How does a nation shape its foreign policy? The standard answer is that a nation’s foreign policy is the continuation of its domestic politics. In other words, a nation based on the rule of law at home cannot act as a rogue state abroad.
As in every rule, however, there are exceptions. One such exception is Turkey.
For the past six months, Turkey has been the most active regional power supporting the “Arab Spring.” It has already hosted two important meetings of the Syrian opposition parties and a conference of the coordination group on Libya. Turkey was the first regional power to throw its weight behind the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt from the very start. It has contributed to the efforts of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to implement the United Nation’s resolution on Libya. Also, it is through Turkey that opponents of Iran’s Khomeinist regime reach the safety of exile. Over the past two years, no fewer than 600 such opponents, including many former high officials, have fled Iran.
The problem is that while Turkey has backed a trend that could lead to democratization in large chunks of the region, its leadership has been pedaling in the opposite direction domestically.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey that had always been a status quo power is acting as an opportunist player. It sees a vacuum, created by the United States’ strategic retreat under President Barack Obama, and hopes to fill it with a mixture of diplomacy, trade and military power. Needless to say, Turkey does not want the Iran, an adventurist power, to fill that vacuum. With the inevitable fall of the Assad regime in Damascus, Tehran would lose a key client state. Change in Syria would also spell the end of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
Ten years ago, the speculation was that Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the man who led Turkey’s “lite” Islamists to power, might have a secret agenda aimed at creating a theocracy with a hat rather than a turban.
Having had the opportunity of listening to Erdogan at some length on a number of occasions, I never shared that theory. I saw Erdogan as a Turkish version of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s uncrowned tsar. Just as Putin is using Russian nationalism as a matrix for his policy of reviving the Soviet Empire, at least in part, Erdogan’s Islamist profile is designed to help recreate the Ottoman Empire.
In other words, the neo-Islamist pose is little more than a faced for the neo-Ottoman ideology.
A hint of this came in a recent speech by Erdogan, celebrating his party’s election victory. He claimed that the Justice and Development Party’s victory was shared throughout North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East, in other words, all areas that had once been parts of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey has been strengthening its economic presence in much of that area. Turkish investment in the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa is estimated to be around $100 billion.
Turkey is number one foreign investor in Syria, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania. Turkey is also a major trading partner of Libya and Algeria. Turkish banks and contractors have been active throughout the region for more than two decades.
The neo-Ottoman project will meet Turkey’s needs in a number of domains. With hopes of joining the European Union all but dashed, Ankara would find a new space for its foreign policy in the Greater Middle East and the Balkans. This vast and potentially rich region would also be able to absorb Turkey’s demographic surplus that had traditionally gone to Western Europe.
To have any chance of being realized, Erdogan’s dream requires a number of developments.
To start with, Erdogan must secure his own hold on power for at least another decade. He is trying to do just that by changing the Turkish Constitution to create a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system. In such a system, he could become president for at least two successive terms of five years. Adding his current premiership, we might well have Erdogan at the helm in Turkey until 2026.
Erdogan’s second aim is to weaken the military, the last institution still capable of challenging a future president’s grip on power.
A step in that direction came last week when the Turkish top brass, including the Chief of Staff of the armed Forces, General Isik Kosaner, Army Commander General Erdal Ceylanoglu, Navy Commander Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit and the Commander of Air Force Hassan Aksay tendered their resignation.
The move enables Erdogan to form a new high command led by the former head of gendarmerie, General Necdet Ozel that consists of officers sympathetic to the neo-Ottomanist project.
Over the past decade, Erdogan has tightened his grip on the judiciary while placing his allies at strategic positions throughout the bureaucracy. Business allies of the AKP, Erdogan’s party, already dominate the media scene in Turkey.
Under Turkeys so-called secular system, the government controls the mosques and most other religious institutions. That would facilitate the revival of the Ottoman system under which the ruler was at the same time the sultan and the caliph.
To be sure, Erdogan is intelligent enough to know that he cannot call himself the sultan or the caliph just as Putin cannot present himself as the tsar.
What matters, however, is the content of the new regime that Erdogan is trying to create, not its form.
However, Erdogan’s chief problem might be the fact that the neo-Ottoman project does not appeal to a majority of the Turks. In three successive general elections, the AKP has failed to secure even half of the votes cast. In every case, its victory was partly due to arcane election laws.
The AKP has been successful in putting the Turkish economy on a trajectory of growth without inflation. It has also managed to defuse the Kurdish ethnic time bomb, at least for now. More importantly, perhaps, it has given the poorer segments of society a taste of power for the first time.
Erdogan’s performance is comparable to that of Putin who has also succeeded in reviving the Russian economy and restoring part of its international prestige.
Sadly, however, like Putin, Erdogan appears unable to tailor his ambitions to feet the real capacities of his country and the aspirations of his people. Turkey cannot morph into an empire in any form. And this is not what a majority of Turks want, especially if it means the emergence of an autocratic system of government.
Amir Taheri is a commentator on international affairs. This article first appeared in the London-based Asharq Al Awsat on August 5, 2011