Spend five minutes listening to Turkish politicians or reading their speeches and you immediately get a sense of how high Turkey’s ambitions are. The best recent example of this is a speech Ahmet Davutoğlu made in April in which he declared, “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” adding that “even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Hugh Eakin captures this notion of immense Turkish ambition in a piece that uses Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plans to build an enormous new mosque overlooking the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey’s grand strategic plans. As Eakin notes, Turkey under the AKP wants to lead the Sunni Muslim world and take charge of the Middle East while building up Istanbul in a style reminiscent of development in Gulf states.

I think that some of what Eakin writes is either wrong or goes too far; for instance, he implies that Turkey is turning away from the West which is neither true nor even possible given Turkey’s presence in NATO and the fact that over 60% of its trade is with the EU. The thrust of Eakin’s piece is that the AKP is moving Turkey in a more religious direction, but the talk of increased religion misses the point in two ways though; first, Turkey is and always has been a  traditional/conservative/religious society once you move away from Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities, so I don’t think it is the government that is driving a religious revival, but rather a religious revival that is emboldening the government. Second, what should be the greater concern is not the move toward more overt acceptance of religion but the move toward more overt authoritarianism, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the AKP transforming into a typical Turkish proto-authoritarian party. The focus on Islam is misplaced here, in my view, and risks overlooking the greater danger that is brewing. In any event, Eakin is making a larger point about Turkish ambitions, and it is certainly an accurate one.

Walter Russell Mead also wrote about Turkey earlier this week, but his argument was that Turkish ambitions are about to be dashed. In a typical  Mead-ian historical flourish, he compares Erdoğan to Woodrow Wilson:

Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)

Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.

 Mead argues that Kurdish and Alevi discontent, bad relations with Turkey’s neighbors, and the slowing Turkish economy portend a tough road ahead for Turkey, one in which it will have to find dependable allies and work with them to restore a sense of calm and stability. In other word, Turkey’s (and Erdoğan’s) ambitions of becoming a great power are misplaced and the moment has passed, if it even ever really existed.
These two articles are a good study in contrasts and point to what will be the most intriguing thing to watch over the next couple of years when it comes to Turkey, namely whether Turkey tempers its ambitions as it recognizes its limits. There is no doubt that Turkish ambitions and goals have been sky high, but they have slammed against the brick wall that is the Syrian civil war. Ankara’s foreign policy is close to being in shambles for the first time under the AKP, there is a huge problem of PKK terrorism and (separately) a growing desire for Kurdish autonomy, tensions with Iran over energy and newfound wariness of its nuclear program, and of course the stream of refugees coming over the border from Syria, not to mention domestic discontent over Ankara’s Syria policy more generally. Much of this morass has emerged in the past year alone, and yet in many ways the government is still operating on the assumption that Turkey is about to become a world power. There are a host of structural limits on Turkey and problems if its own making that are combining to make that dream disappear, yet there isn’t much evidence yet that the government realizes or acknowledges the new reality that it has to deal with. How Turkey navigates between its ambitions and its limits is going to determine its success in the years ahead.
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