Turkey’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ Rise (3): Why I am Wrong…

turkish flag

This is the continuation of a Wikistrat (where I consult a bit) game scenario on Turkey’s economic and possibly military rise. Readers are counseled to start with parts one and two.

The following are responses to criticism, mostly that I didn’t flesh out the reasons why Turkey is likely to hold broadly western course:

1. Turkey’s rise unbalances the region more than I admit, and I don’t muster enough evidence.

My sense is that Turkey’s growth is pretty good, but I don’t see any particular reason that it should be labeled stratospheric or ‘neo-Ottoman’ or something like that. By the standards of a dysfunctional region – Greece, Iran, Syria, Egypt – it is great. But compared to the old and new cores, or even other middle powers, it is a middle power. Even compared to tiny Israel, Turkey is probably a generation behind in state-development, the translation of economic power into military capability, functional political parties, trustworthy courts, and the many other attributes of thick, cohesive, functional state-ness. The CIA lists Turkey’s growth in 2008 at 0.7%; 2009 at (negative) -4.7%; and 2010 at 7.3%. The IMF’s numbers are 2010: 7.8%; 2011: 3.6%. I don’t see that as revolutionary, nor justifying big rhetoric. However, if the argument is more limited, that Turkey will play a greater role in the Middle East and central Asia, I agree. The big losers will be Greece (further unbalanced competition), Israel (yet another headache) and Egypt and Iran (lost prestige as potential regional leaders).

Turkey faces tough structural constraints that do not really mark it out from other second-world risers. No talks about major Brazilian or South African shockwaves, so why is Turkey’s fairly standard modernization-developmentalist growth arc that much different? I am open-minded about this. My thinking is hardly set. I guess I am just not convinced yet.

Finally, my sense is that the tectonic plates of international politics move terribly slowly. Hence I note the stability of Turkey’s foreign policy. Really deep shifts take a long time, like East Asia’s rise, so I am not convinced that a decade or so of choppy albeit healthy growth, coupled pushy, semi-Islamist rhetoric is enough.

2. “The demographic growth in Turkey is all in populations less likely to be EU/West friendly, i.e, the eastern, more rural hinterlands. What’s Turkey’s motivation?”

I think the motivation is primarily economic. A significant turn from the West would reduce critical inward foreign direct investment flows and tourism dollars, and damage links that military and business cherish (easier visa rules; access to Wall Street, western universities, and the international financial institutions; etc.). Turkish elites are aware of this. Like most late, second world developers, Turkey needs continued access to old (West) & new (East Asia) Core dollars, markets, and technologies. This is why I originally said ‘neo-Ottoman’ rhetoric might be more justified in 20 years. For a comparison, look at Indonesia or Malaysia. They too have populations that rankle at Western dominance, want more international stature and maneuvering room, and have populist, entrepreneurial, Islamist politicians. But these tendencies have been held in check by the huge economic incentive of continuing, decent relations with OECD states. I see this in Turkey too – hence my list of institutions and relationships Turkey has retained.

Populism may work for electoral reasons, but does Turkey want to become Venezuela? Perhaps the the AKP (Justice and Welfare Party) really wants to push in this direction, but resistance from the revenue-generating (western and westernized) parts of the country would be strong. This is the counter to the eastern demographic growth you mention. Perhaps this is why Huntington referred to Turkey years ago as a ‘torn’ country. I did not think so much about the demographic evolution though. Point taken.

A second motive is national security. If Turkey drifts from the West, to whom will it go – Iran and Syria? If so, it faces balancing and isolation by some combination of Israel, the US and the EU, and possible exclusion from NATO and the WTO. I suppose Russia is a possible patron/ally/friend, but what does Russia gain? The reset is important for Russia, as well as WTO entry, and, most importantly, being perceived as a great power by the West. Siding with a semi-islamized, somewhat unpredictable ‘new Turkey’ might be useful to poke the West in the eye – certainly a Putin proclivity – but how much does it advance Russia’s great power pretension? Not much I think, but I admit this question requires more research. Next, Turkey might reach to Central Asia – hence the neo-Ottoman moniker I think. But again, how much is there to gain? Those regimes are terribly poor, with weak state apparatuses, and repressions that have alienated investors. The cost-benefit analysis of the ‘stans vs the core is quite one-sided IMO.

The best chances for a real turn would be some kind of alignment with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) against the West. This would effectively split the new core, between China and the Asian democratic periphery. In so far as China has propped up some nasty regimes for the last decade or so, a genuinely independent Turkish line that alienated the old core could still find some succor with Sino-Russian assistance. This SCO strategy strikes me as far more viable than reaching out to local ME nasties like Iran or Syria. I will admit that I haven’t thought through this likelihood, but the SCO doesn’t seem so much like a club or alliance, but just a gang united by ‘anti-hegmonism.’ I am not sure if it represents a coherent enough alternative. But this too requires more scenario thinking.

Finally, I would say that my argument flows directly from Barnett’s general core-gap analysis. I believe it fits rather well actually. Late developers’ future is with the core. The gap represents what they are leaving behind, and what they so very often, so desperately don’t want to be perceived as in the eyes of global public opinion – backward, third-world, irrelevant. Maintaining those newly emergent links to the core – its money, trade, professionalism, geopolitical clout, and general seriousness – weighs heavily in the cost-benefit analysis and motivates important domestic actors – youth, business, military – who will resist populism.

BONUS: Here is the Wall Street Journal on ‘neo-Ottomanism,’ including Erdogan’s appalling refusal to support a no fly-zone over Libya.

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