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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on June 18th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

From the Foreign Policy Association of the USA.

First published in Turkey:

 www.fpa.org/topics_info2414/topic…

Viewpoints: Turkey’s Inevitable Rise.

  • Author: Marco Vicenzino
Viewpoints:  Turkey's Inevitable Rise

Recent events have seen Turkey consolidate its position as a benign regional power, as it tests the limits of its allies, writes Marco Vicenzino.

June 17th, 2010

The recent violence off the coast of Gaza clearly marked a defining moment in world public opinion. The Israel-Palestinian conundrum, and specifically the plight of Gaza, has now become fully internationalized.

With the death of Turkish citizens, it is no longer business as usual for all parties concerned and the stakes have increased exponentially for the region and beyond.

The flotilla crisis further exposed the pitiful absence of leadership from Arab governments. The Arab League largely remains a tone-deaf singing choir. The Barack Obama administration is struggling to strike a diplomatic balance after realizing the status quo in Gaza is unsustainable. It made outreach to Muslim-majority states a cornerstone of its foreign policy. After investing enormous resources, it is now losing its credibility, its limited diplomatic capital, and U.S influence in the broader Middle East.

All along, Turkey has been skillfully filling the void left by other regional players.

The process has been accelerated by adeptly exploiting their misfortunes and mistakes. The recent crisis is just one example. It has proven a diplomatic bonanza for the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at home and abroad. In nearly 24 hours, it was able to get the U.N. Security Council to officially condemn the acts resulting from Israel’s operation. This provides further evidence of its growing ability to exert influence internationally.

Turkey has clearly demonstrated a willingness to pursue its interests vigorously, assert them publicly and risk confrontation if necessary. It has no qualms about shedding diplomatic-speak. The days of the compliant NATO ally who performed as respectfully requested are over. In less than a month, the Erdogan government has dominated global headlines twice. It first thumbed its nose at the major powers on the Iran nuclear issue and now its current performance has further entrenched its role as a power to be reckoned with.

Contrary to some views, this is not a reversion to imperial Ottoman times. In recent years, Turkey has deftly pursued an independent-minded foreign policy. It has carefully crafted an image as a benign, and not hegemonic, power in its region. Its expansion is not led by soldiers but shrewd businessmen. By investing and creating local opportunities, their presence is generally appreciated. Consequently, Turkey’s role as a respected regional power has grown exponentially.

The recent violence off the coast of Gaza was a reminder that Turkey cannot be taken for granted nor the loss of its citizens taken lightly. It also provided the final nail in the coffin to Turkey’s historic strategic partnership with Israel dating back to the Cold War. The Turkish government applied last rites by its explicitly frank statements during the crisis. It even threatened to sever diplomatic ties with Israel if its citizens were not immediately released from detention.

In recent years, Turkey and Israel have been on a collision course. The final impact was only a matter of time. Turkey’s strategic outlook has altered dramatically since the end of the Cold War. New geo-political realities combined with an emerging conservative power elite, composed of politicians and businessmen rooted in political Islam, have led to considerable changes at home and abroad. Turkey’s new religiously-inspired leadership has a domestic and foreign policy agenda that differs significantly from the traditional secular class. The flotilla crisis was not just a diplomatic spat but an extension of Turkey’s internal power struggle.

For Turkey’s new order, the special relationship with Israel is largely expendable. It will not sever ties with Israel, unless deemed necessary, but does not mind a significant downgrading in relations. Overall, the partnership is largely incompatible with its long-term strategic and ideological interests, which are determined by better relations with its immediate neighbors and the broader Arab-Muslim world and select states beyond. These may eventually begin to overshadow Turkey’s ties with the European Union and lead to a diminished relationship with the U.S. but not rupture with the West. After decades of reliance on the West, Turkish interests dictate a more expansive approach beyond traditional allies and markets. As Turkey grows and seeks new opportunities abroad, differences with old friends will inevitably emerge.

In its increasing diplomatic assertiveness, Erdogan and friends must tread carefully and avoid miscalculation. It runs the risk of overplaying its hand with the U.S. In Obama, Mr. Erdogan has a very sympathetic ally. After all, it was no mistake that the U.S. president chose the Turkish Parliament as a venue for a historic speech in an outreach to Muslims. Improperly exploiting Obama’s openness will undermine U.S.-Turkish relations and the president’s credibility in the U.S. and abroad. In his inaugural address, the president emphasized the importance of extending the hand of friendship to others. The worst case scenario is to have it bitten by an ally.

On the other hand, Erdogan may have calculated that Obama is a one-term president and not worth investing excessive political capital. His inevitable fear is of a Republican president reverting to business as usual. Failure to cultivate relations may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, even a Bush-lite American leader may be too much for Erdogan to handle.

All along, Turkey’s historic growth was inevitable, particularly when considering its physical size and population. The main question was when Turkey would fulfill its natural leadership role in the region. Its time has arrived. Now it must proceed responsibly.

Marco Vicenzino ( msv at globalsp.org) provides geo-political risk analysis for corporations and regular commentary for global media outlets. He directs Global Strategy Project in Washington, D.C.

*This article originally appeared in Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review

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