In an earlier post, I wrote about the emergence of Turkey and Brazil on the world stage. Since then, the ‘terrible twins’ voted against the Security Council’s latest set of (almost certainly ineffective) sanctions against Iran. The Obama administration had worked hard to get both countries on board; their rebuff dramatized the limits of President Obama’s clout — but their isolation on the Security Council (the sanctions carried 12-2-1, with only intimidated Lebanon abstaining) dramatically illustrated something else: the impotence of the terrible twins. Brazilian President Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan spoke out, but nobody listened.
Brazil and Turkey are learning something that more experienced world players already know: it is easier to make a splash than to make a change, easier to grab a headline than to set an agenda. Both countries can expect a rocky ride for some time; the democratic forces propelling new parties and new movements to the fore reflect domestic constituencies, domestic ideas and, in some cases, domestic fantasies about how the world works. Developing viable foreign policies that take those interests and values into account, but also respond to the realities and necessities of the international system will take time and take thought. At this point, it seems clear that neither the Brazilian nor the Turkish administrations have mastered the challenge.
Erdogan speaking at the United Nations (UN).
Their joint intervention on the Iranian nuclear program gives an impression of naive over-eagerness. If the two countries had wanted to play a serious and constructive role (and there was room for them to do so) they would have needed to inform themselves more fully about the state of play, build confidence among the current group of six countries who have been handling the issue (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), and take a proposal to Iran that had a realistic chance of being accepted by both sides. The proposal they submitted to the Iranians was sloppy and ill-advised, clearly doomed from the start. Even very casual conversations with Russia and China would have told the Turks and Brazilians that this was a non-starter.
In the end, the Turks and Brazilians come out of the incident looking both weak and naive: it appears that they were used by Iran for a last-minute propaganda ploy. As a result, Turkey and Brazil have lost diplomatic prestige and clout, damaged relations with some of their key partners and underlined the limits of their influence.
This is not a success and, in Turkey’s case at least, it should serve as a first warning about the many dangers the country will face if it is truly resolved on embracing a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East. Turkey’s dangerous and tumultuous neighborhood, repeatedly torn by war and ethnic conflict, filled with mutually hostile and suspicious states, riven with religious strife and beset with a variety of external shocks from the fall of the Soviet Union to the US invasion of Iraq, is not the kind of place where suckers get an even break. You screw up here, and you pay.
Modern Turkish foreign policy has rested on principles laid down by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. Turkey’s future, Ataturk believed, lay with the West. To the east and the south, he saw only trouble. There was nothing to be gained by quarrels with the neighbors, and to meddle in their affairs and attempt to build Turkish influence in the old Ottoman domains in Asia and Africa would bring only heartache. This didn’t mean that Turkey should be a western puppet; Ataturk’s successors stayed out of World War Two. While Turkey responded to Soviet pressure by moving closer to the US during the Cold War, Turkey always maintained an independent stance and at times (for example, when it invaded Cyprus in 1974) it defied Washington and the NATO alliance.
Unlike the secular Kemalists who want to continue Kemal Ataturk’s foreign and domestic policies, Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK Party seek to dismantle Ataturk’s legacy of fierce, anti-religious secularism at home (and to dismantle the sometimes Orwellian state apparatus that Turkish analysts call the ‘deep state’ which enforced the Kemalist consensus). They also want to set aside his foreign policy ideas and test the possibilities for a more active Turkish role to the south and east: in the Arab world, in Turkic-language speaking and energy rich Central Asia, with Iran and with Pakistan. Religion is part of the pull; the ruling AK Party is backed by religious (though not necessarily or even predominantly fundamentalist) Muslim entrepreneurs and others in the less cosmopolitan heartland of Turkey. An east-facing foreign policy engages Turkey more with those that many pious Turks consider their natural associates.
But the pull is also commercial. The energy wealth of the Arab and Central Asian states is a powerful draw, especially for Turkey’s active and competitive construction and infrastructure-building firms. As a Muslim state which has build a sophisticated financial and commercial system, Turks have advantages when it comes to marketing and serving the vast markets in their neighborhood. In this hyper-competitive global economy, you need all the advantages you can get and the rapidly growing companies bringing new wealth to the pious Turkish entrepreneurs rising in Anatolia which helped bring the AK Party into government want help as they seek to expand to the east.
Kemal Ataturk meets King Abdullah I of Jordan in Instanbul in 1937 (Wikipedia).
Inevitably, this draws Turkey into regional politics. Iran and Syria have politicized, top-down economies. Opening economic doors to Turkish companies can mean building political relations with regimes that have their fingers in every pie. By improving relations with Iran and Syria, the Turkish government is satisfying ideologues nostalgic for an ‘Ottoman’, eastward-looking foreign policy; it builds Turkey’s reputation as an independent emerging power, pleasing Turkish nationalists of all stripes; it highlights the value of its friendship to Europe and the United States by hinting at what a hostile Turkey might look like; it promotes the economic interests of Turkey as a whole and especially of its most important backers and constituencies.
Given all these advantages, it’s not surprising that the Turkish government has flirted with an east-facing policy. But continuing down this path may not be as rewarding. The world to Turkey’s east and south is an unstable and unhappy place. Both Arabs and Persians gave the Ottoman sultans one headache after another; an east-facing Turkey today may be headed for more trouble than its government wants.
Let Them In
For one thing, the more ‘Middle Eastern’ Turkey looks — the more it is engaged in regional politics — the less likely it is to join the EU. The prospect of joining the European Union is one of the few goals that the new government shares with the old establishment. For the AK Party, joining the EU will force the Turkish military to continue its retreat from politics. Military coups aren’t allowed in the European Union. For the secularists, EU laws on human rights and free expression will limit the ability of the religious lobby to ‘Islamize’ Turkish public life. For Turkey’s large and restive Kurdish minority, EU membership offers the prospect of full legal rights, funds for development in the impoverished eastern provinces where many Kurds live, and in general helps tilt Kurdish opinion away from those who favor armed struggle. For all Turks, EU membership, assuming it can be achieved, would bring enormous economic opportunities as well as the satisfaction that comes from being elected to one of the world’s most prestigious and exclusive clubs.
It may be that Turkey’s EU dream is doomed to die. The Europeans, led by France and Germany, are clearly getting cold feet about Turkish accession and are bitterly regretting all those promises they made years ago. But formally the EU is still committed to a process of negotiating with Turkey over Turkish accession, and in the EU system those formal agreements still count. If Turkey gives up on the EU, or if the catastrophically shortsighted Europeans fail to grasp how essential to Europe’s own peace and power Turkish membership is, the effects in Turkey will be profound. The pro- and anti-Kemalist, secular and religious wings of Turkish society will be much closer to conflict and the armed forces will lose some of their inhibitions against military rule. The danger that despair would drive more Kurds toward a violent path cannot be ignored, and given the vast flow of arms and black market money in the region (think of the wars in the Caucasus and Russia’s campaigns against insurgent movements among its own minorities) the potential for serious mayhem cannot be overlooked.
That EU dream may die someday — but it cannot be in Turkey’s interest to kill it. The EU remains Turkey’s best bet; carving out the best possible economic and political deal in the short- to medium-term combined with a path to full ultimate membership however winding and long is Turkey’s best choice. A Turkish offer to defer immediate membership in exchange for a firmer ultimate commitment combined with an advantageous deal now would let the current generation of EU politicians off the hook. That deal could be structured to give Turkey a greater political voice in EU decision making as well as some concrete advantages on trade terms and aid for Turkey’s poorer regions. With Greece both weakened and looking to Turkey for help to rebuild its economy, some of the usual voices raised against Turkish goals may be weaker than usual in Europe. The EU is the world’s largest consumer market; Turkey should use the opportunities it now has to cut a deal with the EU that gives it more of the substantial real benefits of membership while holding back on formally joining the club. The US should be working in Europe and Ankara to help facilitate a development that would help all concerned.
A Messy Neighborhood
The move to the east has many more dangers and many fewer advantages. Anti-Kemalist (or post-Kemalist) Turks may see the Islamic world as a warm and welcoming place, but the Middle East in particular is a place of hard politics and bitter enmities. Turkey’s pro-Iranian intervention has alarmed and enraged many of the region’s wealthiest and most powerful Arab states who see Iran as a greater danger even than Israel. The Turkish rapprochement with Syria similarly infuriates Arabs who see Syria as part of a hostile ‘Shi’a Crescent’ stretching from Iran to Lebanon that seeks to undermine both the Arab nation and orthodox Islam. Turks sometimes do not fully grasp just how much the Arab world resented Ottoman imperialism; Ottoman nostalgia may be fashionable among some Turks, but it has few echoes in countries that suffered grievously under what they saw as corrupt and ineffective Ottoman rule.
From a Turkish point of view it may be worth noting that assistance to the (mostly) Sunni Kurds is exactly the kind of thing that would appeal to Arab powers horrified by Iranian power and its relationship with a Syria under the rule of a pro-Shi’a religious minority in a nominally secular system. The Kurdish region lies across the northern frontiers of the Shi’a crescent from Iran through Iraq, Syria and of course stretches well into Turkey. The promotion of insurgencies is one of the weapons that the Gulf states know how to wield and it is hard to see how Kurdish unrest could be confined to Syria and Iran.
Kurdish-inhabited area (CIA).
Even the Palestinian issue holds pitfalls. The misguided Israeli response to the Turkish ‘aid flotilla’ understandably inflamed Turkish nationalist opinion, giving the AK Party a powerful boost against its traditionally pro-Israel Kemalist rivals. It also boosted Turkey’s profile and popularity across the region. So far, so good — from the AK point of view. But it is easier to play the Palestinian card than to win the game. Most of the Sunni Arab governments, while continuing to sympathize with the Palestinian cause, are appalled by Hamas’ increasing affiliation with and dependence on Shi’a Iran. The aid flotilla wasn’t just aimed against Israel; it was aimed against the Palestinian government on the West Bank, Egypt (which supports the boycott of Hamas-ruled Gaza and even enforces a blockade of its own) and the Gulf Arab states who are more concerned about Iran than about Israel right now. It would be a grave and foolish mistake for Turkey to underestimate the costs of making the Arab world its opponent. I am not sure that the Turkish prime minister and those around him have fully weighed the risks — or that they understand the degree to which the Iranians perceive them as ‘useful idiots’ to be exploited and betrayed on other issues as they were on the nuclear issue at the Security Council.
The Gulf Arab states are not just American allies. They have close ties to Europe as well and their views are listened to in Beijing and Moscow. Iran’s isolation at the Security Council is more than a reflection of American power; it is a reflection of the serious and mounting concern among the other oil producing states about revolutionary Iran. Choosing Iran over the rest of the world is not smart policy for Turkey. Whether the question is economic growth, the Armenian question or settling the Kurdish problem, a deepening relationship with Iran drives wedges between Turkey and the partners it urgently needs. Brazil can probably afford a few ill-considered ventures into Middle Eastern politics; for Turkey the costs are much higher.
Ataturk’s western orientation was partly about cementing Turkey’s place in the richer and more technologically advanced west; it was also about sealing Turkey off from the divisive conflicts in the east. Frustration with the west is understandably leading some Turks to look east; the results are more likely to vindicate Ataturk’s view of Turkish national strategy than to refute it.