The United States has been retreating from the global political scene. The policy of limiting American global intervention that started during former President Barack Obama’s two terms, with the United States’ premature departure from Iraq and failure to intervene in Syria, has now been fully realized under the Trump administration.
Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to stop American involvement in foreign wars and bring American troops back home. As the first term of his presidency ends, his administration has taken meaningful steps in this regard, including the decision to reduce the American presence in Syria or choosing to become a mere spectator of the Libyan crisis.
Thus, the era of American peace – Pax Americana – is hastily coming to an end. The hegemonic status accorded to the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II and renewed with the collapse of the Soviet Union has proven to be unsustainable. The U.S. is now voluntarily retreating to the traditional maxim of U.S. foreign policy: isolationism. As such, unipolarity in the global political order has given way to a novel multipolarity, where competent nations have taken up the helm of steering global politics.
In the lack of American leadership, regional powers must now seek to provide some form of order to the international political system. Turkey is one of these powers and arguably one of the most capable in its region. Recent developments in Turkish foreign policy, especially those in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, are a testament to Turkey’s new role at the zenith of regional political developments.
After the bloody coup attempt of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) was prevented, Turkey’s foreign policy paradigm shifted dramatically. Turkey’s former reactiveness gave way to proactive decision-making that has startled Turkey’s opponents in the region. As Turkish decision-makers showed great incentive to eliminate the Gülenist threat within, threats emanating from abroad were also treated with the same security rationale. Turkey’s anti-terror operations in northern Syria against the YPG/PKK terror group, active support of Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and measures to block a fait accompli in the Eastern Mediterranean all exemplify this new foreign policy approach.
Proactive policy yields results
This past week a coordinated effort by various liberal media outlets has attempted to characterize this shift in Turkish foreign policy as one that is aggressive and detrimental to Western security interests. The Economist, The New York Times and the French daily Le Monde all released pieces on Turkey, citing recent Turkish intervention in the region. The Times chief diplomatic correspondent, Steven Erlanger, characterized Turkey as a liability for NATO, while The Economist called out Turkey for “using force more than diplomacy.” This coordinated effort by the establishment media is a testament to Turkey’s recognition as a powerful regional actor that could very well alter the status quo.
Turkey’s ascent is now acknowledged by policy and media circles globally. Turkey’s incursions into northern Syria to stop the advance of the YPG/PKK was the prelude to such recognition, showing that Turkey’s new foreign policy rationale is about swift action that yields immediate results. Now Turkey is actively safeguarding its sovereign rights in the Mediterranean through the “Blue Homeland” doctrine, which outlines Turkish claims to economic rights in the contested region.
Turkey has thus far been able to hold at bay a coalition of asymmetric partners that share the common goal of stopping Turkish advances. The coalition, headed by Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration, has found allies in the Arab World – such as Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – all of which are working to counteract Turkey’s position. Against this coalition Turkey has remained steadfast and has proven to be the heavyweight, uncompromisingly adhering to its foreign policy doctrine of preserving Turkish sovereignty in its neighborhood.
The argument that Turkey’s novel assertiveness in foreign policy is detrimental to the West and NATO is not a strong one. In fact, it is in the best interests of the European Union as well as the U.S. to keep Turkey tethered to the West. Turkey is one of the few countries in the region able to influence change in a meaningful manner and does not suffer from some of the deficits of other influential Middle Eastern actors. The Turkish presence in the broader Middle East is greatly legitimized by popular support from local populations. When compared with actors such as Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey has the upper hand in being perceived as a force for hope and prosperity.
Just look at Lebanon, where Turkey's Vice President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu paid a recent visit. Crowds greeted Oktay and Çavuşoğlu chanting slogans in favor of Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey has succeeded in creating and maintaining strong public support across the Middle East, Eastern Europe and various parts of Asia. While Turkey might have lost face in the West due to constant attacks by liberal media, Ankara is still heralded as a savior in the less fortunate parts of the world. The Turkish flag remains a symbol of hope and stability in areas stricken by conflict and catastrophe.
The West will require Turkey’s institutional capacity as well as its military might if they wish to secure their own interests. Italy and Malta notably have sided with Turkey regarding the Libyan debacle, which shows that the perception of Ankara in European capitals is not uniform. Italian and Maltan initiatives to side with Turkey in a major conflict that has attracted the interest of several actors suggests that Turkey’s influence is not confined to the Middle East. Turkey can indeed influence decisions in European capitals, establishing Turkey’s strong position as a bastion for stability and rational decision-making in a notoriously unstable region.
The Turkish Way
Turkey’s credentials as a regional power are clear and have been firmly established. As power centers continue to multiply in this novel multipolar order, Turkey may indeed emerge as a global actor. Turkey has thus far notably been an ardent supporter of reform in the international system, chiefly through an overhaul of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Erdoğan’s popular slogan, “the world is bigger than five,” is a sentiment that many other nations share. Now with Volkan Bozkır – former Turkish minister for EU Affairs – having been elected to lead the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Turkey’s U.N. agenda may finally receive some attention.
It is clear that the world order will not shift again as the result of a catastrophic global-scale war. Instead, as smaller conflicts around the world proliferate, especially in the Middle East, venues will emerge for nations to rise to more prominent positions in the post-American global order. The regional developments indicate that Turkey is one of these nations. Turkey, not the U.S., rushed to Beirut's aid during the catastrophe of the recent port explosion. Turkey is one of the best contenders to fill the void that is being left by America’s departure from the region. Ankara’s novel mission is legitimized historically and by the emerging balance of power that solidifies Turkey’s position as a leader not only in the region but rather on a global scale.
*MSc comparative politics candidate at the London School of Economics