Turkey: A Global Power In The Making?
There’s been quite a lot of commentary in the media of late about Turkey emerging as a global power. This seems to have been prompted by the increasingly assertive positions on a variety of issues (eg standing up to Israel over the Gaza blockade, and vetoing new UN sanctions on Iran) adopted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been steering Turkey away from its traditional pro-Western alignment in favour of closer ties with Russia, the Middle East, and other emerging economies. But does this assertiveness necessarily mean that Turkey is becoming more powerful?
Let us consider six dimensions of global power and see how Turkey fares:
- Economic Power: Turkey is already the world’s 17th biggest economy, and in 2007 Goldman Sachs forecast that it would rise to 14th place by 2050. Admittedly, this isn’t such a big leap in rankings, but Turkey will still be a major economy, and for that matter bigger than any Middle Eastern economy. Furthermore, Turkey is already emerging as an investor in many neighbouring economies, and its high level of private consumption means that it could serve as an economic anchor for the region.
- Military Power: Turkey has the second-largest armed forces in NATO after the US, and one of the 10 largest militaries in the world. This gives it considerable strength in the Middle East, where military strength is a high priority. In addition, the Turkish military is considered stronger than most of its neighbours. Furthermore, its military power could increase dramatically if it moves to develop nuclear weapons.
- Diplomatic Influence: As noted, Turkey has become more assertive under Erdogan’s premiership. While Ankara is not a major diplomatic power beyond the Greater Near East, I believe that it can eventually augment its influence by acting in concert with other emerging powers such as Brazil and China. However, Turkey and Brazil’s failure to convince the US-led West of the credibility of its proposal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme demonstrates that much work remains to be done.
- Soft Power: Turkey is not a major ‘soft power’, as evidenced by the fact that its films, TV dramas, popular music, sports personalities, and other fashions aren’t widely recognised beyond its immediate neighbourhood. Nonetheless, this could change over the coming decades. Counting in its favour, Turkey has strong cultural ties with the ‘Turkic world’, which comprises Azerbaijan and Central Asia (which are rich in energy), and parts of Russia. Turkey is also a major tourist destination, and this generally boosts foreigners’ perceptions of the country.
- Demographic Outlook: Turkey’s demographic outlook is strong, and certainly better than most European countries and Russia. The UN forecasts Turkey’s population rising from 76mn in 2010 to 97mn by 2050. Furthermore, the population is youthful, with only 6% aged 65 and above in 2010, rising to a still low 18% in 2050. These factors plus ongoing urbanisation are conducive to robust economic growth.
- Willingness To Act Globally: Finally, Turkey is showing greater willingness to act like a major power – albeit with limitations. By comparison, other states in the region, such as Egypt, appear in a state of geopolitical slumber, and Syria and Iraq are too weak to become major powers. Iran has long been acting assertively, but it is widely regarded as an international pariah.
Location, Location, Location
A further factor boosting Turkey’s importance is its geographic location, which is a critical intersection of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Very few if any countries in the world have this attribute. Turkey lies right at the heart of a mega-region stretching from the Balkans and Black Sea to the Caucasus, Caspian Sea, and Central Asia, allowing it to serve as a key transit corridor in Eurasia.
Constraints On Turkey As A Global Power
Despite its manifest strengths, there are still considerable constraints on Turkey becoming a global power:
- Internal Stresses: Turkey is undergoing a major politico-socio-economic transformation, the outcome of which is highly uncertain. Erdogan and his AKP party are pushing Turkey closer to the Middle East as part of a broader domestic agenda that involves a shift away from the country’s secular tradition, but this could eventually lead to a backlash, for it is not universally popular. In addition, Turkey still faces internal stresses over the treatment of its Kurdish population, and if Iraq’s Kurdish north were to become an independent state, this could boost Kurdish separatism in Turkey.
- Possible Western Opposition: While Turkey is reluctant to drift too far away from the US and EU, Ankara could inadvertently end up alienating Western capitals, leading to reduced military cooperation and further European reluctance to admit Turkey into its ranks. In time, this could cost Turkey Western investment.
- Egyptian And Iranian Challengers: As I mentioned, Egypt remains in slumber as President Mubarak nears his end, and Iran remains a pariah. However, Egypt could experience a major revival under a new president, potentially seeking to counter Turkey’s influence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, although Iran and Turkey are currently friendly, Tehran is actively seeking to become the dominant power in the region and could eventually find itself at odds with Ankara.
- Russian Power In Central Asia: Russia is seeking to reassert its influence in Central Asia, while China is slowly encroaching into the region. Both are formidable players and could curb Turkey’s influence there.
- Absence Of Major Naval Projection: Finally, most of the world’s global powers have also been naval powers – e.g. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, France, and the USA. The importance of naval power is recognised by China and India, which are both seeking to build up their navies and expand their influence in the Indian Ocean. However, Turkey is surrounded by inland seas rather than oceans, and its navy, with 50,000 personnel, is the smallest branch of its armed forces, accounting for less than 10% of its troop strength. This could change in time, but it would take many years.
Overall, the scene is set for Turkey to become a major regional power, but with significant constraints.