Turkey has a proud and justified sense of its history—as a territorially-contiguous entity built around a core ethno-national community with a legacy of greatness and power. But this has at times prompted Ankara to pursue policies under the assumption of a similar contemporaneous standing, without regard for existing conditions and constraints.
Anthony Shadid captures this dilemma nicely in his New York Times piece, “In Middle East, Turkey Offers Itself as an Answer.” One gets the sense, though, from the article that Turkey is set to become the region’s new hegemon, driving its politics and managing its affairs. Only toward the end of the piece is there acknowledgement that Turkey’s numerous domestic and foreign policy problems could put such dreams on hold.
This theme of Turkey’s new role, minus the difficulties, has been widely discussed in recent weeks, particularly in the aftermath of the spat with Israel over the Mavi Marmara affair and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s very public celebrations of the Arab Spring and defiance of Israel. One observer represented this new paradigm by intimating that Turkey is the “new strong man” of the region.
The reality, though, is more complex. Like Israel, Turkey’s place as a country of “in-betweens” (between Europe and the Middle East, between Islamic and secular, between Western orientation and Eastern location) has left open the door for a government-driven foreign policy tied closely to an identity purposively expressed and shaped by that government.
History provides important lessons on this. Take, for example, the hype over Turkey’s role in the Caucasus and especially Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The “opening up” of the Turkic republics prompted many Turkish leaders—cheered on by Western policymakers and scholars—to follow its natural path there and in the Middle East to a position of leadership. Particularly regarding Central Asia, it was argued that the common Turkic identity would lend itself to Turkey playing an important role in developing the region, and providing a model of a stable, pro-Western democracy.
And Turkey responded. It began a broad process of investment in the region, across a range of areas (including construction, telecommunications, and banking). It convened summits and worked on fashioning shared cultural frameworks including a common alphabet and building schools and shaping curriculum.
But Turkish leaders failed to recognize that the needs and interests of the Central Asian states were different from those of Turkey, and the limits of their own capacities and ability to exert influence. The assumption of a common identity was soon exposed as more hope than real. The Central Asian states quickly understood the importance of being careful not to antagonize the still-powerful Russia. There were millions of Russian-speakers living within their borders, and Moscow made clear its intention to retain predominance in its own backyard. The Russian use of force in Georgia and Chechnya showed the length to which it was willing to go to do so. Finally, the sheer difference in economic, social, and political conditions limited Turkey’s applicability as a model.
Today, similar conditions either prevail or lie just beneath the surface in the Arab world, and the shared religious and regional identity between it and Turkey is unlikely to overcome them. Despite the ease with which Turkish leaders can stir up Arab publics on Israel or the Palestinian cause, the Arab states—like the Central Asian states—are not likely to want to give up their freedom to maneuver to Turkey. They have different economic needs and are struggling under different political conditions than is Turkey. It’s not clear that many or any of them will share the will to confrontation with Israel once they are internally stabilized; Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, for instance, is a cornerstone of its relationship with the US. Finally, shared Arab expectations of behavior, cultural norms, language, and historical experience will continue to operate on them, necessarily leaving Turkey on the outside.
This isn’t to say that Turkey won’t play an important role in regional politics. But Turkish policymakers need to be more realistic in their rhetoric; they cannot get over-excited about new opportunities but should rather examine them more closely to determine causes and effects. And they must be careful about over-compensating when their intentions and proclamations don’t match reality.