Turkey is re-emerging as a significant regional power. In some sense, it is in the process of returning to its position prior to World War I when it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. But while the Ottoman parallel has superficial value in understanding the situation, it fails to take into account changes in how the global system and the region work. Therefore, to understand Turkish strategy, we need to understand the circumstances it finds itself in today.
The end of World War I brought with it the end of the Ottoman Empire and the contraction of Turkish sovereignty to Asia Minor and a strip of land on the European side of the Bosporus. That contraction relieved Turkey of the overextended position it had tried to maintain as an empire stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to the Balkans. In a practical sense, defeat solved the problem of Turkey’s strategic interests having come to outstrip its power. After World War I, Turkey realigned its interests to its power. Though the country was much smaller, it was also much less vulnerable than the Ottoman Empire had been.
The Russia Problem
At the same time, a single thread connected both periods: the fear of Russia. For its part, Russia suffered from a major strategic vulnerability. Each of its ports — St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Murmansk and Odessa — was accessible only through straits controlled by potentially hostile powers. The British blocked the various Danish straits, the Japanese blocked access to Vladivostok and the Turks blocked access to the Mediterranean. Russian national policy had an ongoing focus of gaining control of the Bosporus both to prevent a blockade and to project power into the Mediterranean.
Therefore, the Russians had a particular interest in reshaping Turkish sovereignty. In World War I, the Ottomans aligned with the Germans, who were fighting the Russians. In the inter-war and World War II periods, when the Soviets were weak or distracted, Turkey remained neutral until February 1945, when it declared war on the Axis. After the war, when the Soviets were powerful and attempted covert operations to subvert both Turkey and Greece, the Turks became closely allied with the United States and joined NATO (despite their distance from the North Atlantic).
From 1945 until 1991 Turkey was locked into a relationship with the United States. The United States was pursuing a strategy of containing the Soviet Union on a line running from Norway to Pakistan. Turkey was a key element because of its control of the Bosporus, but also because a pro-Soviet Turkey would open the door to direct Soviet pressure on Iran, Iraq and Syria. A Soviet-allied or Soviet-influenced Turkey would have broken the center of the American containment system, changing the balance of power. Along with Germany, Turkey was the pivot point of U.S. and NATO strategy.
From a Turkish point of view, there was no other option. The Soviets had emerged from World War II in an extremely powerful position. Western Europe was a shambles, China had become communist and the surplus military capability of the Soviets, in spite of the massive damage they had endured in the war, outstripped the ability of nations on their periphery — including Turkey — to resist. Given the importance of the Bosporus and Asia Minor to the Soviets, Turkey was of fundamental interest. Unable to deal with the Soviets alone, Turkey thus moved into an extremely tight, mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.
During the Cold War, Turkey was a strategic imperative of the United States. It faced the Soviets to the north and two Soviet clients, Syria and Iraq, to the south. Israel drew Syria away from Turkey. But this strategic logic dissolved in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. By then, the union had fragmented. Russian power withdrew from the southern Caucasus and Balkans and uprisings in the northern Caucasus tied the Russian military down. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan gained independence. Ukraine also became independent, making the status of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea unclear. For the first time since the early years of the Soviet Union, Turkey was freed from its fear of Russia. The defining element of Turkish foreign policy was gone, and with it, Turkish dependence on the United States.
The Post-Soviet Shift
It took a while for the Turks and Americans to recognize the shift. Strategic relationships tend to stay in place, as much from inertia as intention, after the strategic environment that formed them disappears; it often takes a new strategic reality to disturb them. Thus, Turkey’s relationship with the United States remained intact for a time. Its ongoing attempts to enter the European Union continued. Its relationship with Israel remained intact even after the American rationale for sponsoring Turkish-Israeli strategic ties had diminished.
It is much easier to forge a strategic policy in the face of a clear threat than in the face of an undefined set of opportunities. For Turkey, opportunities were becoming increasingly prevalent, but defining how to take advantage of them posed a challenge. For Turkey, the key breakpoint with the past was 2003 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. From Turkey’s point of view, the invasion was unnecessary, threatened to empower Iran, and posed domestic political challenges. For the first time since World War II, the Turks not only refused to participate in an American initiative, they also prevented the Americans from using Turkish territory to launch the invasion.
Turkey had encountered a situation where its relationship with the United States proved more dangerous than the threat an alliance with the United States was meant to stave off. And this proved the turning point in post-Soviet Turkish foreign policy. Once Turkey decided not to collaborate with the United States — its core principle for decades — its foreign policy could never be the same. Defying the United States did not cause the sky to fall. In fact, as the war in Iraq proceeded, the Turks could view themselves as wiser than the Americans on this subject and the Americans had difficulty arguing back.
That left the Turks free to consider other relationships. One obvious option was joining with Europe, the leading powers of which also opposed the American invasion. That commonality, however, did not suffice to win Turkey EU membership. A host of reasons, from fear of massive Turkish immigration to Greek hostility, blocked Turkey’s membership bid. Membership in the European Union was not seen in terms of foreign policy alone; rather, for secularists it symbolized the idea of Turkey as a European country committed to European values. But the decision on membership was not Turkey’s to make. Ultimately, the European decision to essentially block Turkey’s membership left Turkey with a more dynamic economy than most of Europe and without liability for Greece’s debt.
The failure to integrate with Europe and the transformation of ties with the United States from an indispensible relationship to a negotiable (albeit desirable) one finally forced Turkey to create a post-Cold War strategy. That strategy grew out of three facts. First, Turkey faced no immediate existential threat, and even secondary threats were manageable. Second, Turkey was developing rapidly economically and had the most powerful military in its region. And third, Turkey was surrounded by increasingly unstable and dangerous neighbors. Iraq and Syria were both unstable. Iran was increasingly assertive, and a war between Iran and Israel and/or the United States remained a possibility. The Caucasus region was quiet, but the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and ongoing tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia were still significant factors. The Balkans had quieted down after the Kosovo war, but the region remained underdeveloped and potentially unstable. In the past year, North Africa became unstable, Russia became more assertive and the United States began appearing more distant and unpredictable.
Three processes define Turkey’s strategy. The first is its rise in relative power. In a region of destabilizing powers, Turkey’s relative strength is increasing, which provides Ankara with new options. The second is the possible dangers posed to Turkish interests by the destabilization, which draws Turkey outward, as Ankara seeks ways to manage the instability. The third is the reality that the United States is in the process of redefining its role in the region following the Iraq War and no longer is a stable, predictable force.
The Transitional Stage
Turkey is emerging as a great power. It has not yet become one for a host of reasons, including limited institutions for managing regional affairs, a political base that is not yet prepared to view Turkey as a major power or support regional interventions, and a region that is not yet prepared to view Turkey as a beneficial, stabilizing force. Many steps are required for any power to emerge as a dominant regional force. Turkey is only beginning to take those steps.
At present, Turkish strategy is in a transitional stage. It is no longer locked into its Cold War posture as simply part of an alliance system, nor has it built the foundation of a mature regional policy. It cannot control the region and it cannot simply ignore what is happening. The Syrian case is instructive. Syria is Turkey’s neighbor, and instability in Syria can affect Turkey. There is no international coalition prepared to take steps to stabilize Syria. Therefore Ankara has taken a stance in which it refrains from overt action, but keeps its options open should matters become intolerable to Turkey.
When we consider the Turkish periphery as a whole, we see this transitional foreign policy at work, whether in Iraq or in the Caucasus. With Iran, it avoids simply being part of the American coalition while refusing simply to champion the Iranian position. Turkey has not created a regional balance of power, as a mature regional power would. Rather, it has created a Turkish balance of power in the sense that Turkish power is balanced between subordination to the United States and autonomous assertiveness. This period of balancing for an emerging power is predictable; the United States went through a similar phase between 1900 and World War I.
Turkey obviously has two main domestic issues to address as it moves forward. We say “as it moves forward” because no nation ever solves all of its domestic problems before it assumes a greater international role. One is the ongoing tension between the secular and religious elements in its society. This is both a domestic tension and an occasional foreign policy issue, particularly in the context of radical Islamists, where every sign of Islamic religiosity can alarm non-Islamic powers and change their behavior toward Turkey. The other is the Kurdish problem in Turkey, as manifested by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group.
The first problem is endemic in most societies these days; it defines American politics as well. It is something nations live with. The PKK problem, however, is unique. The Kurdish issue intersects with regional issues. For example, the question of Iraq’s future involves the extent of autonomy enjoyed by Iraq’s Kurdish region, which could have an effect on Turkish Kurds. But the major problem for Turkey is that so long as the Kurdish issue persists, foreign powers opposed to Turkey’s rise will see the Kurds as a Turkish weakness and could see covert interventions into the Kurdish regions as an opportunity to undermine Turkish power.
Turkey is already wary of Syrian and Iranian efforts to constrain Turkey through Kurdish militancy. The more powerful Turkey gets, the more uncomfortable at least some in the region will become, and this actually increases Turkey’s vulnerability to outside intervention. Therefore Turkey must address the Kurdish issue, since regional unrest and separatism fueled by outside enemies could undermine Turkey’s power and reverse its current trend toward becoming a great power.
There is a paradox, which is that the more powerful a nation becomes, the more vulnerable it might be. The United States was undoubtedly safer between the Civil War and its intervention in World War I than any time since. So, too, Turkey was likely safer between 1991 and today than it will be when it becomes a great power. At the same time, it is unsafe to be simply a junior ally to a global power given to taking risks with other countries.
The idea of safety among nations in the long run is illusory. It doesn’t last. Turkey’s current strategy is to make it last as long as possible. This means allowing events around it to take their course on the reasonable assumption that at present, the outcome of these events doesn’t threaten Turkey as much as Turkish intervention would. But as we have said, this is a transitional policy. The instability to its south, the rise of an Iranian sphere of influence, a deepening of Russian influence in the Caucasus and the likelihood that at some point the United States might change its Middle East policy again and try to draw Turkey into its coalition — all of these argue against the transitional becoming permanent.
Turkey is interesting precisely because it is a place to study the transition of a minor country into a great power. Great powers are less interesting because their behavior is generally predictable. But managing a transition to power is enormously more difficult than exercising power. Transitional power is keeping your balance when the world around you is in chaos, and the ground beneath you keeps slipping away.
The stresses this places on a society and a government are enormous. It brings out every weakness and tests every strength. And for Turkey, it will be a while before the transition will lead to a stable platform of power.