Ottoman Redux

In Diplomacy on June 11, 2010 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Recent events suggest that Turkey’s government has determined that the country’s future lies not with Europe, but in the Middle East. This is a major change in strategic direction, one which marks a return to the nation’s traditional orientation after an interlude of almost a century begun by the Western-leaning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922. When one considers how much the political geography surrounding Turkey has changed in those years, and the conditions it currently faces, this change is perhaps less the result of obvious popular pressures than it is a tacit acknowledgment that the nation now has more to gain from a return to a traditional eastward policy focus.

Consider the situation facing Turkey at the time of the formation of the modern republic: after over a century as the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire had been slowly shedding the territory accumulated in the wake of its explosive 15th and 16th Century growth. Pressured from all sides, the Ottomans had surrendered control of Egypt to the British, Libya to the Italians, and much of the Balkans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and numerous smaller claimants. It was very much an empire in the final throes of its decline; the disastrous experience of the First World War simply hastened its demise. The end of the war brought further turmoil, as Turkey itself was invaded by nations seeking to expand their reach into the eastern Mediterranean at her expense, most notably Greece. It was not until 1922, and not without significant foreign intervention, that Turkey proper was once again under its own control.

Yet the war also fundamentally altered the strategic situation in which Turkey found itself. Prior to the war, the Ottoman government was unable to focus on any one strategic direction, as it was pressed on all sides: the Russian Czar was her traditional rival to the north, always pushing toward the vital straits; to the east and south, the needs of empire demanded constant attention as the Sultan tried to maintain control of his crumbling domains; to the west, small states motivated to conquest by the rising tide of nationalism in Europe only added to the threat posed by the powerful empires that pressed incessantly against Ottoman borders.

While defeat in the war caused the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new state that rose from its ashes found itself the beneficiary of circumstances that facilitated a new, far more focused political direction. Gone were many of the traditional concerns that plagued sultan after sultan: the empire, much of which was both indefensible and unprofitable, had been forcibly taken by the war’s victors; the Middle East was divided up by the British and the French, while the Balkan territories of both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were cobbled together into a new state – Yugoslavia. Russia was convulsed by revolution and civil war beginning in 1917, with the Bolsheviks only consolidating power fully in 1922, and even then commanding a backward and broken state that would take decades to regain its influence beyond its own borders. In other words, Turkey was free to choose her political and strategic orientation for the first time since the Ottomans conquered the unconquerable city of Constantinople in 1453.

Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the new state looked west. It was perfectly logical in light of the circumstances: Who had won the war? The British, and the French, and the Americans. Which powers were able to control their own vast empires in ways the Ottomans could only have dreamed about, and to project their influence anywhere they chose? The empires that had at their hearts great industrial strength. Even before the war, the Turks had looked enviously west – they brought in first French and later German military advisors, and purchased rifles and artillery from the Germans and battleships from the British – but saddled with the baggage of empire, they were forced to look from afar. With this crushing weight removed decisively, the new Turkish state would be able to reform itself using the most successful of the Great Powers as her models.

The problem inherent in this conception was simple: even as the Turks sought to embrace the West, the West looked askance at the upstart Turks, thinking it virtually impossible that a nation born of an empire that could be argued to have had decline as its single most defining characteristic was now going to become a modern state. Further, regardless of Ataturk’s secularizing efforts, Turkey remained a Muslim nation, and in a world still dominated by self-consciously Christian powers, Turkey would always be too exotic, too foreign, and too archaic to be considered a part of the modern world by those who defined it.

This conception of Turkey is little changed today. Turkish efforts to join the European Union have been stalled for years as Europe tries to reconcile its public pronouncements on the value of diversity with the idea of including a state that is, perhaps, a bit “too diverse” for European tastes. Recent controversies over the wearing of Islamic headscarves (France) and the building of minarets (Switzerland) further illustrate that Europe’s willingness to accept Muslim influences into its ostensibly open society is still far from absolute (politically correct protestations notwithstanding).

After banging its collective head into the proverbial wall presented by European intransigence, it should come as no surprise that the Turks have begun to have second thoughts about whether they should be putting all their efforts into joining the West while continuing to turn their backs on the other regions surrounding them. The recent change in Turkish policy focus is not simply based on frustration, however; it is in fact a clear acknowledgement of something the Europeans themselves are not quite ready to accept: the dominance of Europe and the West is ebbing, and Turkey has more strategic options of economic and political alignment than ever before. The end of the Cold War and the relative decline of naval power as the primary measure of national power has reduced the Russian threat to the Straits while opening up the Turkic states of Central Asia to Turkish influence and significantly reducing the need for a Western alliance. The decline in direct Western influence in the Middle East offers Turkey a chance to once again become a dominant force in the region. Even the rise of distant regional powers like China, India, and Brazil creates possibilities for strategic maneuver that would have been utterly unthinkable when the republic was born.

Combined with useful side-effect of reducing domestic Islamist tensions, Turkish leaders have determined that opposing the West may be a more lucrative path that continuing to stand around waiting for it to finally open the gate. Recent events have shown that the Turkish government is becoming more vocal in its attempts to extend its influence in the region. While diminished, Turkey geographic position is still strategically vital with respect to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. While it is not at all likely that Turkey will be able to challenge for regional hegemony (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are each too strong and willing to resist such a move), its influence will probably continue to increase, while the influence of the West on it will decline. The Ottoman Empire was for at least the last 150 years of its existence reduced to being a small fish in the big pond of the Great Powers; the 20th Century forced the new Turkish state to continue on in this relationship with the West. Now, however, Turkey is recalling fondly that it was once a big fish in a smaller, regional pond, a situation to which – for the first time in several hundred years – it is now poised to return.


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