Turkey has shown the way in power projection by middle-ranking states
While the baseline assumption was that, whatever the poll result, Recep Tayyip Erdogan would emerge from the forthcoming election the victor, Turkey’s once invincible-looking strongman is suddenly looking more mortal than ever before. Rushed off air during a live interview during the week with a rumoured heart infraction, and briefly pausing major campaign events due to undisclosed health issues, age and time may finally call a halt to a political career that personal ambition and a desire not to die in jail could have kept on the road for years yet.
Turkey’s economic miracle, largely based on grand if poorly planned construction projects, is now looking as much a disaster zone as the country’s corpse- and rubble-strewn southeast (lax building standards being a major factor in Erdogan’s dipping poll numbers). Yet even his harshest critics must acknowledge that his aggressive pursuit of Turkey’s national interest has made the country a major shaper of the new multipolar world order.
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The humanitarian consequences of his invasions of Syria and Northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatists, like his crushing of a Kurdish uprising in his own country’s southeast and support for his Azerbaijani mini-me Ilham Aliyev’s brutal subjugation of the Armenians, are without doubt dire and loathsome. Similarly, in his aggressive rhetoric and sabre-rattling against his purported NATO partner Greece, which has brought France to the edge of conflict against him, Erdogan has often made the Western alliance more a source of pleasing internal tension for his frenemy Putin than a bulwark against Russia. And yet…
It is an undeniable truth that under Erdogan, Turkey has become a pioneer of power projection by middle-ranking states in a dawning multipolar order. If true multipolarity has only revealed itself through the yawning indifference of Asian nations to the war in Ukraine, and the consequent rush by America’s Middle East client-states and enemies alike to Chinese arbitration, Turkey showed itself a decade ahead of the game. Dealing with Putin like a premodern statesman, alternately courting the new tsar as an ally and openly fighting his forces in Syria (though retreating with rapped knuckles on each occasion), Erdogan hedged his relationship with his Nato overlord America to the maximum degree possible, and lived to tell the tale — even if only just.
Dealing with allies and foes alike cynically and transactionally over the course of his career, playing great powers against each other and trading concessions and sanctions from each like an inveterate gambler, Erdogan in many ways harked back to Britain’s great age of early 19th century-politics, when Britain, too, was just one middle-ranking power among many contenders for greatness.
Like his wildly successful sponsorship of Turkey’s low-cost, maximum-effect defence industry, perhaps there are lessons from his amoral and fascinating career on the world stage for us too. While it would not do for us to follow his aggressive course– and our recent wars of choice have not been successful in any case– a more transactional, cynical Britain may well become a more influential player by acting in its own self-interest now and again.