America is declining, with middle powers challenging its supremacy

Long, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – coupled with the global recession triggered by the excesses of Wall Street – are widely seen as symptoms of the relative decline in the economic and military clout of the United States. Rising middle-level powers such as Turkey and Iran in the Middle East and Brazil in South America now are challenging the diplomatic supremacy of Washington.

Earlier this month, the new contours of diplomatic power were on display in Istanbul. The city was the site of the summit of the 20-member Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, which was presided over by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The event also provided a venue for the first Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum, also chaired by Turkey.

A member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – and until recently a rare regional ally of Israel – Turkey basked in the international limelight. An emboldened Turkey also defied Washington, voting against the United States-sponsored resolution imposing new sanctions Iran for its nuclear program, which was passed by the United Nations Security Council.

Radical changes in the domestic Turkish political configuration as well as an altered external environment for Turkey have spurred the largest Muslim nation bordering Europe into playing a leading regional role.

In mid-May, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, along with his Brazilian counterpart, Celso Amorim, signed a deal with the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, undercutting the efforts of the United States to isolate Iran for refusing to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium to its new friend Turkey, rather than Russia as proposed in an earlier plan by the European Union. In return, Russia and France would provide 120 kilograms of medium-enriched uranium for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

A fortnight later, Turkey found itself at center-stage when Israel’s elite naval forces attacked a flotilla, sponsored by a Turkish human rights organization, on its way to supply the blockaded Gaza Strip with civilian goods and materials. That assault, which Israel codenamed Operation Sea Winds, left nine Turks dead and effectively killed the two-decades-old special relationship between Turkey and Israel.

These episodes established Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, as a rising middle power in a strategic region. The incidents, far from being one-off events, were an integral part of a process that began with a peaceful political earthquake – namely the November 2002 victory of the Justice and Development Party, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP, a reformist party with Islamic origins. This ended a half-century of opportunistic coalition governments in Turkey.

AKP is a descendant, albeit a more moderate one, of two earlier Islamic parties that were banned by the ultra-secularist judges of the Turkish Constitutional Court in 1998 and 2001 for violating the country’s secular Constitution.

The AKP government engaged in a sweeping anti-corruption drive, led by Erdogan. But the ruling party also introduced an overarching review of Turkish foreign policy. The reasoning went like this: For the country to fully realize its power and influence, argued Davutoglu, at the time a political science professor and an Erdogan adviser, Turkey must utilize the strategic depth available in its neighborhood, focusing first on those with whom it has cultural affinity. This led Erdogan’s government to forge cordial links with both Iran and Syria. The government mediated between Syria and Israel to help resolve the issue of the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, although without much success due to the change of governments in Israel. After its re-election in July 2007, the Erdogan government proceeded to reconcile with two of Turkey’s historical foes, Armenia and Greece.

As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Turkey worked closely with Brazil to construct a deal on the long-running issue of Tehran’s nuclear program that restored core elements of an October 2009 agreement that unraveled after Iran changed its mind about enriching uranium in Russia.

To Turkey’s disappointment, the Obama administration backtracked on the deal, insisting on a priori suspension of enrichment, in this way reverting back to the behavior of its predecessor, the Bush administration, which was unacceptable to Tehran. However, this approach did not surprise most Turks: A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey showed that only 14 percent in Turkey had a favorable view of the United States, the lowest figure among 25 nations surveyed.

In pursuit of its adopted doctrine of cultural affinity, Turkey hosted the 57-member Islamic Conference Organization summit in June 2004. Backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, its nominee was appointed ICO secretary-general. At around that time, Turkey’s relations with Israel began to cool. In March 2004, Erdogan condemned Israel’s assassination of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, in the Gaza Strip, describing it as an act of state terrorism.

Turkey’s diplomatic recognition of Israel can be traced back to its application for NATO membership. Recognizing Israel was a precondition of the United States to join the alliance. Turkey agreed to do so and became NATO’s sole Muslim member in 1952. However, this step did not inhibit the Turkish government from recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1986.

Following the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords of 1993, the special relationship between Turkey and Israel blossomed. In 1997, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement. Military cooperation increased to the extent that the two states conducted annual joint armed-forces exercises Ankara even allowed Israel to set up a clandestine listening post near Turkey’s border with Iran.

Then things began changing. The international boycott of the popularly elected Hamas government in the Palestinian territories in 2006, followed by the three-week long Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009, strained Israeli-Turkish relations to a breaking point. “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Erdogan shouted at Israeli President Shimon Peres at the January 2009 World Economic Forum held in Davos. 

Now, in the wake of Israel’s bloody blocking of the flotilla bringing supplies to Gaza, Ankara cancelled upcoming joint military exercise with the Israeli armed forces. While both Turkey and Israel will honor their current defense contracts, there is no prospect for now of further military deals between the two countries. 

Fatigue has set in among Ankara’s policy-makers in another diplomatic field. While Turkey has not withdrawn its application for full membership in the European Union, which has been under consideration since 1999, the country is less keen for club acceptance in Europe. Even though Turkey’s associate membership of the EU’s antecedent, the European Economic Community, goes back to 1963.

Given the ongoing economic crises in the Eurozone and the persistent opposition of Germany and France to Turkish membership, the European Union gloss has worn off. Turkey has instead focused on the Middle East, where it holds a central position geographically.

Reorientation in Ankara’s foreign policy has dovetailed with domestic developments. For many decades after the republic’s founding in 1923, the affluent, university-educated, Westernized elite – popularly called White Turks – dominated the military, bureaucracy, judiciary and education, exercising disproportionate power.

The power of this group eroded as rural folks migrated to urban centers in large numbers from the 1960s onward, became literate and realized the power of the ballot. Starting in the mid 1980s, an increasing number of ordinary Turks benefited from unprecedented access to information and personal mobility – satellite television, telephones and cars. With the literacy rate at 90 percent-plus, working and lower middle classes lost their awe of the White Turks.

Rural migrants to cities – who account for a quarter of Turkey’s population estimated at 72 million – found solace in the mosque and a caring institution in AKP. In the unfamiliar, impersonal environment of Turkey’s urban areas, they found ethical moorings in Islam. They, along with energetic entrepreneurs from Anatolia, a territory that covers 97 percent of the national territory, became beneficiaries of the Erdogan administration’s adroit management of the economy, which has brought about annual GDP growth of 5-7 percent.

In fact, Turkey’s growing economic might undergirds its political ambition. The World Bank ranks Turkey, with per capita GDP of $12,480, as an upper middle-income country. The country’s public debt of 49 percent of GDP is healthy, and far below that of leading Western nations. Turkey withstood the global credit crunch better than most countries. No bank has gone bankrupt, due to tough regulations, with AKP well aware that banks were the major source of corruption among the traditional secular parties.

As a consequence, Erdogan’s foreign policy has realigned Turkey with its history and geography. In the process, the country has managed to raise its regional and global status.

Dilip Hiro is the author of “Inside Central Asia,” published by Overlook Duckworth Press, New York and London. His latest book is “After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World,” which is published by Nation Books, New York and London. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.





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