Turkey, America, and Empire’s Twilight

by , July 06, 2010

When U.S. forces found themselves beset by a growing insurgency in Iraq following their lightning overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the most obvious parallel that came to mind was Vietnam: an occupying army, far from home, besieged by a shadowy foe. But Patrick Cockburn, the Independent‘s ace Middle East reporter, suggested that the escalating chaos was more like the Boer War than the conflict in Southeast Asia.

It was a parallel that was lost on most Americans, very few of whom know anything about the short, savage, turn-of-the-century war between Dutch settlers and the British Empire in South Africa.

But the analogy explains a great deal about the growing influence of a country like Turkey, and why Washington, despite its military power and economic clout, can no longer dominate regional and global politics.

Turkey’s Rise

The most common U.S. interpretation of the joint Turkish-Brazilian peace plan for Iran, as well as Ankara’s falling out with Israel over the latter’s assault on the Gaza flotilla, is that Turkey is “looking East.” Rationales run the gamut from rising Islamism to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ explanation that the West alienated Turkey when it blocked Ankara from joining the European Union (EU).

While Turkey’s rise does indeed reflect internal developments in that country, its growing influence mirrors the ebb of American power, a consequence of the catastrophic policies Washington has followed in the Middle East and Central Asia.

From Ankara’s point of view, it is picking up the tab for the chaos in Iraq, the aggressive policies of the Israeli government, and the growing tensions around the Iranian nuclear program. As Sedat Laciner, director of the International Strategic Resource Center in Ankara, told the New York Times, “The Western countries do things and Turkey pays the bill.”

While the Cold War is over, argues Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “a new global” order has yet to emerge. Until those “mechanisms” are in place, “It will therefore fall largely to nation-states to meet and create solutions for the global political, cultural, and economic turmoil.”

Davutoglu’s observation about “a new global” order is an implicit critique of a UN Security Council dominated by the veto power of the “Big Five”: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. Increasingly, countries like Turkey, Brazil, and India are unhappy with the current setup. They either want a place at the table or a reduction of the Council’s power. The latest Iran sanctions passed 12 to 2 (with one abstention) in the Council. The sanctions would have failed a vote in the General Assembly.

New Turkish Foreign Policy

Internally, Turkey is putting its house in order. It has returned the once all-powerful army – four coups in as many decades – to the barracks, shifted power away from Istanbul elites to central and eastern Turkey, eased up on domestic repression, and even begun coming to terms with its large Kurdish minority. Legislation before the parliament would establish a commission to fight discrimination.

Externally, Turkey is following what Davutoglu calls a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. It has buried the hatchet with Syria and reached out to Iraq’s Kurds. Of the 1,200 companies working in Iraq’s Kurdistan, half are Turkish, and cross-border trade is projected to reach $20 billion this year. And the Kurds have something Ankara wants: 45 billion barrels in oil reserves and plentiful natural gas.

Turkey has expanded ties with Iran and worked closely with Russia on energy and trade.  It has even tried to thaw relations with Armenia. It has mediated between Damascus and Tel Aviv, brokered peace talks between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq, and Serbians and Bosnians in the Balkans, and tried to reduce tension in the Caucasus. It has also opened 15 embassies in Africa and two in Latin America.

Its foreign policy is “multi-dimensional,” says Davutoglu, which “means that good relations with Russia are not an alternative to relations with the EU,” an explicit repudiation of the zero-sum game diplomacy that characterized the Cold War.

Vacuum in Middle East

Turkey’s ascendancy is partly a reflection of a political vacuum in the Middle East. The U.S.’ traditional allies in the region, like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly isolated, distracted by economic troubles, paranoid about internal opposition, and nervous about Iran.

This growing influence has not been well received by the United States, particularly the recent deal to enrich Iran’s nuclear fuel. But from the Turks’ point of view, the nuclear compromise was an effort to ratchet down tensions in a volatile neighborhood. Turkey is no more in favor of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons than is the United States, but as Laciner says, it also doesn’t “want another Iraq.”

Of course there is an element of self-interest here. Turkey gets 20 percent of its gas and oil from Iran, and Tehran is increasingly a valuable trading partner. Indeed, Turkey, Iran, and Syria are considering forming a trade group that would also include Iraq.

Turkey’s anger at Israel is over policy, not religion. The current Israeli government has no interest in resolving its dispute with the Palestinians, and leading members of the Netanyahu coalition have threatened war with Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

A war with any of those countries might go regional, and could even turn nuclear if the Israelis find their conventional weapons are not up to the job of knocking out their opponents.

Ankara has much to lose from war and everything to gain from nurturing regional trade agreements and building political stability. Turkey has the 16th largest economy in the world and seventh largest in Europe.

Working With Brazil

Turkey has begun working closely with other nations who would also benefit from a reduction in international tension. Ankara’s partnership with Brazil is no accident. Like Turkey, Brazil’s economy is humming and it has been key in knitting together Mercosur, the third-largest trade organization in the world. It has also played no small part in helping South America to become one of the most peaceful regions in the world.

The United States, on the other hand, has drawn widespread anger for its support of the Honduran government, expanding its military bases in Colombia, and its increasingly unpopular war on drugs. No wonder that much of the world concludes that regional powers like Turkey and Brazil are centers of stability while the United States has become increasingly ham-fisted or ineffectual.

The British eventually triumphed in the 1899-1902 Boer War. But what was predicted to be a cakewalk for the most powerful military in the world turned into the longest and most expensive of Britain’s colonial wars. In the end, the British won only by herding Boer women and children into concentration camps, where 28,000 of them died of starvation and disease.

All over the colonial world people took notice: a ragtag guerrilla force had fought the mighty British army to a stalemate. The Boer War exposed the underlying weakness of the British Empire, just as Iraq and Afghanistan have signaled the end of an era in which powerful countries could use force to dominate a region or the globe. 

“The world is not going to take the diktats of the powers that have run it for the past two or three hundred years,” political scientist Soli Ozel of Bilgi University in Istanbul told the Financial Times.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Read more by Conn Hallinan