The Geopolitics of Turkey in a Multipolar World
No country has more to gain and more to lose in a multipolar world than Turkey. Turkey is surrounded on all sides by opportunity and by danger – opportunity to reclaim its position as a truly global power and danger from the myriad rivals that hem it in. Across the Black Sea lurks Russia – a shell of the once existentially formidable Soviet Union, but still strong enough to affect the balance of power in the Middle East and to project power in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. To the east and blocking easy Turkish access to Central Asia is Iran, an energy-rich, civilizational rival whose capacity to serve as a counterweight to Turkish ambition has been kneecapped by the U.S. attempt to upend the current Iranian political regime. To the south lies the Arab world, a perpetually unstable zone of constant intra-Muslim war. To the north and west lie Europe and the Mediterranean basin, where Turkish ambitions are blocked by the economic heft and growing marital strength of the European Union.
Over a decade ago, the de facto slogan of the Turkish grand strategy was “zero problems with neighbors.” These days, there are few neighbors (with the notable exception of Iran) with which Turkey does not have problems. Turkish military forces are on the ground in northern Syria, there to limit the ambitions of Syria’s Kurds, to oppose Russia, and to whittle away at the power base of the Assad regime in Syria. The Turkish military is also on the ground in northern Iraq, as much to keep Kurdish groups there in check as to further Turkey’s poorly concealed ambitions to one day reclaim cities like Erbil, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Turkey currently backs the Government of National Accord in Libya, backed Azerbaijan in its recent successful military conflict to reclaim territory in long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh (and does not seem to be taking the hint from Russia that Turkish peacekeepers are not supposed to deploy to defend the spoils). Turkey has military bases in Qatar and Somalia, is pushing for a two-state solution on Cyprus, and continues to push its territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean over Greek, French and German objections.
Turkey garners the most headlines, however, when it claims a mantle of new leadership in the Islamic world. When French President Emmanuel Macron declared his government would make combatting Islamist separatism in France a government priority – a real political and security concern for the French Republic – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted as if he was the aggrieved party. Erdoğan has courted controversy with erstwhile ally Israel by claiming that Jerusalem is “our city” and by threatening to suspend ties with Arab nations like the UAE for agreeing to normalize relations with Israel (even though Turkey did so over half a century ago). Earlier this year, Erdoğan also realized a long-held ambition to transform the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a worshipping mosque. Of course, Turkey is selective with how it chooses to deploy its geopolitical religious power: Ankara has been noticeably silent on the plight of China’s Muslim Uighur population. Kamran Bokhari joined us on the Perch Perspectives podcast recently to discuss this in particular and we’d encourage you to take a listen if you want to dive deeper into that.
And then, of course, there is the Turkish economy. Erdoğan has a personal aversion to interest rates – he has called them “the mother and father of all evil”. Somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, Erdoğan managed to convince himself that the Turkish economy has been doing well in recent years. Erdoğan’s son-in-law and now former Turkish finance minister Berat Albayrak recently took the fall as the scapegoat for the recent plunge in the value of the Turkish lira and for real Turkish foreign currency reserves diving into negative territory due to quixotic efforts to prop the lira up by selling hard currency. Whatever Erdoğan’s superstitions about interest rates, it is not hard to see that Erdoğan pushed for expansionary (read: irresponsible) fiscal policy and state-encouraged credit expansion to supercharge economic growth. And it might have worked had it not been for COVID-19 disruptions and the attendant collapse of Turkey’s tourism economy, or at least, it might have worked for a while before the engine ran out of gas.
Turkey’s geopolitical irrendtism and its seemingly strange approach to monetary and fiscal policy are intrinsically linked. Erdoğan has overseen tremendous changes in Turkey’s politics, from the relationship between mosque and state right down to the amount of power concentrated in the Turkish presidency. Before Erdoğan became a major player in Turkish politics, secularism was Turkey’s de facto religion and the Turkish armed forces were the ultimate arbiter of political power in Turkey’s parliamentary system. Erdoğan, however, had a vision of a stronger Turkey proud of its past and secure in its Muslim identity, and of a Turkish presidency with enough power to lead Turkey into a new golden age. Think whatever you want about Erdoğan personally, but he has been remarkably successful, in part because since he took over the reins of Turkish politics in 2003, Turkey’s GDP has increased by over 140 percent. You need that kind of economic growth to author the sorts of changes Erdoğan has in Turkish society without losing power. That Erdoğan successfully defeated an attempted military coup d’état in 2016 is evidence of his success.
But politics is a “what have you done for me lately” sort of business. And Erdoğan is far from done with realizing his political ambitions, both domestically and abroad. That means the gravy train has to continue – even if the IMF throws shade at you for your lack of fiscal discipline, and even if the Financial Times routinely decries your “unorthodox” approach to monetary policy. The same sort of dynamic is present in Turkey’s foreign policy. By virtue of where Turkey is in the world, Turkey has essentially two viable grand strategies: either ally with external powers that protect Turkish interests or expand Turkish power in all directions. During the Cold War and the U.S. unipolar moment, the former suited Turkey well. But in a world of rising and falling great powers, where alliance networks cannot be trusted to protect Turkish interests, and where there is weakness and instability present in all of Turkey’s major immediate rivals, the latter makes perfect sense. Erdoğan’s real innovation is the way he has chosen to expand Turkish power: by weaponizing the only ideology that has ever united broad swaths of the Middle East under a single polity: Islam.
Ironically, there is little appetite in Turkey for Islamist fundamentalism – just 12 percent of Turks said they supported shariah law in a 2017 Pew study. That is one of the things that makes Erdoğan’s brand of political Islam potentially appealing to a wider subset of the Muslim world – Turkey has managed to find a balance between politics and religion that has eluded other Muslim countries like Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (to name just a few). But make no mistake – just as Erdoğan’s economic policies are driven by his need to buttress support for his domestic initiatives, his geopolitically Muslim foreign policies are driven by his need to strengthen Turkish interests abroad. Investors now salivating over the prospect of higher interest rates under the monetary stewardship of new finance minister Naci Agbal should look at how Turkey is behaving geopolitically and understand that ultimately nothing much has changed. Ankara makes decisions based on whatever gets Ankara closer to its national security goals. The lira still stops with Erdoğan, and will as long as he is president.