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Ibrahim Kalin

Turkey's Powerplay: Bridging The West and the Middle East

One of the most dramatic celebrations of Barack Obama's election as president took place neither in Obama's ancestral village Nyangoma Kogelo, Kenya nor in Chicago, Illinois but in the Turkish village of Cavustepe near the Turkish-Iranian border. The villagers sacrificed 44 sheep in honor of Mr. Obama as the 44th president of the United States. One villager said Obama represents hope not for only for Americans but for all people around the world. He was giving voice to a sentiment shared by millions outside the US.

One of the most dramatic celebrations of Barack Obama's election as president took place neither in Obama's ancestral village Nyangoma Kogelo, Kenya nor in Chicago, Illinois but in the Turkish village of Cavustepe near the Turkish-Iranian border. The villagers sacrificed 44 sheep in honor of Mr. Obama as the 44th president of the United States. One villager said Obama represents hope not for only for Americans but for all people around the world. He was giving voice to a sentiment shared by millions outside the US.

Such an enthusiastic interest in global politics is a rare scene in any Turkish village. Compared to the global political adventures of the Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish Republic has followed the consistent policy line of a small nation-state caught between tradition and modernity, between Europe and the Muslim world, and between an imperial past and a secular-nationalist present. The geo-political realities of Turkey's environment today, however, induce it to a new activism in the most volatile region of the world.

When the Cold War ended, Turkish policy circles were concerned that Turkey's strategic importance for the Western bloc would diminish. The international politics dynamics of the post-Cold War era proved to be the opposite. From the independence of the Turkic Republics of Central Asia to the first Gulf War, Turkey as a NATO member maintained and even increased its strategic value. With the American misadventures in the Middle East and Central Asia after 9/11, Turkey has found itself again in the middle of global power plays, regional rivalries and domestic concerns for stability. Renewing its bid to join the European Union, Turkey is willing to take risks in its region in a way that we haven't seen in a long time.

Turkey is seeking to optimize its policy options with neighboring countries on the one hand and the big power players on the other. Acting with a mix of cautious idealism and shrewd pragmatism, Turkey is diversifying its foreign policy and becoming more active in regional issues. Border security and integrity, energy dependence on Russia and Iran, the future course of events in Iraq and Afghanistan force it to invest more in the Middle East. Other immediate concerns include Iran's nuclear ambitions, Syria's gradual acceptance into the political process, the Palestine issue and relations with Israel.

Currently, Turkey is facilitating Syrian-Israeli talks, which were initially opposed fiercely by some Washingtonians, and waiting for an opportunity to take a part in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Before coming to the recent G-20 meeting, The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to facilitate talks between Iran and the US - his first open message to President-elect Barack Obama. Turkey made similar gestures towards Russia in its ill-advised adventure in the south Caucasus. There might be a breakthrough in the Turkish-Armenian relations after the visit of President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan back in September. More is coming: Turkey is opening ten new embassies in Africa to raise its profile in the continent.

Much of the current foreign policy is dictated by geo-political and economic imperatives, not by the so-called Islamic credentials or Islamist agenda of the AK Party. Turkey is capitalizing on opportunities presented by a globalized world of multiple and shifting centers of power. In all of these engagements, Turkey seems to be trying to balance its position as a traditional ally of the West with its rising profile in the Middle East, Caucasus and Africa While. Turkey's bid for full membership in the EU is partly tuned to overcoming the military-bureaucratic establishment of the Turkish state rather than charting a new foreign policy. Yet the domestic impetus provided by the EU process increases AK Party Government's capacity to take risks beyond the traditional nation-state borders of the Turkish Republic. The EU process, fully energized until a few years ago, has stalled because of the deadlock over Cyprus and the "membership fatigue" of the ruling AK Party. Nevertheless, Turkey is structurally and economically moving closer to the status of an EU country. With a young and dynamic population of 70 million and a relatively strong economy (the 17th largest in the world and the 6th in Europe), Turkey is poised to assert itself as a new player in the region. A sign of this is Turkey's recent election into the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, a position Turkey held more than fifty years ago.

As the Obama administration takes over, this new Turkish profile is to be taken seriously. From Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process to energy security and international terrorism, Turkish-American relations are only to gain further significance in the years to come. Turkey's increasing profile in its region could prove vital to diffuse tensions between the West and the Muslim world and the US-Islamic world relations in particular. But this requires one essential rule of engagement: listening attentively and giving more breathing space to the key players in the region.

Dr. Ibrahim Kalin is an Assistant Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Dr. Kalin has published widely on Islamic philosophy and the relations between Islam and the West.

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Comments (6)

asizk Author Profile Page:

Turkey can continue to play a great role especially in being a role model for the Islamic and most importantly the Arab world-by setting up a liberal Muslim Democracy as the AK is doing.

The only danger to Turkey is that of the despotic and repressive attaturk legacy of the military establishment. The Turkish military establishment is no different than Arab dicatorships next door which has kept the Arab world where it is now....seriousely lagging in every way behind the rest of the world....


Turkey has all the right cards in hand and Prime Minister Erdogan, as well ss President Gul, are doing all the right moves. The low-key tension-reducing diplomacy by PM Erdogan following his visit to India and Pakistan, which happened to coincide with the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, will eventully receive better coverage in both India and the West, and will be appreciated at its just value. Even the much-ctiticised handling, by the Turkish Government, of the proposal for an IMF Standby Agreement to forestall any worsening of the economic slump in Turkey has still not been proved to be unwise and may even turn out to be brilliant, just like Mohamad Mahathir's handling of the Asian Crisis in the 1990's.

All the good people of the world who follow international affairs and are of god will wish Turkey all the very best and great succes in its efforts to stabilize the tumultups but strategic and energy resource-rich MiddleEast/CentralAsia/SouthAsia region.

ckk2008 Author Profile Page:

Work hard to join the EU. A populous Muslim country being part of a European Union leads to a more peaceful world. I hope.

dpdvatika Author Profile Page:

While it is welcome to see Turkey striving to find it's place in the post cold war era and the new "great games" being played out - often at the expense of the Turkish people - there needs to be a more genuine effort and less duplicity by the ruling elite if it is to fully realise it's role in the region.

The internal power plays often hinder genuine progress as the more forward looking class is held back by many of the anarchic elite still craving past Ottoman "glory".

The stalemate and continued delaying tactics over Cyprus and antagonistic provocations over so-called claims in the Aegean Sea need to be revised if it is to meet the real world challenges of the 21st century.

It could well do to take note of the more practical and realistic approach that Europe and now America are taking as we all face the very serious social-economic and environmental problems we all have to deal with.

All the "good publicity" and attempts to promote it's role as a mediator between east and west will not amount to much unless Turkey can clarify it's position and show a genuine desire to collaborate with instead of confront it's neighbours.

This will be crucial as new deals are struck in the new great games and the centres of power shift not only in the region, but across the globe.

The old policies of divide and rule, destroy and conquer have literary become bankrupt and the need to co-operate and contribute to new solutions is the only way forward.

DCTrk Author Profile Page:

So far the West has alway treated Turkey with an "*", "non-permanent member", "Like an EU member"...they better start making up their minds and either accept Turkey and embrace its power or miss out!! Turks are getting tired of waiting for the EU and losing interest! The U.S. has to realize what kind of ally Turkey has been throughout some of the most trying periods in American history from Korea to the Gulf and give up even entertaining these B.S. lies of Armenian Genocide and put this issue to die! It has to force greeks in Cyprus to accept the North or the North should be recognized independantly!! Turkey has been an stand-up, reliable, a brick of an ally!! As for the Kavustepe villagers and their 44 sheep, they're celebrating a Muslim in the White House and want GREENCARDS!!

edbyronadams Author Profile Page:

My admiration for Turkey and the policies enacted by Ataturk is enormous. A successful Turkey, with secular government and democratic institutions is the best antidote to the burden and malice laid by Islam upon its adherents.

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