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Neo-Realism & Virtuosity: The Rise of Turkey

Josef Joffe’s analysis centered upon the concept of two distinct geopolitical Belts is fascinating. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. In the last decade Turkey has radically changed and has strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard.

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In the conference held at the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna on the 20th of December, Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit, and Senior Fellow of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, delivered a lecture about the uses and limits of realism in international affairs. After a short introduction illustrating the landscape of contemporary IR theories, Joffe focused his analysis on the most compelling issues currently at stake, such as the Iranian bomb and the U.S.-Chinese rivalry in the Western Pacific.

Structure as Destiny

Joffe’s theoretical background privileges structural realism as the key through which international relations are explained. Against this backdrop, Joffe asserted that ‘structure is destiny’. Examining the relationship between U.S. and Europe, for instance, he states that their power and position in the international system affect their behaviour. Indeed, if in the post-WWII period the U.S. has gone to war more than any other nation, Europe, on the other hand, has only fought symbolically against Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and was led by the U.S. in three of those conflicts.

If applied to a broader context, Joffe, suggesting again the thesis contained in his Überpower, stated that the world could be divided into the Berlin-Berkeley Belt and Baghdad-Beijing Belt. The first one is the blessed, pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic, liberal West, where some given basic rules of international politics have been unhinged, above all the security dilemma that drove many conflicts in the past. Conversely, the second belt is depicted as Hobbesian, competitive and fear- and ambition-driven: in this realm, international politics’ rules keep on working as usual. For instance, the Middle East, where there have been the most, and the most dangerous, wars in the post-war period, provides a fitting example. In addition, it is worth recalling the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, and the Chinese rising-power phenomenon, which is characterizing the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in adversarial terms, mostly due to dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Theoretically speaking, Joffe’s analysis is fascinating and seems to be straightforward as well. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. As a matter of fact, in the last decade Turkey has radically changed, and strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard. Indeed Turkey, slipping away from inclusion within either the one or the other belt, and not exclusively belonging to the Middle Eastern region in purely geographical terms, deserves a closer attention. As a matter of fact, this country is domestically pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic-liking; at the same time, however, Turkey is still involved in potentially lethal security issues, and its ruling class does not hide anymore geopolitical ambitions over the Greater Middle East. Given its expanding soft and economic powers, and the massive investments in military expenditures (14th worldwide), a legitimate question arises: would Turkey aim at connecting the Western and the Eastern belts by becoming the next regional hegemon in that geopolitical vacuum?

The Turkish-Belts Relations

To provide a satisfactory answer to this theoretical and political question, a brief but compelling screening on the relationships between Turkey and the most relevant actors of each “Belt” will be enlightening.

First of all, Turkish-Iranian relationships are characterized by Ankara’s twofold balancing attempt at preventing military conflict as well as minimising Iranian hostility. Nevertheless, the nuclear issue has allowed Ankara to gain the Iranian goodwill on bilateral issues, such as the opposition to Kurdish militancy and the completion of favorable energy deals that should enable Turkey to increase its dependency on Iranian hydrocarbon resources and to become a key energy transit corridor. Lastly, as Elliot Hentov has remarked, accepting Turkish mediation on the nuclear file, and by virtue of the Turkish vote against the US in the UN Security Council, Iran has reluctantly promoted Turkey’s role as the leading regional power. As a result, Turkey looks at Iran as a regional partner.

Secondly, if balancing is the strategic rule in the Turkish-Iranian relations, Beijing, as the last part of the Eastern Belt, is seen through a different perspective, possibly based on a more competitive approach. Indeed, attempts toward a strategic partnership, either commercial and political, have often resulted in substantial disagreements over security issues in the Middle East, the fate of the Arab Spring, the protection of the political and cultural rights of the Turkic-Muslim people residing in Xinjiang, and the Chinese interference over the Turkish attempt at improving economic relations with Taiwan. Lacking any bases to develop better relationships, Turkey resistance to Chinese warnings witnesses for a clear independent position from the Eastern Belt, whereas the major political objective lies, and is limited to,  mutual recognition, commercial ties and balancing policies.

On the other hand, Turkey maintains closer relations with the Western Belt, even though a greater degree of strategic detachment is coming out. After having enjoyed challenging and intricate relations with the European Union for over half a century, Turkey is progressively stepping aside from its own historical dream of EU membership. If, on the one hand, commitment over the membership is seriously lacking by both sides, on the other the EU-Turkey relationship is losing its historical fascination. The response of Europe to the financial crisis, the emerging multipolarity, new security challenges, and questions of European identity and human rights have come under scrutiny. As a result, since a complete diplomatic severance between them is out of the question, for Turkey is currently more convenient to deal individually, rather than multilaterally, with each of the EU countries. As for the Iranian case, Turkey seems pursuing balancing and pacific relationships with its Western closest neighbour.

The United States, differently, represents a more challenging partner for Turkey. Indeed, in the last years several contradictions and frictions have emerged between Washington and Ankara. First of all, the fraying and tense relationships between Turkey and Israel, in conjunction with the increasing cooperation of the former with Iran; secondly, different positions over the Arab Spring and the military intervention against Libya; thirdly, and more importantly, the contrasting strategic view over the Middle East. If the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to implement the policy of “offshore balancing” by embedding Turkey as one of its most loyal NATO-ally, Ankara has rejected the plan, claiming for a re-balancing of the relationship between the American superpower and its allies so as to accommodate the new geo-economic and geopolitical landscape. Despite that, Emiliano Alessandri underscores how Ankara’s activism in the most recent years has been directed “at carving out a space for itself more than at seriously developing a new idea of international engagement agreeable also to Washington”.

A Conclusion

Which conclusion can be drawn from this analysis? As recently stated by Abdullah Gul, Turkish President since 2007, Turkey aims at becoming a soft power with a substantial role in the Middle East as a good and successful model for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to follow. In doing so, according to Gul, Turkey should increase its international role by assuming the feature of a “virtuous power”:

A virtuous power is a power that is not ambitious or expansionist in any sense. On the contrary, it is a power where the priority lies with safeguarding the human rights and interests of all human beings in a manner that also entails the provision of aid to those in need without expecting anything in return. That’s what I mean by a virtuous power: a power that knows what’s wrong and what’s right and that is also powerful enough to stand behind what’s right. (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013, Vol. 92, No. 1, p. 7).

What these vague words mean is still unclear for the future of the region: by all means, and beyond any rhetoric, Turkey wants international recognition as a great power in a multipolar world, and the politics of “zero problems with neighbours pursued by its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of international relations, captures well his country’s regional and global vision. By confirming the neo-realist assumption that “structure is destiny”, Turkey, by relying on its large population and dynamic economy aims to become the political and economic hegemon at the crossroads of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Just a huge and hegemon-free regional room between the two Belts.

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Photo credit: Christopher Frank / theriskyshift.com

One thought on “Neo-Realism & Virtuosity: The Rise of Turkey”

  1. Very good analysis. A couple of comments:

    Firstly, I believe the Turkish-Iranian relationship cannot remain in the current level of co-operation in the long run. They are too close to co-exist as partners if they both achieve an unquestionable regional-power status, especially if Iran develops nuclear weapon capabilities. Furthermore, I suspect that Turkey’s main reason for her specific stance regarding the nuclear Iran issue is her own nuclear ambitions. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is stagnant (if not in the first stages of collapsing) as more and more countries consider the idea that nuclear weapons may be the most effective and efficient instrument for security, prestige and power projection. Turkey is among them.

    Secondly, the kind of Turkey which apparently is rising will not be virtuous in Gul’s sense, partly because it will be anything but “not ambitious or expansionist”. Turkey’s strategy, in terms of soft-power or otherwise, is based on Davutoğlu’s Neo-Ottoman vision. Turkey dreams of reinstating the grandeur of the past – granted, primarily through skillful application of diplomacy and soft power – but this vision is as ambitious and expansionist as was its historical predecessor, the Ottoman empire. It overtly claims to capitalise on a very large population of a wider, supposedly Turkic ethnic origin or culture inhabiting a significant part of Eurasia, and on Islamic populations in general. Turkey’s support of the Uyghurs in China and the growth of Fethullah Gülen’s movement testify to the scope and the expansionist character of this vision. Ottoman/Turkish diplomacy and strategy has always been far-looking, in both time and space.

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