is happening when the usual crew of neocon critics takes out after Turkey -- yes, Turkey! -- a country that, as Inter Press Service’s Jim Lobe points out, they long cultivated and supported as a key ally and supposedly model democracy in the Islamic world. Of course, that was then. Now, Turkey’s involvement in a nuclear deal with Tehran and its prime minister’s outrage over the Israeli attack on a convoy bringing aid to Gaza that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks has soured them considerably on the country. In fact, the strength of the Turkish reaction -- essentially a breach with Israel, once a close ally -- sent the Obama administration scrambling awkwardly for a way to mollify the Turks without condemning the Israeli attack.
And don’t think it’s just the usual suspects on the right blaming Turkey either. The Washington Post editorial page denounced its government for “grotesque demagoguery toward Israel that ought to be unacceptable for a member of NATO,” while the Christian Science Monitor typically declared it “over the top,” raised the specter of “anti-Semitism,” and swore that its leaders now ran “the risk of further undermining Turkey’s credibility and goal of being a regional problem solver.” In a news story, the New York Times offered a classic statement of the problem from Washington’s perspective: “Turkey is seen increasingly in Washington as 'running around the region doing things that are at cross-purposes to what the big powers in the region want,' said Steven A. Cook, a scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations. The question being asked, he said, is 'How do we keep the Turks in their lane?'”
And which lane might that be, one wonders? It looks ever more like the passing lane on the main highway through the Middle East. Talk about a country whose importance has crept up on us. It's a country that, as John Feffer, co-director of the invaluable Foreign Policy in Focus website and TomDispatch regular, indicates, has been in that passing lane for some time now (whatever Washington may think), whether in its relations with Iran, Russia, or Iraq, among other countries. And what surprising relations they turn out to be. If one thing is clear, it’s that, as American power wanes, the global stage is indeed being cleared for new kinds of politics and new combinations of every sort. The future holds surprises and, as Feffer makes clear, it will be surprising indeed if Turkey isn’t one of them. Tom
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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.”
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