The policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are typically viewed as the determining factor for everything that happens within or in connection with Turkey. And, doubtless, a president with such a single-minded desire for power, glory and a place in history does have a significant impact on a country’s course. However, Turkey is an example of how the world is changing in general, and objective factors play a no-less-crucial role than subjective ones in that process.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago, Turkey began searching for a new place in the world and a different identity. It seemingly achieved those goals in the 20th century by forming a secular nationalist republic, joining NATO and forming an alliance with the West in the 1950s. What’s more, Turkey played a crucial role in NATO as the country situated on the southern flank of the main line of confrontation.
The end of the Cold War gave rise to new opportunities, ambitions and risks. The Atlantic bloc won that struggle but lost its raison d’etre — and, in truth, has yet to find it even now. The U.S. began losing interest in the regions where NATO had previously focused, leaving other member states more room to maneuver. The collapse of the Soviet Union left what seemed to be a valuable prize up for political grabs, and Turkey was the first to begin eyeing it. Although the idea in the early 1990s that Ankara could become the leader of a vast Turkic community from Ashkhabad to Kazan encountered economic limitations, it clearly showed that Turkey would not be pigeonholed as a “loyal member of NATO” and would strive for greater status in the world.
This rethinking contributed to internal changes. The era of nondemocratic — and especially, military — regimes, came to an end everywhere, and new forces came to power on the wave of democratization. The practice of imposing certain forms of government on the people went out of fashion and lost force. The rise of the Justice and Development Party with Mr. Erdogan at its head was a natural result of the general trend toward politics that reflect the views and opinions of the majority of citizens. And, for some reason, it came as a surprise for Westerners who supported “the promotion of democracy” that the same trend meant the rise of political Islam in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Turkey under Mr. Erdogan has become an example of how a country with the traditions of a strong culture and a great power, with good economic prospects and a strategically important geographic location, can set the wrong priorities and “choke” on its overabundance of opportunities. The new push by Ankara is very understandable — the Turkish leader no doubt realized that the age of superpowers had passed and that countries belonging to what Parag Khanna called the “second world” are coming to enjoy greater opportunities for global influence. However, having “greater opportunities” does not mean that “everything is possible,” much less that leaders always know how to use those opportunities correctly. Turkey achieved the opposite of what it wanted by attempting to play the new game on all fronts at once: by trying to join the European Union, hoping to become the leading power in the Middle East, testing the waters for participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Eurasia and by positioning itself as a world player with the intention to actively participate in resolving the Iranian nuclear problem. The result has been major tensions at both the regional and global levels.
Turkey illustrates several key trends in today’s world. The first is “the return of history” to practical politics. Many more countries are incorporating policies from their past than did so during the Cold War or immediately afterward. Turkey, for example, has clearly stepped up its focus on the pre-republic period of its history.
The second trend is the gradual erosion of relations between members of political blocs. The ordinarily strict discipline within NATO suffers as member states pursue divergent priorities. Turkey serves as a vivid example. Increasingly at odds with its closest allies, it characteristically attacked a Russian combat aircraft without first consulting its Western partners.
Third is the realization that, contrary to the expectations of the 1990s and 2000s, economic interdependence does not guarantee political unity. The rapid breakdown in Russian-Turkish relations following the downing of the Russian bomber last November showed that it was naive to hope that the globalization process was, of itself, necessarily beneficial.
And last is the recognition that the long-awaited multipolar world differs from expectations. In place of the anticipated balance of power between several of the most powerful states, a whole range of political players of varying calibers has emerged, each convinced they can play the game according to their own rules. What’s more, these new players are not particularly concerned with achieving overall stability and order because their priority is to satisfy their own needs and improve their status in the regional and global hierarchy.
Thus, Turkey is not an exception but the rule. It is not the fruit of personal ambition, but a reflection of general trends; not a deviation from the norm but the “new normal.” Both the United States and Russia will have to give up hope of achieving “normalization” — at least, as they have traditionally understood that word. And as strange as it might sound in the current situation, both countries might very well find common ground on that basis.