Tur­key’s rise from 3rd World to 1st

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY JONATHAN EYAL

News from the Mid­dle East is dom­i­nated by sto­ries of na­tions break­ing up or states con­vulsed by do­mes­tic tur­moil.

Yet there is one coun­try buck­ing this vi­cious cir­cle: Tur­key is not only grow­ing in re­gional in­flu­ence but also has se­ri­ous as­pi­ra­tions to global-power sta­tus.

It was Tur­key’s re­cent de­ci­sion to com­mit troops to the civil war in neigh­bor­ing Syria that shifted Amer­ica’s own strat­egy in that con­flict.

The U.S. Air Force will now in­ten­sify its sor­ties against ter­ror­ists be­long­ing to the so-called Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria by us­ing the strate­gi­cally crit­i­cal air­bases on Turk­ish soil, with other Western na­tions likely to fol­low suit.

And if Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s re­cently con­cluded tour of Asia is an in­di­ca­tion, his na­tional vi­sion is aim­ing far higher.

Er­do­gan signed a “strate­gic part­ner­ship” agree­ment with China, vowed that Tur­key will “de­fend” Pak­istan, touted weapons sales to In­done­sia and even se­ri­ously raised the pos­si­bil­ity dur­ing a joint press con­fer­ence in Jakarta with Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo that Tur­key may ap­ply to join ASEAN.

Of course, some of this is typ­i­cal macho grand­stand­ing stuff of the kind that goes down well with do­mes­tic au­di­ences in the Mid­dle East, but is of lit­tle prac­ti­cal con­se­quence.

Er­do­gan must know that, if only due to the ac­ci­dent of ge­og­ra­phy, Tur­key has scant chance of join­ing ASEAN.

Still, the emer­gence of Tur­key as a global player, a coun­try which is ready to de­ploy both its mil­i­tary and eco­nomic as­sets on a world­wide ba­sis, is a re­al­ity. But so are some of Tur­key’s in­ter­nal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, which may hold back its as­pi­ra­tions.

Grow­ing Fast

Tur­key’s do­mes­tic achieve­ments are re­mark­able. Since 2003, when Er­do­gan first came to power as prime min­is­ter, the coun­try has al­most tripled the size of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, from US$303 bil­lion to US$820 bil­lion.

Tur­key’s econ­omy is now the 17th largest in the world, slightly ahead of Aus­tralia’s if the more ac­cu­rate pur­chas­ing power par­ity cal­cu­la­tion is used.

Other in­di­ca­tors tell a sim­i­lar story. At the start of the new cen­tury, av­er­age in­come among Tur­key’s 77 mil­lion peo­ple was less than 20 per­cent of that in the Euro­pean Union, the or­ga­ni­za­tion which Turk­ish lead­ers like to com­pare them­selves with.

Last year, Tur­key’s av­er­age in­come was closer to 70 per­cent of Europe’s. At this rate, the gap be­tween Tur­key and the rest of Europe could be largely erased by 2030, an achieve­ment that would put an end to cen­turies of de­cline and un­der­de­vel­op­ment, when the Ot­toman Em­pire — from which mod­ern Tur­key emerged — used to be de­riso­rily dis­missed as “the sick man of Europe.”

The enor­mous boost to na­tional con­fi­dence that such a per­for­mance engi­neers is ev­ery­where. More than 15,000 Turk­ish firms are now do­ing busi­ness on global mar­kets.

Turk­ish Air­lines, the coun­try’s flag­ship car­rier, op­er­ates to over 200 des­ti­na­tions on four con­ti­nents.

Tur­key is also open­ing em­bassies ev­ery­where. For­mer Turk­ish for­eign min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu, who has since be­come prime min­is­ter, used to take great pride in col­or­ing red ev­ery new coun­try into which his diplo­matic net­work ex­panded.

He once joked with Bri­tish of­fi­cials that he had cho­sen red be­cause that was the color the Bri­tish used on maps to in­di­cate their colonies.

And in terms of fire­power, the Turk­ish mil­i­tary is among the 10 most sig­nif­i­cant for­ma­tions in the world, with de­fense ex­pen­di­ture in­creas­ing by more than 9 per­cent in real terms each year.

Nor should one ig­nore Tur­key’s huge “soft power” — the coun­try’s ap­peal to its neigh­bors.

It is widely ad­mired as an Is­lamic state that has suc­ceeded in blend­ing ad­her­ence to the faith and Is­lamic so­cial val­ues with eco­nomic progress, the pro­mo­tion of women and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity.

It has also been an amaz­ingly wel­com­ing place for refugees: In the past half-cen­tury, the coun­try be­came home to an as­ton­ish­ing 6 mil­lion refugees from the Soviet Union, Yu­goslavia, Iraq, Iran and Azer­bai­jan.

It is also now home to an es­ti­mated 1.7 mil­lion refugees from Syria. In the Mid­dle East, Tur­key is seen as a haven of pros­per­ity and safety.

Prob­lems with Neigh­bors

To be sure, with such dizzy­ing suc­cess also came some se­ri­ous for­eign pol­icy set­backs.

Tur­key’s avowed aim of hav­ing “zero prob­lems” with all its neigh­bors is now re­mem­bered as a sad joke, since the Turks now have prob­lems with al­most all their neigh­bors.

Er­do­gan’s claims to have a su­pe­rior un­der­stand­ing of the Mid­dle East were also dis­proven, since he was just as sur­prised as lead­ers else­where by the wave of rev­o­lu­tions that erupted in the re­gion in early 2011 and came to be known as the Arab Spring.

And, like most Western gov­ern­ments, the Turks also ended up back­ing the wrong horses.

They sup­ported the Mus­lim Brother­hood gov­ern­ment in Egypt, only to see it over­thrown by the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary.

They backed the Ha­mas Pales­tinian or­ga­ni­za­tion, only to in­cur the wrath of Saudi Ara­bia and other mod­er­ate Arab na­tions.

And they are just as clue­less about what can be done with Syria as are all Western gov­ern­ments.

Still, the Turk­ish leader has suc­ceeded in re­vers­ing these er­rors, largely be­cause the coun­tries of the Mid­dle East now need Tur­key more than Tur­key needs them.

Er­do­gan has care­fully — and of­ten with­out say­ing much in public — cast him­self as a de­fender of Sunni Mus­lims against the Shi’ite chal­lenge from Iran; Saudi Ara­bia now sees Tur­key as a re­gional linch­pin.

Af­ter a long pe­riod of dither­ing, he has also swung be­hind the Western-inspired al­liance to de­feat the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ists. Er­do­gan has even tamed his bait­ing of Is­rael, which served him so well in the past to bur­nish his Is­lamic cre­den­tials.

And his global am­bi­tions re­main un­tamed. Er­do­gan brushed aside do­mes­tic con­cerns about the al­leged mal­treat­ment of eth­nic Uighurs in main­land China and went ahead with his re­cent visit to Bei­jing, proof that Is­lamic gov­ern­ments are quite ca­pa­ble of ig­nor­ing the plight of other Mus­lims when they deem this con­ve­nient.

But China re­paid the com­pli­ment by show­ing re­spect for Tur­key’s grow­ing power.

Bei­jing has stu­diously ig­nored Er­do­gan’s pre­vi­ous out­burst when he pub­licly ac­cused China of pur­su­ing “al­most geno­cide” against the Uighurs, and the Chi­nese have also pre­tended not to no­tice the daily demon­stra­tions out­side their em­bassy in Ankara, the Turk­ish cap­i­tal.

Like the West, the Chi­nese are find­ing the Turks dif­fi­cult, but nec­es­sary.

Can any­thing in­ter­fere with Tur­key’s steady rise to global power sta­tus? Yes, plenty.

First, although eco­nomic per­for­mance has been good, it’s not stel­lar.

Growth has slowed down con­sid­er­ably. Omi­nously, Tur­key suf­fers from a chronic cur­rent ac­count deficit as im­ports grow faster than ex­ports.

This is made worse by the fact that or­di­nary Turks save very lit­tle, so deficits have to be fi­nanced from for­eign funds, which are usu­ally short-term port­fo­lio in­vest- ments, look­ing for quick prof­its.

In short, Tur­key is less im­mune to global eco­nomic down­turns than its lead­ers would have us be­lieve.

More im­por­tantly, the pol­icy pi­o­neered by Er­do­gan of re­plac­ing Tur­key’s sec­u­lar and in­clu­sive na­tional iden­tity with a new na­tion­al­ism based on Is­lam of­fers lit­tle to the coun­try’s mi­nori­ties, such as the var­i­ous eth­nic groups from the Cau­ca­sus, or the Ale­vites, also known as “Qizil­bash,” which means “the red- headed ones,” Tur­key’s own “ang mohs.”

The most se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion con­cerns the Kurds, who make up 15 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion and who may be on the verge of re­launch­ing a vi­o­lent re­bel­lion against the author­i­ties un­less the gov­ern­ment of­fers po­lit­i­cal con­ces­sions to their au­ton­omy de­mands.

And then, there are the pol­i­tics of the coun­try. For although Er­do­gan has rightly claimed credit for up­hold­ing sta­bil­ity, he may be about to de­stroy his own cre­ation.

Tur­key has been with­out a new gov­ern­ment since Er­do­gan’s rul­ing party lost its over­all ma­jor­ity in the gen­eral elec­tion held in early June.

The sus­pi­cion is that Er­do­gan re­fuses to form a coali­tion with op­po­si­tion par­ties be­cause he wants to or­der a new snap elec­tion soon.

The idea that bal­lots should take place fre­quently un­til the “cor­rect” re­sult is pro­duced will not chime well with Er­do­gan’s re­peated claim that Tur­key is the only func­tion­ing democ­racy in its re­gion.

But there is no doubt that, on the whole, the rise of Tur­key has been ben­e­fi­cial.

Nor is there any ques­tion that Tur­key’s abil­ity to drag it­self from the Third to the First World acts as an in­spi­ra­tion for other Mus­lim states.

But the Turks are about to dis­cover the les­son which ev­ery ris­ing power ul­ti­mately con­fronts: That noth­ing de­stroys the dream of progress more than hubris — an ex­ces­sive and of­ten mis­lead­ing belief that one’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties are end­less.

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