In the crosshairs of the three global fault lines

Turkey today, looks as if it is willing to further corrupt itself by deepening its relations with Moscow, as if it is turning for inspiration towards the Chinese “third way” and as if for it secularism is either anathema or an anachronic luxury to be finally dispensed with. Turkey’s ever pragmatist or opportunist leadership looks forthcoming towards the idea of selling the few remaining family jewels to China as a last resort.

Borders are being blurred (Erithrea-Tigray/Ethiopia, Syria/Iraq, tri-border Saharan area etc.) and a renewed appetite for coup d’états (Myanmar, Jordan, Mali, Niger etc.) seem apparent. With the Biden administration taking over, the contours of three global struggles are getting more visible. These files are (not necessarily in any order of priority): Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China and Islamism. Green deal and/or global warming, as well as artificial intelligence and the transformation that implies for future wars as well as for national economies can for sure be considered as the other two. Yet for the sake of this analysis’ purpose, I will try and circumvent them.

The U.S., by President Biden’s refusal so far to pick up the phone to get in initial touch with his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan and through (first and foremost) its Secretary of State Blinken (and the Secretary of Defence Gen. Austin and the National Security Advisor Sullivan, again so far) made it abundantly clear that unless the Russian made S-400 air defence batteries are buried, disposed of or sealed and the seals opened for US regular inspection, it will not come to table with Turkey. The U.S. also deflected the other headache point of the Halkbank case by underscoring the fact that its’ judiciary is independent.

Putin’s Russia exports subtly or not so subtly nepotism and kleptocracy abroad. It keenly supports all sorts of nativist, populist, neo-nationalist movements by making a point that internal affairs including freedom of speech, human rights, free and fair elections, rule of law etc. should be beyond reach for other countries. That is translated as the so-called “non-polar moment” denying the U.S. any claim to lead the free world or in fact denying that there can be such a thing as the “free world”. As G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq opened an era following the 9/11 kick-off of the new millennium, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and move to prop up Assad in Syria opened a second chapter. 

Xi’s China follows an expansionary strategy, soft and hard simultaneously, with an eye on a climactic history moment where China will inevitably become the centre of universe. It felt urged to gobble up Hong Kong without patiently waiting for the 2047 “second handover”. It flexes its muscles in Southern Pacific theatre and eyeing Taiwan encouraged by lack of reaction or the apparent helplessness that both the Hong Kong and the Crimean affairs provided. Its navy now is the largest in the world according to the US DoD and once again showcased its aspired might by launching the world’s largest submarine -Type-100 Class armed with 48 SLBMs.

The Belt Road Initiative complete with its’ galaxy of harbours, the aggressive stance adopted towards the raw material resources in Africa and South America, soft loan deals made with sanctions and pandemic stricken fragile countries as well as 5G, face-recognition and other such technologies are tentacles of its soft power. Which, per se, would not be considered as out of bounds unless China would not be displaying at the same time its party-state run by a small close-knit group within the Communist Party as a possible “third way” to the world. Hence, it is not a coincidence that the likes of the Iran regime hardliners or the military coupists in Myanmar turn towards Beijing when times get rough. 

The emergence of ISIS first in Iraq then its spreading to Syria, not only blurred national frontiers but also altered the threat perception in the West. As a security threat, it transformed the earlier Al Qaida scare and added a control of territory dimension both in the Middle East and now in the sub-Saharan Africa. It turned up the heat two-folds: First, by bringing the challenge down from the mountainous border region of Pakistan-Afghanistan to Europe’s neighbouring Syria. And second, it also rendered the issue of the compatibility of Islam with secularism or Islamism (as a variant of authoritarianism) with democracy more urgent in countries like France and brought to the fore other burning questions concerning integration, enlightenment, reform etc. by straining the already tense seams of Western pluralist societies.        

If one agrees with me summarily putting Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China and Islamism as the three main global challenges to –what may be called as- the “Western way of life” (ideally based on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”), then Turkey sits literally atop the intersection of these three major fault lines. Using pincers of a presumed “firm transactionalism” will not cut it as abandoning it adrift as it was never part of the West anyway will not do either. If one wishes to add theatrics, one may as well claim that it is here that the future of our world as we know it will be decided.

Although the constitution of its’ republic still remains nominally secular, Turkey today is run by a coalition of nationalists and Islamists fully supported by its’ military and security bureaucracy. In the quest of an aspired strategic autonomy, Ankara pulls at the strings of NATO and ignores the European structure (as in ECHR, CoE and OSCE) the foundations of which itself helped build at the time. It also attempts at re-interpreting its history as if for centuries the Ottoman Empire was not a central and later a southeastern European power, as if the Empire’s population was mix, and as if the ideas that brought first the constitutional monarchy and then the secular republic were nor ushered in from Europe.

To repeat a banality, Russia was, is and always will be Turkey’s gigantic northern neighbour. The two powers fought each other for at least a whopping eleven times in the last couple of centuries and Turkey lost all those battles except the Crimean War which was won by Britain and France with Ottomans simply tagging along. Ergo, it is in Ankara’s interest to establish healthy relations with Moscow, no doubt about that. Yet there exists a full panoply of colours in the interpretation of establishing “healthy relations”, what with turning belly up and full dependence at the one end and increased import/export and tourism on the other.

As for China, the more the Turkish economy further advances in the dire straits that it is currently in and the more the U.S. and the EU appear to adopt a hard-line stance towards Ankara, Turkey’s ever pragmatist or opportunist leadership looks forthcoming towards the idea of selling the few remaining family jewels to China as a last resort. By the same token, Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant and the Turkish Stream projects with Russia can be seen under the same light. Perhaps, we may predict that depending on the way the Syrian multiway gambit plays out, as the recently discovered alliance with Russia crumbles, China will even gain more traction with Ankara.  

As parroted numerous times in this column, the U.S. and the EU will need to prove themselves capable of tapping into scarce resources of political vision, imagination and diplomatic tact instead of adopting a blunt and shallow “firm transactionalism” approach when dealing with Turkey. Turkey today, looks as if it is willing to further corrupt itself by deepening its relations with Moscow, as if it is turning for inspiration towards the Chinese “third way” and as if for it secularism is either anathema or an anachronic luxury to be finally dispensed with.

At the same time, Ankara’s not-so-assertive-anymore foreign policy still reflects a constant search for gaullist strategic autonomy. The U.S. and the EU should devise a strategy to clearly show Turkey that that end can only be attained by strengthening its’ place where it historically belongs, within the existing alliances such as NATO and by acceding to full EU membership. Facilitating a peaceful and political solution of its Kurdish question must be an inevitable part of that strategy. It is easier to write about strategy than to actually coming up with and implementing it, yet I can conceive of no other outcome. Unless the final act includes a scene in which we blow ourselves up all together creating a mother of all black holes

April 12, 2021 Ursula standing