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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
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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.
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