Turkey’s New Ascendancy to the World Leadership

By Ahmed Yousef

The global balance of power is changing; and not just in ways commonly covered by the media.

The obvious indicators are hard to dispute. The United States, racked with crippling “strategic” wars and disasters – financial, industrial and natural – is imploding, soon to stand astride Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Japan as former colonial empires who wield influence only through coalitions and economic leverage. The USA in the next decade will no longer be able to stand alone as a superpower inspiring awe and fear; but rather cede the floor to the rising powers of the East.

China will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Its might is already being felt as it purchases American bonds and African mines; yet its penchant for world domination will thankfully be tempered by internal challenges that require constant attention. Similarly, India will exert some economic influences; but unlikely be a global political force.

In the Middle East, once the Arab Spring gives way to autumn and winter, the focus of fear shall fall ever more on Iran and its sphere of influence. Only time will tell if it can successfully prop up its key regional ally, Syria; but it is not Iraq that will be of concern on the Syrian border, it will be another Western ally.

The one player whom few realistically see as a powerhouse with global leverage is Turkey. Pundits do concede its importance as a strategic ally; yet Western authorities and commentators alike view Turkey’s sphere of influence as limited, i.e., it is simply the farthest point of a Transatlantic alliance of Western powers.

Yet recent history shows Turkey will play a pivotal role in global geopolitics. With a population in excess of 70 million and a healthy GDP per capita of US$13,000, it has matured into a modern nation-state with significant clout. NATO relies in part on Turkish troops in Afghanistan; Turkey and Brazil played a critical role in finding a compromise solution to the Iranian nuclear issue which Western powers failed (and hence rejected) to achieve; and it is a critical player on two key regional infrastructure projects – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline bringing gas to Europe and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway.

Western powers have proven unable to contain or control Turkey. During the war with Iraq, the United States couldn’t force Turkey to open a northern front with the Baathists; and members of the European Union continually stonewalls its efforts to become a full member. The civilian government, therefore, continues to explore its options in the East while working with the West. The trio at the helm of Turkey’s contemporary ascendancy – President Abdullah Gul, Prime Minister Rajab Tayeb Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – has spent considerable time traversing the world on a number of political and economic missions in recent years.

They have proposed various economic alliances, for example recently introducing a free trade zone without visa restrictions with Levantine nations. At the Arab-Turkish Forum, Davutoglu noted: “We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates." This position reflects a plausible strategy of developing multiple spheres of influence across the globe; and its applicability came to light when Erdogan visited Libya after Tripoli fell to the anti-Gaddafi forces.

Turkey’s importance became more pronounced during the Israeli raid on the Gaza Aid Flotilla when 9 of its citizens where murdered aboard the Marmara; and it carefully but forcefully indicated it would not accept a whitewash of the incident – a stance it has followed through on by downgrading its diplomatic relationship with the Israelis when they refused to apologize. The speed of Turkey’s initial response was impressive. Ambassadors were recalled, action committees formed and decisions taken – including a promise that the Turkish Navy would escort future aid convoys.

Turkey recognizes that resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is critical to stability in the area; and it is perhaps the only viable broker given that Egypt is constrained by its reliance on US aid. Turkish ties to Palestine pre-date even the Ottoman Empire with deep economic, political and cultural relations built on centuries of common interests.

Historically, even after the Ottoman Sultan Selim peacefully wrested control of Jerusalem from the Mamluks in the 16th century, Turkish policies were constructed to nurture the Palestinian economy rather than control it with tax exemptions on Jerusalemites, for example. The same care is evident 500 years later with the recent signing of an agreement at the Conference on Interactions and Confidence Building Measures in Asia to establish a political and economic relations committee aimed at improving affairs in fields of health, education, science and culture.

Turkey, however, has demonstrated principled positions when it comes to the issue of Palestinian affairs, most recently expressing support for their independence while in Egypt. He went so far as to declare it is an obligation to recognize their statehood.

It is unlikely that progress on peace will be achieved with the current Netanyahu regime in office; and Israeli commentators continue to paint the new Turkey as a biased aggressor. Yet, as Hugh Pope wrote in Ha’aretz, “Erdogan’s policy in the Middle East is hardly ‘Islamist’ either. Stability and prosperity through free travel, economic integration, and policy coordination looks more like the EU’s recipe for conflict resolution.”

It therefore behooves the Israelis to respect Turkey’s balanced approach as well as its will to exercise its influence as a powerful regional nation. Despite its strategic ties to the Israelis which will continue for the foreseeable future (despite the tactical expulsion of diplomats), Turkey has shown itself to be as much an ally to the Palestinians as to the Israelis. The ability to coordinate a compromise to the status quo will more likely to come from Turkey than from any other party to the problem.

While the era of empires and superpowers is at an end, a new form of global leadership is emerging. One where a strong nation will be the pivotal player in multiple concentric areas of influence. Turkey is clearly prepared to take on such a role; and will continue to redraw the political map over the next decade. 

– Dr. Ahmed Yousef, a former Political Adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in Gaza. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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