Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Turkey: Seeking an Outlet for Expansion

December 12, 2007


Turkey is flexing its muscles as it seeks an avenue to expand.


Turkish President Abdullah Gul arrived in Kazakhstan on Dec. 12 for a three-day visit primarily aimed at furthering Turkish business interests in the region. The visit is symptomatic of a country seeking an outlet for its rising power and ambition.

Turkey is a rising power economically, militarily and politically, with an economy worth some $400 billion and the second-largest military in NATO. Yet it is also a country rather conflicted about its place in the world. Since the end of World War I the Turks have existed in a sort of cultural limbo, shunning their Islamic and imperial past, yet being denied full membership in the West in general, and the European Union in specific.

Over the past decade, the Turks have come to terms with the idea that they have made it as far into Europe as Europe will allow: They enjoy a customs union with the European Union, an agreement functionally equivalent to the U.S.-Mexico relationship via NAFTA. But EU membership is out of the question. Now, they are casting about for a new national goal.

The lands surrounding modern Turkey echo with the voices of Turkey's imperial past. All provide certain opportunities for the expansion of Turkish influence, yet none of the options leap out as being obvious -- and none will be easy.

In Central Asia, cultural links to the region's Turkic peoples may give the Turks access -- but the Russians have deeper and more recent ties, while the Chinese are splashing around more money. The Balkans provide Turkey a chance to leverage NATO links and cultural connections and force the Europeans to treat them with respect, but ultimately it is Brussels and Washington who most reliably shape events in Southeastern Europe. Working in the Caucasus helps buffer Turkey against a resurging Russia, but there is strong competition from not only Russia, but also Iran and Armenia. The only reason Iraqi Kurdistan has proven so hot-button in recent months is because the Turks perceive Kurdish autonomy across their southern border as a direct threat to the unity of Turkey itself. Like in its other spheres of potential interest, Turkey has no particular advantage in operating to its south either.

Yet Turkish power continues to rise, and it is only a matter of time before it seeks an outlet. Its economy has stabilized after a 2001 crash, and has grown strongly ever since. The government is consolidated under a single party to a degree absent since the time of Kemal Ataturk. The military is strong, flexible and deployable. This broad-spectrum strength allows Turkey to have its fingers in a lot of different pots. The only thing lacking is a strategic decision by the Turks about which direction is most important to Turkey. Once that decision is made, there are no internal barriers to Turkish movement.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

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