Coauthored with Isabella Bennett, assistant director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
When the Obama administration took office in January 2009, Turkey seemed poised to join the ranks of other rising powers like Brazil and India, as a regional pivot with potentially global role. Sitting at the crossroads of East and West, riding a wave of robust economic growth, and pursuing a policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” Turkey appeared destined to finally realize its potential as a bridge between Western democracies and the Middle East and an enviable model for democratic governance in the Muslim world.
What a difference a few years makes. This June, as ISIS forces swept across the Syrian border into Iraq, the IIGG program hosted a meeting in Istanbul, “Turkey: An Emerging Power in a Changing Middle East.” The purpose was to take stock of Turkey’s domestic political evolution and its potential for regional and global leadership. The mood in the room was gloomy. You can read the full transcript and rapporteurs’ report here. But the takeaway was that Turkey is embroiled in political turmoil, thanks to self-inflicted wounds by its democratically elected but increasingly corrupt and authoritarian government. This has resulted in a stumbling economy and diplomatic isolation in a volatile region. Consequently, its regional stature is in eclipse.
Back in 2009, discussions about rising powers were all the rage. The United States, the European Union, and Japan were deeply mired in the financial crisis. Government officials around the world were trumpeting the rise of the so-called BRIC bloc of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), and highlighting a crop of emerging “middle-tier” powers that Goldman Sachs had identified as the “Next 11” [PDF] countries that might one day rival the BRICS.
Under the management of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish economy was growing at an impressive clip and the middle class was rapidly expanding. And as I said in this video from 2012, the country boasted a “vibrant democracy.” Furthermore, it was flexing its diplomatic muscles with the hope of exerting more power in the Middle East. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Iranian nuclear negotiations (Istanbul reportedly brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2012), Turkey was clearly hoping to increase its sway over countries in the region and build stronger relations with Washington.
U.S. officials were also optimistic that Turkey could help the United States manage, guide, and moderate the Arab uprisings that swept across the region in 2011. One report from the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, for example, noted that:
Turkey’s remarkable rise as a regional leader over the year of the Arab Spring will color discussions as the foreign minister meets Monday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Since those halcyon days, however, most knowledgeable analysts have soured on Turkey and, indeed, become deeply cynical. Prime Minister Erdogan has exhibited increasingly authoritarian tendencies, centralizing power in a small coterie of loyalists, intimidating a once-vibrant and independent media, and using the intelligence and security apparatus of the state to crush protests. Meanwhile, Turkey’s economic model appears increasingly unsustainable, dependent on continued high consumer spending and investments in an already bloated infrastructure sector. Finally, Turkey’s inconsistent and ineffectual foreign policy has made a hash of things from Egypt to Syria to Iraq. Far from “zero problems with neighbors,” today’s cynical catchphrase is “zero neighbors without problems.” Aspirations to regional—to say nothing of global—leadership have vanished as Erdogan’s foreign policy has waffled and appeared inconsistent (though he’s not the only world leader we’re accusing of inconsistency these days), and Turkey’s economic model appears untenable.
The pessimism among the Turkish experts around the table in Istanbul was striking. Many participants offered scathing criticism of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent actions. Beyond the violent crackdown on protestors in Gezi Park last year, some felt that Turkish policy decisions were being subjected to Erdogan’s personal whims and quest to consolidate power, to the detriment of the country’s international status. They pointed to a troubling marginalization of the Foreign Ministry, as Erdogan assumed more direct, personal control over Turkish foreign policy. In another instance, Erdogan stridently and publicly pressured the Central Bank to decrease interest rates to 0 percent, though thankfully the Central Bank resisted.
In Syria, the government miscalculated the influence it wielded over Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. When Ankara failed to convince him to pursue political reforms, Turkey suddenly embraced a policy of regime change, but had no means to achieve it. (See my former posts criticizing the U.S. government for the same mistake.) Turkey’s impotence was thrown into sharp relief in May 2013, when an attack in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli, broadly believed to have been orchestrated by the Assad regime, killed forty-three people. Turkey mounted no military response, signaling weakness. To date, Turkey’s one positive role in the Syrian conflict has been providing robust humanitarian assistance, particularly to growing populations of refugees now living in camps in Turkey.
Moreover, it became clear that Turkey, despite its Kemalist heritage, is not exempt from the wave of sectarian entrenchment that is seizing many Middle Eastern countries. Against the backdrop of vicious sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq, one participant offered up a joke to encapsulate Turkey’s growing alignment with Sunni allies against Shia-majority countries. She explained:
Davutoglu [the Turkish foreign minister] goes to Ukraine to mediate the crisis. He sits down and he says, “so which one of you is the Sunni side?” And then there is an updated version [of the joke] for the World Cup. They asked, “Davutoglu, you know, who are you rooting for in the World Cup?” And he’s like, “well I don’t really know the teams but let the Sunni side win.”
This deepening sectarianism may help account for the Turkish government’s irresponsible policy—strongly criticized in the West—of allowing radical jihadists to cross its border into Syria at will.
Given these disturbing trends, it’s no surprise that the relationship between Turkey and the United States has deteriorated. Gone are the days when Turkey might serve as an intermediary between East and West and help shore up Middle Eastern stability. It is unfair, of course, to pin regional instability entirely (or even largely) on a decline in Turkish leadership. It is not to blame for the failure of Arab uprisings to produce stable democracies (in case you missed it, Libyan militias have been fighting for control of the airport in Tripoli since last week). Nor is Turkey responsible for the incoherent and inadequate response of the United States to containing sectarian conflict in the region, including the setting of red lines that the Obama administration then failed to enforce.
Still, it is clear that Turkey’s own performance in advancing regional stability could have been better—much better—in the absence of self-inflicted wounds. And the most disturbing of these, and the root of Turkey’s internal and external troubles, is the authoritarian turn of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.