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Turkish Democracy Gives Rise to Turkish Power

International attention to Turkey’s recent election reflects Ankara’s rising role not only in the Arab Spring but as a newly powerful democracy with broad regional influence.

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With the Gulf War of 1990-91, the years of genocidal economic sanctions that followed, and the assault and occupation of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S. brought Iraq to its knees and destroyed its potential as an independent regional power for decades to come. Iran, the sole remaining regional challenger, remains in Washington’s military as well as economic crosshairs and is now isolated from many countries unwilling to stand up to U.S. pressure.  

New Power in the Expanded Middle East

And now quietly, over the last decade while the eyes of much of the world were on the wars raging further south and east, another regional challenger was emerging. Turkey had always possessed two of the three requisites of Middle East power – huge land and population, and relatively abundant sources of water.  But Turkey doesn’t have much oil and, despite its position in the key transit corridor for central Asian and Caspian natural gas, had long been too poor to contend with the petro-powers. But suddenly, Turkey had emerged as a regional, indeed global, economic powerhouse.  

In one decade, most of it under AKP rule, Turkey almost tripled its per capita GDP – from  $3910 in 2000 to over  $10,000 in 2009. Suddenly the country once dubbed “the poor man of Europe” boasted the 17 th largest economy in the world, was welcomed as a member of the Group of Twenty biggest global economic powers, and became recognized as a necessary regional and global interlocutor. Certainly there are contradictions; inequality has been reduced every year since 2001 but remains high, and the UN’s 2010 Human Development Index ranked Turkey below some similar countries with lower GDPs because those other, poorer, countries had managed to achieve higher standards of education and life expectancy.   

But still, in a remarkably brief time, under AKP leadership, huge investments in infrastructure are visible across Turkey. New and improved roads and highways, new high-speed train systems, new housing complexes, new public hospitals available to all and cheaper private hospitals accessible to Turkey’s (and the region’s) burgeoning middle class, all are on the rise. A multi-faceted economy based on tourism, agriculture and manufacturing has enabled Turkey to go where only petro-states had gone before. Once again there are two regional powers in the Middle East, each with water, wealth and size – Iran and Turkey.  

“Zero Problems With Neighbors?” 

But this time, things are different. Based on his eponymous “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey’s creative Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has crafted a cordial range of economic, diplomatic, border and other relations with Iran. Ankara and Tehran are certainly economic as well as political rivals in the Middle East and beyond, but their relationship has none of the dangerous competition that so often led to military conflict between Iran and Iraq.  

The broadening of Turkish foreign policy does not mean a rejection of its long-standing relationships with Europe and the U.S., or its identification with “the West.” Rather, what Davutoglu has crafted is an approach to international relationships that privileges only what Turkey defines as its own national interests, rather than acquiescing to the demands imposed by outside actors. So Turkey has not abandoned its quest to join the European Union, but the AKP and its followers insist it is no longer willing to subsume its entire independent identity as a Muslim Middle Eastern country to try to persuade reluctant Euro-partners. Turkey’s role in NATO unfortunately remains militarily unchanged – Turkey is one of only six NATO members that still host U.S. “tactical” nuclear weapons and as of May 2011 there were 1785 Turkish soldiers deployed in Afghanistan – but Ankara, with significant investment in Libya, played a cautionary role in NATO’s decision to attack and has refused to fully engage as the Libya assault has escalated. 

 
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