When eminent scholar Walter Russell Mead tackles a subject he does not do it on the cheap. One of his latest long articles attempts to discern the current trajectory of Turkey’s foreign policy and he takes his readers through quite a ride. Mead, an American history, smoothly goes through modern Turkish history and then ties the nation’s past into its current international outlook and posture:
Atatürk defeated the Greeks and the west to establish modern Turkey’s boundaries, and he was determined that Turkish “backwardness” would never leave his country exposed to this kind of danger again. That meant turning Turkey’s back on the “primitive” east, Islamic law, Arabic script and everything that lured the new secular Republic away from the stern task of modernization. The Turkish armed forces, immensely prestigious after their victory over the powers behind Sèvres, saw themselves as the custodians of Atatürk’s legacy — a role that they only finally seem to have abandoned this summer when the chiefs of the Turkish military resigned, allowing Erdogan to replace them with nominees of his choice.
Now that Prime Minister Erdogan, (pronounced AIR doe wan) has defeated Turkey’s secularists, he is looking to rebuild Turkey’s role as the leader of the Islamic world. In the Middle East he will have some success. The prestige of Turkey’s modernization and the admiration for its democratic transition from French-style secularism to something more, well, American gives him lots of prestige — especially in the ex-Ottoman world. This is a change….
In any case, Erdogan’s AK Party is interested in overturning Atatürk’s secularism and overcoming his rejection of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. For many AK supporters, the Ottoman era wasn’t an era of darkness and backwardness that Turkey needs to forget. It was in some respects at least a golden age of prosperity and peace, when a Turkish Sultan was the Caliph of Islam and Islam was the most widespread and, perhaps, respected religion in the world. Europeans trembled at the thought of the Great Turk, and from Hungary and Algeria through Egypt and Iraq, his word was law.
For many Turks, a new arc of history now looks clear. The Turks under Atatürk and the Kemalists modernized; now they are returning to their Islamic roots with a unique blend of advanced technology and economic success. This is not about conquest or the restoration of an actual empire — the Turks are subtler than were the Greeks. Where the Ottomans ruled by fire and the sword, the modern Turks will lead Islam by example and inspiration; Turks have achieved while Arabs can only dream. Now Turkey, in this view, returns to lead the Arabs into the light and Turkey’s unique role and prestige among the Arabs will give it new power and stature in the west. One can see why many young Turks are optimistic about the most glorious prospects Turks have seen since Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conqueror) entered Constantinople in 1453.
Mead argues that Erdogan and his fellow AK leaders are making a calculated gamble by focusing on the East, attempting to be the leader of the Muslim world once again. As Mead poignantly describes, this strategy will present Erodogan’s government with numerous sticky issues:
These days, the world west of Turkey has mostly been ethnically cleansed and homogenized. The German minorities in central and eastern Europe were expelled back to Germany after 1945; except in the Caucasus the Soviets also cleaned ethnic house, moving Poles hundreds of miles west and shifting Turkish and other minorities to the east from places like the Crimea. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the struggle over Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians were one (one hopes) among the last European flare ups of the long wars of the nations which gradually forged modern nation states out of the ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Europe 150 years ago. Tens of millions died and tens of millions more were driven from their homes, but except for some occasional belches and booms, the volcano has finished exploding.
That is not true to Turkey’s east. Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iraq (to say nothing of Israel and the Palestinian territories) are still on the ethnic and sectarian boil. None of these countries have borders that match up with their ethnic composition; religious divisions still have the power to kill; tribal loyalties are oblivious to artificial boundary lines. There is probably a lot of killing still to be done and a lot of ethnic and religious refugees to be made before these countries settle down into something like a final form.
Involvement with the east might start with expanding Turkish trade and enhancing Turkey’s diplomatic and Islamic profiles; it will be very difficult to ensure that it does not entangle Turkey into intractable conflicts across the region. Indeed, Turkish foreign policy has already been destabilized by the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Israel-Palestinian rivalries, and the Kurdish question in Iraq, Syria and Iran brings Turkey new and vexing headaches every day.
Is Mead on target with his claim that Turkey has turned their main attention to their south and east? I’m not quite so sure. The government is still outwardly in favor of joining the EU and though has had some recent (nothing really new) disagreements with NATO’s direction, they are no talks of leaving the Euro-Atlantic defense pact. Nevertheless, Erdogan and the AK are definitely devoting more of time than their predecessors toward their neighbors to the south and east and this looks to be a concerted and planned effort.