Is Turkey finally breaking free of the East-West paradigm?

As global power shifts, Erdogan's vision for his country seems to be coming to fruition

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a news conference during the Nato summit in Vilnius in July. EPA
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Traditional powers are in turmoil, even decline, opening the way for a rising Turkey. These days one barely needs to squint to imagine Ankara’s favoured narrative coming to fruition.

The US overcame an attempted coup in 2021 and is now struggling with its highest levels of political violence in half a century. The fact that US neighbours such as Canada have reportedly begun planning for American democratic backsliding and a subsequently weakened Nato underscores the grave concern.

China is sliding into an economic slump. Property developer Evergrande just filed for bankruptcy, with $335 billion in debt, and another big developer may soon default. The yuan is at its lowest in 15 years, and after a record 21.3 per cent youth unemployment in June, Chinese authorities said they would stop publishing unemployment figures while they improve data collection.

Great Britain has been in a tailspin since Brexit, while France has been in the grip of frenzied protesters. Russia’s currency has collapsed and its military is stuck waist-deep in Europe’s largest land war in 80 years. Even so, last week The Economist wondered if Germany was “the sick man of Europe”.

When coined by Nicholas I in the 19th century, this term described the declining Ottoman Empire. So one might imagine some rejoicing in Ankara upon its being applied to Germany, particularly as the number of Turks emigrating there has spiked this year.

Sure, Turkey is mired in its own economic crisis, with sky-high inflation, a plummeting lira, and a potential brain drain as a result. But Ankara seems to be having its international moment, which is fitting given the prominence of nationalists in the May elections.

Turkey is mired in its own economic crisis, but Ankara seems to be having its international moment

Two years ago, I detailed how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle view their country as fighting for the world’s oppressed and reasserting its dominance, thanks to geographic centrality and military might, as global power shifts. Suddenly, every passing day seems to herald the arrival of this vision.

Consider Mr Erdogan’s recent Gulf tour. Many deals are still being finalised, so we can expect to learn of an array of defence, energy and tech agreements in the coming months. But the UAE and Turkey announced agreements worth a combined $50.7 billion. Saudi Arabia made a $3 billion deal with Turkey’s top defence contractor Baykar to build a drone factory in the kingdom.

The trip showed Turkey is now received warmly in the Gulf, following a period of tensions, and its defence industry has matured. Earlier this year, Mr Erdogan set a target of $6 billion in defence exports, up from last year’s $4.3 billion.

But following the Saudi deal, some analysts see Turkey nearly doubling last year’s tally and reaching $8 billion. After launching the world’s first drone carrier in April, for instance, Turkey is reportedly finalising its third regional sale of the new naval concept.

This military might is boosting Ankara’s international confidence, as seen in its pushback against Moscow after Russian forces raided a ship 60 kilometres from Istanbul last week. It’s also strengthened Turkey’s stance as champion of the world’s disadvantaged.

Last year, Ankara brokered a Russia-Ukraine grain deal that may have staved off famine. Now, weeks after Russia pulled out of that agreement, Turkey is in talks with Russia on a deal to start shipping Russian grain to Africa. Last week, in defiance of Russia’s blockade, Istanbul welcomed the first cargo ship from Ukraine, while this week Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan heads to Kyiv to discuss a grain corridor.

But to understand the shifting geopolitical winds, we need to rewind to Nato’s July summit in Vilnius. The big story out of that gathering was the Turkish president agreeing to support Sweden’s bid to join the alliance. Afterwards, we saw few denunciations of Mr Erdogan’s transactionalism or holding up of the bloc’s expansion.

Instead, major media outlets portrayed Turkey as mending ties with the US and tilting towards or recalibrating with the West. In response to this, one prominent Turkey watcher after another argued, just as Ankara might, that today’s Turkey should no longer be depicted as leaning this way or that, but accepted as a rising force with a foot in each camp.

In some of the most influential publications for Washington policymakers, leading experts argued that Turkey would never anchor itself to the West, that “Nato’s prodigal son” would not return, that Turkey had become post-western, neither enemy nor ally, but rather “a prototype of [a] middle power”.

The thrust seemed to be that the owner of Nato’s second-largest military would never be fully on-side because of misaligned interests. Thus, the US, with its nuclear weapons at Incirlik air base, would need to find new ways to make deals, because of threats posed by China and Russia and a possible Middle East powderkeg.

To put it simply: this independent, empowered Turkey is likely to be impossible while remaining invaluable. Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, could have hardly said it better. The AKP-led government has of course taken troubling steps against free speech and the rule of law, but its diplomatic assertiveness, leavened with apparent humanity and nestled within an Islam-friendly society, has some observers hinting at an emerging Turkish exceptionalism.

A prominent Muslim-American blogger recently said he finds diverse, rainbow communities repellent and may leave the US for Turkey. Many British Muslims have already made the move, according to Turkey’s state broadcaster, and Islamic students and scholars have been arriving as well.

I recently heard that one of Mr Erdogan’s preferred Quranic references is Surah Al Imran 139, which broadly translates to: “Do not lose heart, for you will have the upper hand if you’re a believer.” The haters are gonna hate, the verse seems to suggest in this context, but come to Turkey, see the reality, and become part of something bigger and better.

Published: August 22, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: August 24, 2023, 4:31 AM