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From its very beginning with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire became European or at least, non-Asian – only more far more enlightened compared to its contemporary competition further west in Spain, England and France. This was not a matter of choice, but practicality. Everyone it conquered to the west of Constantinople was not Turkish and non-Muslim. To make the empire functional, these people were needed (with enthusiasm), so the practical Ottomans simply made them part of a rich, open society and, aside from requiring these regional governments to pay taxes to Istanbul and defer on all issues of foreign and military policy, they were pretty much left on their own. It worked remarkably well for 300 years. And it was not until the mid-18th century, when the long, 200 year retreat from Europe began, that the cosmopolitan and European attitudes began to erode, ending completely in 1918.
Almost a century later, the Turks are again learning how to be internationalists, Europeans and powerful. They’ve gotten a little rusty at it. The major difference is that now, Islam, a political religion pushed aside since 1922 with the founding of the modern Turkish state, must be taken into consideration by any government in Ankara. This is something Europe has conveniently forgotten and, in the great Casablanca tradition are “shocked, shocked” that there are Muslims in Turkey. To be fair, many Turks are also surprised and shocked and despite Western fears, the secularists in Turkey are not an inconsiderable force so all the talk about the AKP turning Turkey into a fundamentalist Islamic state (like the Wests great ally, Saudi Arabia), is absurd. There are no Wahhabists in Ankara – the AKP want to rule, not get run out of town.
The view from Ankara, as promulgated by the current party in power, is – to use its own term – 360 degrees. Turkey’s strategy is its “zero conflict with neighbors” policy - to be friends with everyone and enemies of none. Turkey is playing a game now that it has not played in over 100 years. It wants to normalize relations with Armenia, except the government in Baku (Muslim and a Turkic culture) wants its support over Nagorno-Karabakh. Syria wants its support in Lebanon. Iran wants its support against the US. Even the Saudi’s want Turkish support against Iran and the US wants Turkey back in a subservient mode. The neighbourhood is, to put it mildly, a rough one and because all these countries have different, if not competing interests, the zero conflict with neighbours’ policy is not sustainable. Sooner or later, Turkey will have to choose sides on some issues and make someone very, very unhappy. Ankara seems to understand this ultimate fact and has been exercising its rediscovered power carefully. For example, if the AKP government had rejected the NATO anti-missile bases directed at Iran the damage in the EU, US and NATO would have been terminal; realpolitik kicked in and they accepted the missiles rather than break with the West over Iran – a regional competitor in any event. Tehran was, as expected, less than pleased. I suspect the attitude in Ankara toward Iran on this matter was “get over it”.
Turkish views of their sudden international problems are kept close and rarely discussed openly – despite the Prime Minister’s unfortunate predilection for less than diplomatic comments. Turkey has deep economic interests in the Muslim world – which delayed its denunciation of Qaddafi, for example – as well as very significant interests in Syria and Iran. It is not going to jettison these for the benefit of Washington or Israel or Berlin for that matter. Turkey wants a stable Syria and no air attacks on Iran. It also understands the need not to confront Russia for the same reason Germany has become Moscow’s foot pad – energy. Despite the increasingly tepid support by Ankara for EU membership, even this is likely a charade as Germany and France increasingly pursue a policy of exclusion. On the other hand, given the problems in the EU which are not simply monetary, perhaps Ankara is following the old Groucho Marx dictum of never joining a club that would have him as a member.
Turkey knows it has the most robust and capable military force in the region. The economy has continued to grow at a startling rate of over 8% - something not seen in Europe in a very long time. Although this growth will moderate, and is now showing signs of strain, the fact is that the Turks are beginning to punch their weight, economically and culturally in the region and have recently taken the lead in representing Islam and democracy – something many in the West feel is impossible. They tread carefully, however, because there is increasing talk of the Ottomanization of the state and the memory of empire for both Turkey and in the capitals of its former holdings in the region has not vanished. Whatever government sits in Ankara, this memory will influence future actions.
Finally, Turkey’s relationship with the US and Israel has suffered recently. But, from Ankara s point of view, the relationships are now on a more equal footing regionally. The US needs Turkey as it leaves Iraq and for the influence it holds in the Caucuses and Central Asia. Israel, despite the Gaza flotilla incident and a general souring of relations with Turkey under the Netanyahu regime, remains on economic and military speaking terms. Israel cannot afford to make Turkey an enemy. Ankara also knows – and the US knows it knows (we all know) - that Israel has no capability to achieve any sort of political movement in Syria, Lebanon or Iran of the type that Turkey can achieve. Turkey, in other words, has options.
As a rising regional power, Turkey can no longer play with neat little academic concepts. Culturally, they may not want to deal with regional problems by choosing sides or playing realpolitik – but these are consequences of their re-emergence. Turkey is a player in the new old order and they will grow into the role, as they must.