The world order is likely going to be rewritten as a result of the ongoing multidimensional conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the reactivation of direct military tensions involving great powers, increasing strategic competition between the US and China, the reconfiguration of alliances, and a sharp global economic downturn reflected in phenomena like inflation, the disruption of transnational supply chains, financial volatility, and a scarcity of critical goods. These challenging conditions of uncertainty are fueling strategic anxieties in the top nerve centers of many countries. However, despite this dark atmosphere, said landscape can also offer valuable opportunities worth harnessing for those willing and capable to take advantage of such circumstances in order to advance their own agenda. In other words, a seismic reshuffling of the global correlation of forces is favorable for the implementation of revisionist plans. In this regard, Turkey is well-positioned to reassert itself as an emerging great power in the decades to come. This analysis examines the trajectory followed by this Eurasian state in its quest for an elevated hierarchical position in the international system, and how the current environment of instability can paradoxically facilitate such a pursuit.
Demise of ‘the sick man of Europe’
According to classical geopolitical thinking, national states behave a lot like living organisms that seek to thrive in a harsh Darwinian arena. They are born, grow, mature, expand, evolve, compete with their counterparts, decline, whither, perish, reproduce and ‒ in some cases ‒ even experience a full revitalization that restores their strength. When the Ottoman Turks (a people of Central Asian origin) fatefully overran what was left of the decaying Eastern Roman Empire, they undertook the task of developing their own state. Thus, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 marks the end of a historical chapter, but also the beginning of a new story. Gradually, the Ottomans built a powerful, wealthy, prestigious and cosmopolitan empire. In fact, it can be argued that they inherited the geopolitical position once held by the Byzantines as a great power in the Eastern corner of the Mediterranean, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and whose sphere of influence reached Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Maghreb, the Levant, and the Greater Middle East. Unsurprisingly, it often clashed with heavyweight rivals such as the Republic of Venice, the Spanish Empire, Russia, and Persia. It is also worth highlighting that, if the Ottomans had not been defeated in Lepanto and at the gates of Vienna, perhaps the history of Europe would have been substantially different.
Nevertheless, developments like the discovery of the New World and the subsequent rise of both industrialization and technological development changed the balance of power in favor of Western European states for centuries. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire became stagnant, especially in the economic and technological domains. The decline was so noticeable that it was commonly referred to as ‘the sick man of Europe’ amongst foreign observers. Finally, the crushing defeat of Ottoman forces in World War One represented the death knell of the Empire. Its military downfall and its ensuing political dissolution encouraged Britain and France to take over territories formerly controlled by the Ottomans, an event whose consequences still reverberate a century later. However, despite a heavy blow, a great deal of bloodshed and the loss of its colonial possessions, the Turkish nation managed to survive.
The ‘Atlanticist Turkey’ era
The process of reinventing a state after its imperial dreams have been shattered is quite messy. In the case of Turkey, it involved acts of political violence, including war, revolts, agitation, vicious power struggles, assassinations, and even several chapters of genocidal persecution. Once the dust settled, the Republic of Turkey was established and, under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk, ambitious reforms were made in order to transform comprehensively the profile of the country as a modern, industrialized, and secular Westernized national state. The full spectrum of this structural change included constitutional, political, economic, educational, sociocultural and even linguistical innovations. This would eventually allow Turkey to consolidate as a national state, evolve to deal with a new contextual reality, preserve its internal stability, adopt a new model of governance, fuel the development of industry, nurture the growth of prestigious universities, foster the integration of women in several fields of the public sphere, and even adopt the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language. Hence, Atatürk is regarded as both the founding father of modern Turkey and as a visionary statesman who prepared the country to face the challenges and circumstances of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, many of these measures ‒ especially those that were seen as un-Islamic or contrary to the spirit of traditions and collective identities that had been kept for hundreds of years ‒ were, to say the least, controversial. Accordingly, the military and the intelligence services (reorganized as professional institutions) were designated as the ultimate guardians of the Kemalist ideology and its legacy. Indeed, more than once, these sectors intervened by overthrowing civilian governments whose actions challenged the secular creed of Kemalist orthodoxy. Thus, the untold and unaccountable de facto power wielded from behind the scenes by the high echelons of both the military and intelligence and their covert influence in the affairs of the Turkish Republic has been conceptually described as a ‘shadow government,’ ‘state within a state,’ or even a ‘deep state’ (derin devlet). The conformation of such semi-clandestine political arrangement was understandable. After all, Machiavelli’s thinking teaches that, when it comes to statecraft, even if it can potentially lead to worldly glory or the attainment of the common good in the long run, embarking on a reformist path can also be dangerous. Such direction could fuel the resentment of those who crave a return to the old order for convenience or ideological reasons; moreover, the resulting benefits from reform will not materialize overnight, which can generate popular discontent in the short-term. Consequently, success requires the tacit support of hard power. Otherwise, good intentions and optimistic expectations alone will not suffice and the whole reformist endeavor will unravel sooner or later like a house of cards. Paraphrasing the Florentine philosopher, whereas armed prophets have a chance to achieve victory, unarmed prophets usually end up succumbing and virtuous laws are worthless unless they can be effectively enforced.
In terms of foreign policy, Turkey adopted a cautious approach. It remained largely neutral during World War Two, joining the allies only until their victory over Nazi Germany was unmistakably clear. Shortly after this conflict ended, the Truman administration ‒ inspired by the geopolitical prescriptions put forward by George Kennan, the architect of American containment policy towards the Soviet Union, as well as by the historical experience of the British Empire ‒ prevented the absorption of Turkey into Moscow’s gravitational orbit. It must be borne in mind that the Anatolian peninsula is a formidable platform for power projection into pivotal neighboring areas and it was also seen by American policymakers as a key bulwark that would substantially limit the access of the Soviets to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. In turn, Turkey was concerned about the threat of both covert internal subversion by Soviet-backed communist forces and the prospect of a military encirclement by the Red Army. Considering Stalin’s aggressive expansionist westward push, these anxieties were hardly unfounded. Thus, along with Greece, Turkey joined NATO in 1952, which formalized its geopolitical alignment with the bloc of maritime liberal capitalist democracies headed by the US and cemented the policies that pursued Westernization. Additional benefits included access to state-of-the-art weaponry and specialized training, assets that were harnessed to upgrade the capabilities of the Turkish military. It was during this period that the so-called Turkish ‘deep state’ developed close ties with Western armed forces and intelligence agencies. Moreover, together with non-Arab Middle Eastern states such as Iran and Israel, Turkey was an instrumental anchor to keep in check Soviet influence in the region. The pinnacle of this period was the Turkish attempt to join the European Union, something that did not seem far-fetched under the atmosphere of enthusiastic optimism that flourished in the early post-Cold War era.
The rise of Neo-Ottomanism
Over the past couple of decades, Turkey’s strategic environment has shifted dramatically. The list of meaningful developments includes the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, NATO’s failed military intervention in Afghanistan, the disruptive shockwaves of the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, Egypt’s full-circle revolution, the revival of militant Islamism, efforts by Russia to reassert itself as a great power, the intensification of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Grater Middle East, unrest and “color revolutions” in several post-Soviet states, Iran’s aggressive quest for regional hegemony, Tehran’s relentless plans to acquire nuclear weapons, the EU’s deepening internal imbalances, the emerging partnership between Israel and Gulf petromonarchies to counter Iranian influence, the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and the rise of economic warfare to unprecedented proportions. Therefore, the Turkish state has become increasingly aggressive in order to face the resulting challenges, but also to harness the opportunities that chaos has brought. This attitude is reflected in:
- Ankara’s diplomatic support for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
- The involvement of Turkish forces in operational theatres like Syria and Iraq, mainly to counter Kurdish militias.
- The overt manipulation of the Turkish diaspora in places like Germany to shape nominally sovereign decisions related to both foreign policy and domestic politics in accordance with Ankara’s national interests.
- The instrumental weaponization of waves of immigrants as a tool of coercive pressure and blackmail vis-à-vis EU members.
- The Turkish sponsorship of Sunni militias, jihadists, and mercenaries as proxies and cannon fodder to further its regional agenda and to attack rivals.
- An antagonistic stance towards the al-Assad regime, as well as intermittent tensions with Greece and even traditional allies like Israel.
- The instigation of the 2000 Nagorno-Karabakh War as an active supporter of the Azeri war effort, in an attempt to increase Ankara’s influence in the Caucasus and position itself as the natural leader of the wider Turkic world.
- The repatriation of Turkish gold holdings previously kept in the US as a sign of Turkey’s diminishing trust in Washington.
This level of boldness ‒ which drastically overturns the previous approach of “zero problems” with neighbors ‒ does not correspond with the profile of a national state whose agenda is to preserve the status quo. Instead, it reflects a revisionist mindset. In fact, it is known that senior Turkish officials such as Ahmet Davutoglu ‒ based on the study of classical geopolitical texts, such as the writings of Friedrich Ratzel and General Karl Haushofer ‒ have shaped Ankara’s foreign policy in accordance with the pursuit of an expansionist geopolitical agenda. Said plans include the quest for regional hegemony, the need to increase the Lebensraum of the Turkish state in its immediate periphery and the development of a sphere of influence in areas like the Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus and maybe even throughout the Central Asian steppes of the Great Turkestan. Ankara’s steady diplomatic overtures to enhance ties to Latin America trough trade partnerships and the projection of Turkish ‘soft power’ are also noteworthy. In summary, it is reasonable to assert that the international system is witnessing the rebirth of Turkish imperial tradition as the intellectual compass of Turkish grand strategy in the 21st century.
Interestingly, Turkey has been acting in a very pragmatic way towards major powers. Despite an atmosphere of growing mutual animosity between Ankara and Washington, Turkey has traded its blessing for the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO in exchange for guarantees that will help the Turkish state fight and even hunt down Kurdish militias. Turkey’s permanence in NATO can be allegorically regarded as an uneasy and tense marriage of sheer convenience in which, even though reciprocal love is long gone, it still can be mutually beneficial such that blowing up the relationship would be counterproductive for both sides. However, it remains doubtful that Turkey would be willing to join forces with other NATO states in order to repel a hypothetical attack against the Baltics or Poland. In contrast, despite centuries of recurrent hostilities, Turkey has made flirtatious gestures toward Moscow in recent years and it has outspokenly voiced its reluctance to join Western collective sanctions against Russia as a reprisal for the invasion of Ukraine. This does not mean that Ankara is pro-Russian, only that it believes that Russia might somehow prevail so alienating the Russian bear would be unwise, a decision that resembles the path followed by EU and NATO member Hungary. In turn, if the Kremlin experiences a strategic defeat, all the Turks have to do is to take advantage of the ensuing power void that would engulf much of the post-Soviet space. Plus, Turkey has a powerful incentive to play a pivotal role in the Chinese projects to develop partnerships for the establishment of vast geoeconomic corridors and, as a result, stronger ties to Beijing are emerging. Finally, Ankara seems to be fully aware that its bid to join the EU is not likely to be successful in the near future because full membership would entail unacceptable political costs for both sides, but the preservation of seemingly endless negotiations is a useful and polite way to hide a growing rift for appearance’s sake.
Toward great power status?
Nevertheless, it is pertinent to wonder if Turkey’s capabilities are going to be enough to reach great power status. Scrutinizing the various components of Turkish national power suggests that, even in the face of limits, Ankara has what it takes to advance its agenda or at least to try. Geopolitically speaking, throughout history the Anatolian peninsula has been a gateway for the projection of influence in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. When it comes to military matters, Turkey has a rather large army equipped with modern weaponry, as well as access to Western supplies thanks to its membership in NATO. Plus, Turkey has a national military-industrial complex which manufactures satellites and UAVs (note the optimal performance of the Bayraktar combat drone in operations of both regular warfare and counterterrorism). Remarkably, the Turks are also developing their own fifth-generation stealth fighter (the TAI TF-X project). Furthermore, with a GDP of over 692,380 million USD in 2021 (according to the IMF), Turkey is the world’s 23rd largest economy. Moreover, its population of around 85 million inhabitants makes it the 18th most populated country. Likewise, Turkey is arguably the only Muslim country whose universities are internationally competitive. In addition, the ethnic profile of Turkey and its common denominators and shared heritage with other Turkic peoples from countries located in the former Soviet Union is also an asset worth taking advantage of. Similarly, for historical and religious reasons, Ankara can become the leader of the Sunni world. Last but certainly not least, Turkey has a fairly competent and ruthless intelligence service.
On the other hand, the internal profile of the Turkish state has also undergone a profound redefinition. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has become ‒ for all intents and purposes ‒ an unapologetically illiberal and authoritarian state. The regime established by Erdoğan and his closest allies does not even pretend to adhere to Western political and ideological standards anymore. In an open rejection of Kemalism and everything it stands for, the country has embraced militant Islamism as a framework to remake Turkish society, politics and cultural identity in accordance with a staunchly conservative worldview of what it means to be Turkish. To a certain extent, this has been fueled by external structural phenomena, such as the rising strength of illiberalism, the appeal of Caesarism as a way to deal with systemic crises, the resurge of religion as an instrument of socio-political control, and mobilization and the empowerment of nationalist forces in many places. Moreover, the 2016 attempt made by rogue military officials to launch a coup d’état against Erdoğan accelerated and deepened this process. It is unclear if the incident was masterminded by foreign entities (there are reasonable suspicions of CIA involvement and the fact that some rebel leaders had close connections with the US does not fully dissipate the existing doubts), a plot orchestrated mostly by internal rivals, or a complex combination of both. One way or another, it provided a good opportunity for Erdoğan to get rid of his domestic opponents and critics, as well as to carry out a purge specifically engineered to remove the remaining influence of Kemalism from the military and the security services. Thus, Erdoğan has consolidated his role as a strongman or, perhaps even more accurately, as the Sultan of a neo-Ottoman Turkey.
In hindsight, it looks like Turkey believes that Kemalism served its purpose but now that things have changed and Ankara is aiming higher, it is no longer deemed useful. Needless to say, this new socio-political reality has motivated overzealous Western liberals to demand the immediate expulsion of Turkey from NATO and other Western structures, but that does not seem very likely, unless an incendiary game changer takes place. Although the regime headed by Erdoğan has blatantly buried the previous commitment of the Turkish state to the project of Westernization, the pragmatic costs of alienating Turkey merely over abstract ideological preferences would exceed the potential benefits and could even push the Turks to embrace alternative geopolitical alignments with states openly interested in undermining the Western model of liberal world order.
Several geopolitical analysts have debated whether Turkey will side with the Western maritime powers or with the Eurasian behemoths in the context of Cold War 2.0. After all, both sides have offered convincing arguments but, far from being conclusive, the available empirical evidence is at best ambivalent. However, there is an alternative explanation that can be helpful to dissipate this ambiguity and reconcile seemingly contradictory signs. As a state that seeks to reassert itself, Turkey is only going to be aligned with its own national interests. For Ankara, there is no need to bandwagon confrontational coalitions as a junior partner, but it has demonstrated a strong political willingness to deal pragmatically on a win-win basis with major stakeholders without taking sides, a course of action that could hasten the emergence of Turkey as a major force to be reckoned with, regardless of which bloc ultimately prevails in the ongoing reconfiguration of the global order. In fact, said path to a certain extent mirrors the approach followed by other states with ambitious geopolitical aspirations (such as India) or regional powers that need to hedge their bets in an uncertain period of increasing upheaval, like Israel.
The Ottoman Empire is dead, long live the Ottoman Empire? Undeniably, it is pretty clear that the Turks are heavily invested in a pursuit of great power status and they have the potential to walk such a path. The proverbial die has been cast and this reality seemingly validates that sometimes geopolitical forces do drive the rhythmical resonance of behavioral patterns. However, there is no guarantee that their intended outcome will be achieved. They must deal with complicated internal challenges such as deepening economic hardship and financial turmoil. Likewise, foreign powers interested in altering Ankara’s strategic orientation might rely on covert action in order to destabilize Ankara, an active measure that could compromise Turkey’s ambitious plans through regime change, a color revolution, or the encouragement of domestic tensions. Externally, the rise of Turkey will definitely intensify strategic anxieties amongst neighboring states and it can eventually lead to a collision with mighty competitors if they think that the growing geopolitical projection of Turkey threatens their interests in areas in which the corresponding spheres of influence overlap. Furthermore, since Turkey is not self-sufficient in energy and raw materials, it will have to go to great lengths to secure access to such strategic resources. In a nutshell, the Turks are determined and capable of reaching a higher geopolitical position so that they can play a larger role in global affairs, but they still must overcome the treacherous influence of fortune and the vicissitudes of fate. History is not written in stone.
*This article was originally published on July 4, 2020.