‘Strategic Depth’ ?…

June 11, 2010 at 8:47 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Ankara has now clearly inverted its geopolitical priorities and chosen to realign. It distanced itself from US first in 2003 when it refused to allow America’s second front in Iraqi Freedom. The US Congress recognized the Armenian genocide and made things worse and then the Bush administration chose not to sanction Turkey’s operations against the PKK in Iraq’s Kurdistan – thus sealing the break. The friction with Israel was a mere consequence of Ankara’s new prerogatives and not a consequence of Jerusalem’s intransigence.

Throughout the Ottoman years, Istanbul attempted to revive the Roman and Byzantine polities by controlling the Mediterranean. The Turks never went beyond the ‘Eastern Empire’ though and depended on occasional ententes with European powers in order to keep their naval empire. They allied with France against the Habsburgs, the British against the Russians, etc..

Fierce rivalry with Persia and Russia were constants and the alliance with the Central Powers in World War I was meant to reacquire lost territory in the Balkans and the Caucasus while balancing the power of the west European naval powers.

Kemalist Turkey chose to coalesce with the Allies – the core of what would become NATO – in order to resist the advances of the USSR (with CenTO/Baghdad Pact) and the Arab emergence. The Atlantic Alliance allowed Turkey to preserve control of the Bosporus, it kept Ankara technologically updated and it helped protect the Turkish secular regime. The balancing act in the Middle East brought the pro-American Turkey, Israel and Iran to odds with the revolutionary Arabs – Baath Arabs in Iraq and Syria, pan-Arabist in Egypt and Libya.

A number of factors have changed: the demographics of Turkey have evolved in such a way that the kemalist secular elite was slowly outnumbered by the Islamic masses and the redistribution of power following the 1989 shift, after a couple of decades of American preeminence, has now given place to a multipolar world. Russia is no longer a superpower, the Arab League is powerless and divided, Iraq is destroyed and incapable of projecting force and the Islamic Republic has been weakened by decades of embargo and isolation.

In this context, Turkey has little to fear from its traditional regional rivals. Ankara has even gone to the limit of co-opting a financially weak Greece and staging a reconciliation with Russia dependent Armenia. The European Union’s postponement of and malaise with a possible Turkish accession has only motivated the Anatolian power to pursue an autonomous path, one which has also led to a magnanimous sentiment for Muslims and an empathy towards the Turkic peoples. Palestine and China’s Turkic Xinjiang thus becoming the causes of a new soft power projection approach, Turkey’s Ostpolitik – or should we say Doğupolitik.

While revealing of the new reality, Turkey’s actions are not entirely sensible. How far does populism affect this new stance? How far does prejudice?

On the long term, to keep regional rivals close and potential external allies at a distance makes little sense, not to mention that it would have little to fear from Israel in the Near East given that while a regional power, Israel’s traditional antagonism with the Arab world would never allow it to vie for regional dominance or hegemony. Quite to the contrary, Turkey’s anti-Israel stance might bring the Jewish lobby in the US, closer to the Greek and Armenian ones in a detrimental fashion to Turkey. Not to even mention all the dire consequences that a state with separatism problems might face after endorsing the Kosovo and Palestine – and dishonestly, Turkestan – secessions.

If true that for example in Mauritania, the influence of the Aqaba Concert was replaced with that of the Tehran-Ankara tandem it is also true that any expert knows that such a shift is one coup d’état away from historical oblivion.

It is in this context that the latest round of sanctions against Iran is successfully voted in the UN with the opposition of Turkey and Brazil.

No one doubts Brasilia and Ankara are rising powers but their self-sufficient foreign policy has just rewarded them a diplomatic humiliation. Is a separate dialogue with Iran a better policy than coordination with the EU3 the US and Russia? Is tolerance towards the Shia Crescent – which clashes with the westerners in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf – wise? Is it rational to band together regional powers against world powers? Is this …’strategic depth’?


  1. Yours Truly said,

    “While revealing of the new reality, Turkey’s actions are not entirely sensible.”

    Since when were the actions of States entirely “rational”? Support for Israel has proven more detrimental to the U.S. as years of evidence clearly shows, no “strategic ally” for sure. States do not always work out cost-benefit analysis when it involves their “friends”.

    Perhaps the Turks have taken a page from the Chinese but applied it in a haphazard & inversed manner — “befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbour”.

    • M. Silva said,

      Thank you for your comment.

      1 – States MAY not always be rational but they SHOULD always strive to be so.

      2 – Support for Israel has NOT proven detrimental to the US. During the Cold War, Israel was an important counter-weight to the pro-Soviet revolutionary Arabs and in any event, Israel’s cultural proximity with the US guarantees a long-term ally. The same cannot be said for Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
      A close parallel could be made with New Zealand, which is one of America’s closest allies due to cultural proximity, and not necessarily strategic need.

      3 – But how are Arabs, Turkey’s “friends”? If Turkey was willing to be bellicose over Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan I might understand but Palestine?…

      This is a purposeful and deliberate foreign policy realignment. I await to see its results but am currently quite skeptical.

  2. BZ said,

    Turkey has no reason to fear that Kosovo script will happen in Kurdistan, especially because no great power stands behind Kurds’ back. I would not say that Turkey does not cooperate with Russia; quite on contrary (not to mention that the 2nd most important language in TR is Russian). Moreover, why would TR cooperate more closely with the so called ‘Christian Club’ a.k.a. EU when EU let Turkey down on numerous occasions.

    • M. Silva said,

      Thank you for your comment BZ.

      1 – Israel is known to have close links with the Iraqi Kurds. Either way, the legal precedent is there and those with glass roofs …

      2 – I did not say that Turkey does not cooperate with Russia. I agree that the opposite happens. I was referring to the Iran Sanctions Resolution on the UNSC.

      3 – Because the EU states are not Turkey’s regional rivals. Russia and Iran are. Because on the issue of sanctions against Iran, the EU accounts for a bigger trade volume with Turkey than Iran does.

      In 2008, the EU3 alone accounted for $87 billion in trade volume whereas Iran accounted for 10 …

  3. M. Silva said,

    Brazil Drops Out


    by Walter Russell Mead

    In an interview with one of the handful of serious newspapers that every informed person should read, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told the (paywall-protected) Financial Times that Brazil would no longer seek a lead role in the diplomatic dispute between Iran and the United States. “We got our fingers burned,” Amorim told the FT. The Daily News, an English-language Turkish newspaper published by the Hurriyet group, tried to cast doubt on the story, saying that there were ‘conflicting’ reports about the Brazilian position. As the smoke cleared this morning, however, both the AP and Reuters confirmed the FT account.

    Brazil’s defection from the ‘axis of fixers‘ leaves Turkey in an uncomfortable place. Limited Israeli concessions on the Gaza blockade have won praise from both the US and Tony Blair without bringing the blockade, including the naval blockade, to an end. The Security Council sanctions against Iran sailed through despite Turkish opposition and, led by the US Treasury Department and the Congress, it is likely that in both the US and the EU new, tougher sanctions will build on what the Security Council laid down.

    What can we learn from all this?

    First, we should discount all the hype about emerging powers that so obsesses the chattering classes. ‘Emerging’ is one of the hypocritical weasel words that foreign policy wonks often use to paper over unpleasant or crude realities. ‘Emerging democracies’ are undemocratic countries where, we hope, existing trends may lead to greater freedom over time. ‘Emerging powers’ similarly should be understood as countries that aren’t yet ready to play a lead role on major issues but who, given time, may someday take a seat at the high table of world affairs. ‘Emerging economies’ are similarly places where, one day, it may be reasonably safe to put your retirement money.

    The endless nattering about ‘emerging powers’ is particularly misguided; it probably led to the brash overconfidence which is ending so badly for both Turkey and Brazil. It also leads far too many people to underestimate the clout that the world’s true great powers have. In Brazil’s case, there has been more than two hundred years of empty chatter about its impending emergence as a great power; its size, its resources, its internal lines of communication along the Amazon and its population have made it an obvious bet for world leadership since the Portuguese royal family fled to Rio to escape Napoleon in 1808. By 1815 it had conquered French Guiana and what is now Uruguay; both conquests were lost. In all the years since somehow the emerger has never quite emerged, and after two hundred years “Brazil is the country of the future and always will be” is a time-honored joke among both Brazilians and Yanquis.

    Personally, I think this is a bit cruel and dismissive; Brazil has made some significant progress in the last generation and it is closer to realizing some of the potential so many observers have for so long ascribed to it. But the light and casual way in which the world’s pundits (many of them utterly ignorant about Brazil’s long history of diplomatic disappointment) concluded from a single, ill-advised diplomatic initiative that Brazil had decisively changed its place in the world is evidence of just how little reflection and experience goes into world politics today.

    Second, we should think about why so much commentary (and, unfortunately, serious policy making) is so frequently seduced by quick and silly analysis. The fundamental analytical flaw is due in large part to simple ignorance of history and an over-dependence on theory. Historical ignorance frequently plays a depressingly significant role even at quite senior levels in American foreign policy, while at the same time intellectual confidence in poorly understood ‘models’ in the ’science’ of international relations makes policymakers confident in all the wrong ways. Ignorance of history often leads to a failure to understand the persistence of certain underlying forces in the world of power politics. American power, for example, is not some fragile flower that will be withered by the first blast of cold air. It rests on extremely durable geographical and cultural foundations and the trend towards rising US power in the international system is even older than Brazil’s failure to emerge. American power is partly rooted in forces even older than our country; many of the factors that enabled the British to triumph in their wars against France during the 18th century bolster American power today.

    At the same time, an over-reliance on theoretical constructs (’liberal internationalism,’ ’structural realism,’ ‘multipolarity’ and on and on and on) leads many analysts into crude and overdetermined projections about where history is headed. History is always marching somewhere: toward American triumph and unipolarity, toward the rule of democracy, the clash of civilizations, American decline and so forth and so on. Even quite senior and serious people will select a few contemporary facts, taken out of their historical contexts, and interpret them as ‘proof’ that the world system as a whole is moving in some theory-modeled way.

    If we add to that the media’s restless hunger for new and exciting big stories and headlines, we get to the kind of overheated universe of commentary that surrounds us today. The death of free markets, the rise of Japan, the triumph of laissez-faire: surely we have all heard enough of these proclamations to realize that they almost always describe short term trends rather than seismic shifts. The first task for anybody who wants to understand the world today, much less to change it, is to cut through the useless chatter and infatuation with cheap and shiny trends that surround us on every side.

    Third, we should not over-interpret Brazil’s retreat. Something real is happening; as I wrote in an earlier post, the efforts of Turkey and Brazil to cut a swathe in global diplomacy reflect some significant forces in those countries as well as important developments in the international system. The quest for more say in the world by more countries will continue to complicate the tasks of American diplomats. Complex negotiating processes on global treaties like the moribund Doha Round of trade talks or the equally becalmed global negotiations on a climate change treaty likely will continue to fail. At the same time, on regional issues where middle powers like Brazil and Turkey have real clout, the United States must learn to work more constructively and imaginatively with them — or figure out strategies that can bring them on-side. Brazil and Turkey aren’t great powers who can intervene wherever they like, but they are respectable middle powers whose interests cannot be ignored without cost.

    The failure of Brazil’s Iranian venture does not mean that the United States does not have a Brazil, and more broadly a Latin America, problem. Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, makes no bones about who is to blame for Brazil’s diplomatic embarrassment: the Obama administration. According to Amorim, the US had encouraged Brazil’s initiative, only to slap it down when it succeeded. That is possible; it is possible that Brazilian diplomats misinterpreted the signals from the US. It is also possible that the Brazilians are reaching desperately for a fig leaf, and blaming the mess on the United States is always an appealing alternative.

    Regardless, the US needs to pay more attention to Latin America and Brazil. The current Bolivarian swing of the pendulum in Latin American politics and the increasingly anti-gringo tone of political discourse in some countries is not as alarming as some people make out. The Latin American pendulum has been swinging for a long time — usually between corrupt and incompetent leftish populism and corrupt and incompetent right wing oligarchic and sometimes military rule. There are occasional periods of liberalism (like the 1990s) as well. While Venezuela’s Chavez may hope that his country’s oil wealth can subsidize its failing economy for a while, the old pendulum is likely to continue to swing; the failures of each type of Latin American leadership historically prepare the way for alternatives. Some of the continent’s nastier governments may venture into arrangements with Iran or other dark forces abroad. The real problem for the US, however, is less the ideological character of some regimes than the breakdown of state authority and the rise of criminal, drug fueled cartels. Mexico’s government is ideologically friendlier to the US than Venezuela’s, but the crisis of Mexican society poses more risk to us than almost anything Chavez could do. In the medium term, the prospect that criminal gangs (with their road eased by the many weak states in the Caribbean) could link up with international terror organizations is a far more chilling thought than that Raul Castro would be greeted by cheering throngs in Quito.

    Dealing with real threats not only to our security but to the security of many Latin American and Caribbean governments needs to be the focus of our policy in the region. Spats with Brazil, even if we ‘win,’ do not help. Washington needs to think much harder about how to build a stable partnership with this important middle power; we need to identify common interests and think about ways in which a closer partnership with Washington can help Brazil come closer to realizing its potential in the twenty first century.

    Brazil has been traveling hopefully since 1808; Washington’s job now is to think constructively about how helping Brazil finally arrive can advance important American interests in the region.

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