Turkey has become a new regional “hub” ‘

Mehmet Öğütçü & Jonathan Clarke


M. Öğütçü, a former Turkish diplomat, OECD international staff and honorary fellow with University of Dundee, is currently with a major multinational corporation based in London.

J. Clarke, a former UK diplomat, is senior fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, New York.

During Prime Minister Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Washington, his host at the White House is likely to offer him diplomatic niceties on Turkey’s role as a “bridge” between East and West. Our argument is that this metaphor, however flattering it may have been in the past, no longer fits the reality of contemporary Turkey.

Today, Turkey is less of a bridge and more of a dynamic regional hub in a rapidly changing world where a fundamental powershift is taking place towards Asia away from the West. Turkey has re-emerged as a powerful actor in its own right, deriving its strength from a $750 bn strong economy, largest military, huge cultural and historic hinterland, and an increasingly effective and trusted broker role for protracted problems in the region. Turks also have redefined their strategic interests and are not happy at all to be treated in a patron-client relationship.

Our suggestion is that Western officials should accept this new reality not as a challenge but as a positive development. If they stop treating Turkey as a biddable client providing useful transit services (as implied by the bridge metaphor) and instead recognize Turkey’s autonomous status and far-reaching national interests, a far healthier basis for future relations between Turkey and its Western allies will emerge.

One way or another, a resurgent Turkey is rewriting the rules of the power game in the Middle East, Eurasia and South East Europe. It is doing so in a positive and non-confrontational manner that, when seen through this new “hub” lens, accords well with Western interests in the troubled regional geography in which Turkey lies at the centre.

In effect, what we are witnessing today is the emergence of a Turkish version of the German Ostpolitik of the 1960s – with just the same potential for positive outreach into a troubled region.

The current Turkish behavior is shaped by the shifts in the country’s international identity and the changes in Turkey’s vision of its new geopolitical role. These, in turn, are the result of powerful processes that are reshaping the socio-political life of the country. These processes are the economic development in the Anatolian hinterland, the broadening of the elite through the emergence of the new ambitious provincial social actors, who are economically dynamic and culturally conservative, and the increasing role of elected officials and thus a stronger government. None of these dynamics need be seen as detrimental to Western interests.

In revisiting the “Turkey dossier”, the first step for Western policy makers will therefore be to back away from the past where Turkey was seen as the “Sick Man of Europe” or a “loyal ally” of the west on the outer margins of the EU, NATO or Asia. A more constructive image is to view Turkey as being located in the very heart of Eurasia and now working free from the post-Ottoman cliché of “modernization.”

The signature policy of Turkey’s new self-confidence is the policy of “zero problems with neighbours.” This marks a revolutionary change from the “siege mentality” that promoted the paranoiac view that Turkey was surrounded by enemy countries. One after another initiative has been launched to pave the ground for the settlement of most historically deep-seated and complex problems.

In this context, Turkey and Armenia, two historic enemies, broke new ground in October by signing protocols, providing for the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of the long-closed border between them. If borders are not reopened by April 2010, it seems certain that the Turkish-American partnership could possibly be dealt with another blow due to the long-standing proposed “Armenian genocide” bill.

Iran remains a single most important item on Turkey’s plate. Erdoğan’s recent visit to Tehran resulted in new projects to increase the existing $11 billion trade volume up to $30 billion over the next few years. There was talk of Turkey brokering a deal with Iran on nuclear matters including storage of enriched uranium on the Turkish soil. Joint exploration and production of natural gas, trade in local currencies, the establishment of an industrial border area and a joint airline are also among the points agreed upon to boost economic co-operation between the two neighbours.

Two other visits this past October may serve to more vividly illustrate Turkey’s activist foreign policy. Prime Minister Erdogan, accompanied by nine ministers and an Airbus full of businessmen, visited Baghdad, where he held a joint session with the Iraq government and signed no fewer than 48 memoranda in the fields of commerce, energy, water, security, forestry, the environment and so forth. At much the same time, Foreign Minister Davutoglu was in Aleppo where he signed another 40 agreements with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, of which perhaps the most important was the removal of visas, allowing for a free flow of people across their common border.

These developments have been balanced by some loosening in Ankara’s traditionally close ties to Tel Aviv. Turkey has closed its airspace to Israeli military training (while holding joint military exercises and opening borders with Syria). However, the 24 November visit to Ankara by the Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour Binyamin “Fuad” Ben Eliezer demonstrated that both sides are minded to repair their mutual relations.

In the wake of Turkey’s accelerating regional engagement, the EU accession process enjoys less priority, partly due to the particularly unwelcoming approach under the Sarkozy presidency and the Cyprus problem still staying as stumbling block.

In fact, Turkey’s accession story is like an unfinished symphony, started almost half a century ago and yet to be finalised. Turks tend to see EU policy as evasive and full of double standards, with many promises going unfulfilled. This has cost Brussels a serious loss of credibility in the eyes of most Turks, even those who are fervently pro-European. Turkey has certainly not lost its European vocation, but this will have to be adjusted to fit the new circumstances. On Cyprus, for example, Ankara made it clear that if a choice has to be made at the end of this year between Cyprus and EU membership it would be undoubtedly Cyprus.

In order for its “zero problem with neighbours” strategy to be credible, Turkey has to deal with its own domestic problems first on the basis of widely shared consensus with internal stakeholders. Turkey has always been a conservative country and the vast majority of Turks have traditionally voted for center-right parties. The rise of AKP represents a struggle between the military and the civilian bureaucratic elites, and challenges the secular, modernist forces in the country.

There are signs that the AKP finds it difficult to divorce the country’s foreign policy goals from its own cultural and religious sensitivities. In a historic turnaround, the current government has opened the Pandora’s Box on Kurdish issue, albeit not in a well-engineered and orchestrated manner. Turkey is now using a softer approach. A peaceful settlement of this decades-long problem will enhance Turkey’s desire to implement a more activist regional strategy.

Energy has a pivotal role in shaping Turkey’s regional role as the country, a major consumer of energy in its own, is also key to linking oil and gas producers in Russia, Caspian, Central Asia and the Middle East with energy-hungry markets in Europe. Yet, Turks are not content for being a simple “bridge” over which energy flows only; they aspire to become a regional “hub” extracting greater value for the criss-crossing oil, gas pipelines and power interconnections.

Unlike the West, Russia seems to have adjusted much earlier to this new geopolitical game. Seizing the opportunity created by Ankara’s growing frustration with the EU and the US, Russian Prime Minister Putin travelled to Turkey on 6 August with his basket of tempting strategic and economic proposals immediately after a similar Nabucco agreement mission in July 2009 by his EU opponents.

The crystal-clear message from Russia to Turkey during Putin’s visit was, “We will make it worth your while to do business with Russia.” Hence, the visit has generated a series of unprecedented commercial and energy contracts worth $40 billion that will support Turkey’s drive to become a regional hub for fuel transshipments while helping Moscow maintain its preferred partner status on natural gas shipments from Asia to Europe.

There are heightened fears in several capitals about Turkey becoming too cozy with Moscow at the expense of overriding some Western energy and strategic interests, with possible security ramifications in the long run. Some of the same misgivings were felt at the time of Germany’s Ostpolitik outreach to then Soviet-occupied Europe. Just as those fears proved misplaced, so a smart engagement strategy to keep Turkey plugged into the West’s preferred energy strategy will require a more nuanced understanding of this country’s interests. We believe that this is entirely possible; but, so far, that is not what we have seen.

These developments have unsettled Western assumptions about Turkey. In particular, it has undermined the article of faith that the West enjoyed the whip hand over Turkey because of the latter’s aspiration to join the EU. This was the theme of President Obama’s speech to the Turkish Parliament in April. This assumption needs to be reviewed. It does not help when Western think tanks hold conferences about Turkey, they talk about Turkey’s “dangerous drift” as about Turkey’s progress toward adopting the “acquis communautaire”. This is to live in the past.

President Obama has a lot in store to discuss with Prime Minister Erdogan including on Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Armenia, Syria and Israel when he comes to the White House on 7 December. There is an important lesson here for the Obama Administration. With its strategic commitments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and economic challenges at home, the US is less able to dictate strategic outcomes to countries like Turkey.

Luckily, the more astute of America’s diplomats already know this. They recognize that, increasingly, if Washington wants to promote and protect U.S. interests in this critical region, it will have to do so through serious diplomacy — by respecting evolving balances of power and accommodating the legitimate interests of others so that U.S. interests will be respected. Turkey’s current policy provides a valuable model of what that kind of diplomacy could be like.

Let’s not jump into an easy conclusion that what Turkey has been doing systemically since 2002 in this most difficult part of the world is a simple drifting away from the west and embracing the “rogue” and “anti-western” nations at the expense of its historical western vocation. It is also too early to judge Turkey’s multi-vectoral drives as successful. Indeed, far from looking for a life without them, Turkey is looking for an upgraded relationship with the US and the EU. Turkey can hardly expand its influence without first having a firm footage in the west.

A more promising approach lies in better understanding Turkey’s drivers, needs and priorities, and seeking western alignment for a durable, “win-win” relationship with Ankara as well as using Turks’ leverage in the broader Middle East, Eurasia and South East Europe to find solutions to protracted problems that the West has thus far failed to address.

Turkey is the only country in the world which can simultanoeusly talk in a spirit of trust and partnership to Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Riyad, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Baku and Erivan, as well as enjoying diaogue with most radical groups in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, Ankara stands at a historic juncture and possesses the ability to shape politics beyond its borders if it pays attention to the two following parameters: maintain its newfound global role only by building international constituencies and prove that its heart beats for Muslims and non-Muslims, and Turks and non-Turks, with the same strength.

Turkey’s respected and non-confrontational rise in that volatile, troubled region that is increasingly peaceful, with countries co-operating with one another is good for the West and the world. This is an exceptional and unique role Turkey could play as a regional “hub”, rather than a “bridge”. This is what Washington and Brussels should be supporting wholeheartedly, rather than getting worried about.
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