Today, Turkey seeks to emerge from the shadow of America and the West in general, to become a regional if not world power in its own right. Some observers of Turkey think the nation dreams of re-establishing the glory days of the Ottoman Empire, which at its peak spanned from the gates of the Balkans to the Indian Ocean and "claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world."
A leading businessman in Kayseri confirmed for me this Turkish ambition. "Give us five years," he said. "Modern Turkey can match the economic power of the Ottoman Empire."
(Another Turk laughs and asks "The Ottoman Empire at what historical period? It's end? Yes, we can match that! At its peak? I'm not so sure.")
Turkey doesn't aspire to imperialism, to politically dictate or dominate the nations of the former Ottoman Empire in the way that the Ottomans did, my students assure me. But modern Turkey, by its comparative wealth, military might, political stability and religious influence relative to other countries in the region, it will be nation to be reckoned with on the world stage.
Turkey's economy is booming, even in the midst of a global downturn. It sustained an average of 6% growth from 2002-2006, an average growth rate of nearly 4% per year 2007-10, and projects at least 3.5% growth rate per year from 2011-20 (source), one of the highest sustained rates of growth in the world. If current trends continue, by 2050, Turkey's GDP will be greater than that of Germany, Japan and France, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis. Earnings from exports are rising, especially in the former Ottoman colonies of North Africa. Turkey's job growth is expanding so rapidly that by 2015, it expects to be importing workers to fill jobs within Turkey.
Europe doesn't yet understand how it needs Turkey in the EU as much or more than Turkey needs the EU. Turkey provides Europe with much of its oil and natural gas through the Caspian basin, Russia, and eventually, from the Turkic Republics of Central Asia.Turkey's neighbors -- in particular, Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- depend on it for economic stability.
It is kind of awesome to look at a map of the Ottoman Empire at its peak, from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf and where the Red Sea runs into the Gulf of Aden and meets the Indian Ocean:
"Since the concept of neo-Ottomanism may evoke an imperial agenda, one important point needs clarification," writes Biomiast: "Turkey, in this neo-Ottoman paradigm, does not pursue a neo-imperialist policy aimed at resurrecting the Ottoman Empire. Instead of imperial nostalgia, neo-Ottomanism is essentially about projecting Turkey’s “soft power” - a bridge between East and West, a Muslim nation, a secular state, a democratic political system, and a capitalistic economic force."
George Friedman, founder of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, predicts in The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century that a new Turkish empire will arise from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Noting that Turkey currently has the seventeenth largest economy in the world, is growing by leaps and bounds and modernizing rapidly, Friedman predicts that it will become the unchallenged leader of the Muslim world. Indeed, Turkey has already become an influential regional power. Friedman goes so far as to predict war between Turkey and Japan on one side against the U.S. and its Western allies on the other side, in 2050. (He also predicts war between the U.S. and Mexico.) Such predictions are outlandish -- no more reliable than science fiction -- but it is a tribute to Turkey's up-and-coming position in global politics.
Ibrahim Kalin in Today's Zaman asserts that "empire" is defined by five factors. A country is an empire if it has 1) amassed land; 2) built a huge army; 3) exploited cheap labor; 4) has political and economic colonies; and 5) engages in cultural influence or imperialism. By those definitions, America comes pretty close to achieving empire. Turkey has a ways to go.
Turkey does have one of the largest standing armies in the world, and mandatory conscription. Every young man must spend a year or two in military service to his country.
Kalin wonders whether we've reached the "End of Western Ascendancy" and the burdens of empire may be too great for America, or any one nation, in the future. But world power abhors a vacuum, and if America doesn't fill it, other countries could try to step in. As one of my students point out, "if the American empire declines and falls, other empires will rise up and take its place, because that has always happened in world history." Turkey may seek to step into the Middle East as a moderate, secular Muslim democracy, a model for Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations, especially if U.S. influence in the region declines.
In much of its history since becoming a republic in 1923, Turkey has been isolationist, anchoring itself to the "civilized" West and untangling it from the "backward" lands to the East, as Forbes reports. During the Cold War, Turkey was pretty much a satellite of America, going so far as to store and point U.S. nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union out of fear that without them, the Soviets would attack Turkey or that communists would try to take control of Turkey from within. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis began when Soviets sought to set up missiles in Cuba directed at the U.S. to offset the U.S. missiles in Turkey. Fortunately for the U.S., the Soviets blinked and withdrew the missiles from Cuba, and President Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey.
The days of Turkey taking orders from Washington are gone. It has recently asserted its independence from Israel, and offers itself as mediator and power-broker amongst the countries of the Middle East as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. "In doing so, it certainly has become more enmeshed in the Muslim world, sometimes even positioning itself as the spokesman for the Islamic world," Forbes notes.
- The Misnomer of Neo-Ottomanism, by Dr. Soner Cagaptay. He takes exception to the notion that Turkish foreign policy is 'neo-Ottoman,' and instead describes it as Islamist, moving away from the West.
- Turkey's official diplomatic position is that it is neither "neo-Ottoman" nor Islamist, but simply pragmatically seizing opportunities with neighbors. "Neo-Ottoman" insults former Ottoman colonies, and wrongly implies imperialist intentions, while "Islamist" makes the West nervous, and implies alliance with militants like Iran. Here's a link to articles on Turkey's foreign policy.
- Americans Skeptical of Emerging 'Neo-Ottoman' Economic Powerhouse of Turkey