This Week in Geopolitics

The Coup and Turkey as a Great Power

July 25, 2016

In my book The Next 100 Years, I argued that Turkey is going to become a major regional power. Recent events would seem at odds with this prospect. But in fact, they confirm it.

Emerging as a regional power puts great pressure on a nation. The shift in the external reality forces shifts internally as well. The result is what we have seen so far in Turkey: a clash between rival factions with diverse visions, a coup of some sort, and for now, a dictatorship.

Rising power in the world flows from greater domestic strength. But it feeds back into the internal system and creates strain on social and political fault lines. We can see examples of this throughout history.

How the US and Japan Emerged as Global Powers

The Mexican-American War turned the US into the leading regional power in North America. The war also spurred the early stages of industrialization. Railroads, the telegraph, and various forms of hydrocarbon-powered factories began to change the very nature of commerce.

So, one part of the US (the North) began quickly evolving its economic and social systems. The South wanted to retain its plantation-based economy and social system. The split led to the Civil War and the deaths of over half a million.

Some believed the Civil War would end the regional power status of the US and cripple its economy. It was a fair outlook, but it was wrong. From 1865 onward, the US grew its economic and global power.

Although tragic, the Civil War did not change the course of the US. Instead, it cleared the decks and created a new power structure to deal with the new realities of a mechanized society. The ascent of the US, to that of a regional power dominating a continent, ripped the social fabric and led to the war.

Also consider Japan’s journey to become a major power as it industrialized in the late 19th century. After Japan defeated Russia, its economy evolved quickly while the social structure stayed fairly static. That led to severe tensions between the liberally minded business class and the socially conservative military.

Stepping into its new role as a regional and economic power created instability for Japan. This period was followed by military dictatorship.

There are also examples where emerging powers wracked by instability stagnate or falter.

It is not a hard and fast rule that instability is a natural product of a nation’s growing power. However, there is no reason to assume that instability must undermine power.

Turkey’s Path to Instability

Since the late 1990s, there have been three stress points that have borne down ever harder on Turkey.

First, it had a period of rapid economic growth. This caused tension between the existing elites and the new centers of economic power.

It also promoted political rivalry. On one side, a new economic order focused on exports and gaining access to the EU markets. On the other side, an older and less dynamic system tried to preserve itself.

Second, there was the festering question of Islam’s role in politics. Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a staunchly secular society.

However, in 2002, the dynamics of the region shifted, with religious Muslims gaining more power. The regional rise of Islam has affected Turkey as religious activists began asserting themselves.

President Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, acted as an agent for the Muslim community. The army, which was constitutionally responsible for upholding secularism (Turkey is the only country I know of where this is the case), found itself confronting the AKP.

Third, its economic power and the complexity of the regional political climate were both growing. That meant that Turkey would inevitably get drawn into regional conflicts. In fact, the AKP tried to limit its involvement, but that created tensions with the US and other nations. It became entangled in events in Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea.

The Divide Between the AKP and the Military

The basic tension is between the AKP and the military. There was also friction between old and new money, and between secular Istanbul and the more religious and traditional Anatolia.

There was no way to continue militant secularism as the Muslim community grew more assertive. Yet, the military has always been part of Turkish politics and its officer corps is committed to secularism.

Turkey had to make room for religious Muslims as tension grew between the old Europhile elites and the Euroskeptic emerging powers.

Turkey also had to start managing its regional power. The first step would be to redefine its relationship with its old patron, the US. The military was pro-American, while Erdoğan was not eager to engage in America’s regional agendas.

These external pressures and internal social evolution created an unsustainable situation. Turkey was a volatile mix of political ingredients that was destined to explode. There was no civil war, at least not yet, and the military was unable to impose a dictatorship. But the new realities had to be dealt with.

Many observers have asked whether the coup attempt was real or staged by Erdoğan to justify a state of emergency. It’s an interesting question. Whether the coup was genuine or not, the crucial fact is that a dictatorship has emerged and imposed a state of emergency.

Erdoğan is conducting a massive purge of opponents, having arrested tens of thousands. The focus, though, has been on his natural enemy, the military. All parts of Turkish society are being transformed by culling those who Erdoğan doesn’t trust or who have strongly opposed him.

The state of emergency legally lasts for three months but can be extended. Or new laws can be passed to justify continuing the dictatorship.

By the time it is all done, if it is effective, dictatorship will not be needed as Erdoğan will have broken his opposition. It is key not to personalize this. It is easy to think that this is about Erdoğan. That would be a mistake.

What we are seeing is a convulsion in a system that has been under major pressure from the very things that have made it successful. Like the antebellum South in the US that could not accommodate the changes after the Mexican-American War, Turkey cannot cope with its stresses.

These stresses come from rapid economic growth, the tensions between secular and Muslim regions, and the beginning of Turkey as a great power.

Where Turkey Goes from Here

As the American Civil War and Japanese militarism showed, this is not a pretty thing to watch. It is a spasm that will have lasting effects.

It is also not a question of right or wrong.

The military has its constitutional function, and Erdoğan was elected. In looking at the two, who is at fault? It is a futile question. Religious Muslims must pursue their interests as must secularists. The military is charged with protecting the state against the religious. New money always challenges old.

The state that Atatürk created can no longer exist. The pro-European secularism of the 1920s has largely weakened. The economic boom has introduced new players to what had been a closed circle of elites. The military can no longer function as overseer of Turkish politics. Those days are at an end, but they will not end quietly. Erdoğan is now trying to bury the past.

But this should not be understood as the failure of Turkey as a society, nor as rendering Turkey incapable of being a regional power. These events actually strengthen the ability to act regionally and to act based on its own interests. In a way, they free Turkey from old assumptions at home and in its foreign policy.

I am not praising this process. It goes on regardless of my opinion, and that is the point. Nations that are succeeding are as open to disruption as nations that are failing.

Success in the US created the Civil War. To everyone’s surprise, the success continued long after the bloodbath.

History and geopolitics are unsentimental. They are indifferent to whether we approve or condemn the drama. The most we can do is try to understand it. And the key thing to understand is that the current chaos will likely strengthen Turkey, not weaken it.

George Friedman
George Friedman

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