The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s muscular maneuvers on the world stage

United Nations General Assembly meetings are not traditionally the most exciting world events to keep track of, yet they are an important indicator of the times that we live in. As such, the impassioned case that President Mahmoud Abbas made for Palestinian statehood, with a rebuttal from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, filled most of the ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

United Nations General Assembly meetings are not traditionally the most exciting world events to keep track of, yet they are an important indicator of the times that we live in. As such, the impassioned case that President Mahmoud Abbas made for Palestinian statehood, with a rebuttal from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, filled most of the headlines along with the now ritualistic walkout of Western diplomats during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. President Obama’s speech on the other hand barely made the news. But perhaps the most significant performance at the annual U.N. meeting that ended last week, and the prime beneficiary of this year’s world stage, was arguably Turkey and its newly minted "rockstar" Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Coming on the heels of his tour of Somalia and the "Arab Spring" capitals in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis, Erdogan was received enthusiastically by every world leader he met with including President Obama, who praised him for his "great leadership." The cache of soft power Turkey brought to New York came not just from its recent surge in regional popularity because of its increasingly tough stance on Israel or burgeoning economy, but because of the personal credibility that its Prime Minister brings as a leader. America’s diminished role in the Middle East mirrors Obama’s own problems domestically that has created a leadership vacuum that Turkey has actively sought to fill.

Erdogan’s regional travels take him beyond the isolated capitals to interact with individuals and communities that Western leaders can only dream of visiting because of security concerns. In turn the Prime Minister fills his talks with these personal experiences and touching anecdotes. Using the same political charisma and rhetoric that has captivated and won him an unprecedented three consecutive terms in office in Turkey, Erdogan’s speech at the U.N. was vintage.

The agenda, focus, and tone of Erdogan’s U.N. speech was telling. Gone was the humble and soft-spoken Turkey of last year. In its place was a self-confident global actor that demanded action and attention on a number of items. Erdogan emphatically stated his support for the recognition of a Palestinian state while also continuing his condemnation of Israeli behavior, part of Turkey’s ongoing bilateral dispute with the country. But it was on Somalia where he began and showed the greatest leadership in championing a moral issue that no other country has embraced. As the first world leader to land at Mogadishu and only the third country after Ethiopia and Djibouti to re-open its embassy, Erdogan boldly flaunted Turkey’s diplomatic muscles. He chastised the developed nations of the world for "forgetting" about Somalia and the suffering throughout the Horn of Africa, while tying it into a broader theme of international change and the march of history that puts Turkey squarely at the center.

Erdogan and Turkey’s dramatic arrival and performance on the international stage has already caused waves as the perennial questions about Turkey’s "axis shift" and "Where is Turkey going?" debates are being renewed in Western capitals. Many long-time observers are accustomed to assessing Turkey’s behavior through the prism of convergence with or divergence from EU and U.S. policies and preferences without a critical assessment of Turkey’s own agenda. In the emerging realities of the new Middle East, Turkey’s ability to deliver on its agenda and promises as a regional power hinges on its consistent pursuit of democratization at home and a principled foreign policy that puts authoritarian rivals in the region to shame. Erdogan and Turkey have always offered an intriguing and tantalizing set of characteristics and potential that has never been fully realized, but is now being fully capitalized on the world stage. At the heart of Turkey’s success has been a pragmatic flexibility towards its new more active regional policy.

With one of the most active U.N. agendas of any world leader, Erdogan also made time for addresses to civil society and media outlets such as Charlie Rose and Fareed Zakaria where he spoke directly to an international audience that is becoming more accustomed to him and his brash style. But the media attention paid to Turkey throughout the U.N. and every meeting it chaired is as much a reflection of Erdogan’s self-confident leadership style as it is a vacuum on the part of other traditional Western power players and the extremes to which other "anti-Western" leaders go to make their cases. It also helps that when Erdogan speaks he is already the envy of his neighbors: Turkey is one of the great economic success stories of the 21st century and in the last quarter overtook China for the first time in overall rate of growth.

On almost every international issue, Turkey has actively involved itself and been able to pivot with more success than other players. As evidenced by Turkey’s announcements before arriving at the U.N. that it was severing all ties with Syria and would be stationing NATO radar sites to deal with any potential threats from Iran, flexibility is part and parcel of Erdogan’s more active leadership style. Still, having switched from "zero problems with neighbors" to a self-styled champion of the "people," Erdogan has had more success with his regional calculus than within a Turkey that continues to struggle with its perennial Kurdish problem. Having once championed a political solution, Erdogan’s increasingly hard line on the Kurdish question has led many to criticize Turkey for hypocrisy and inconsistency.

But in the midst of the dramatic Middle Eastern revolutions and European economic crisis over the past year, Turkey has been offered as a "model" in every conceivable way despite a lack of consensus on the true lessons of the Turkish experience. Unlike many Middle Eastern governments, which lack legitimacy among their own populations, and Israel, which is increasingly isolated, Turkey has emerged stronger as an independent, populist, and powerful regional ally to be courted by all actors, not just the United States.

Turkey did not transform itself from a defeated post-Ottoman Empire state to a flourishing market-based Muslim-majority democracy overnight, nor did Prime Minister Erdogan become the most successful conservative Muslim politician in Turkey and its neighborhood without going through a series of major transformations; it has been almost a century in the making. The lessons learned and the opportunities offered by both are particularly applicable to the world today, which is in a period of profound change and increasingly explains why all eyes have been turning towards Erdogan and Turkey.

For the transatlantic community, Turkey’s newfound swagger and Erdogan’s victorious international performance can make him either a more valuable or an uncertain partner. Turkish policies and Erdogan’s populism can still complement the EU and U.S. if framed within a broader and longer-term perspective of the transatlantic alliance that shares common goals and values, even if the short-term means differ. At a moment in which U.S. leadership is being questioned and Middle Eastern frustrations continue, the timing has never been more opportune to re-focus on the core principles and values that have led to the emergence of Erdogan as leader in the new democratic Turkey.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund

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