Managing Turkey’s Transition from Bridge to Hub

Since Monday morning, I’d been wanting to dash off a post to the effect that, 1) the extent of Turkey and Brazil’s diplomatic triumph in getting Iran to sign a basically meaningless text had been greatly exagerrated; and, 2) Turkey is not turning from West to East, but rather is affirming its position as a node in the global power structure.

But on Monday, Walter Russel Mead did the heavy lifting on the first point. I figured that still left me the second one, but Yigal Schleifer took care of that yesterday. Both are worth reading in full, as is Omer Taspinar’s take on Turkish Gaullism.

The point is that the West has long seen Turkey in an instrumental light, as a bridge joining West to East — and Turkey was satisfied playing that role. But for much of the past decade, Turkey has been determined to function as a central hub in a regional hub-and-spokes network, most visibly for energy and now increasingly in the diplomatic realm. The difference being that bridges are simply crossed over, whereas hubs are destinations in their own right.

The challenge is in this transition period, when Turkey is clearly no longer a bridge, but not yet a hub.

That’s where the U.S. comes in. Turkey as a regional power node remains a net asset for the West, if it is given the respect and trust to work with (something I’ve called Middle Power Mojo in the past). I suspect we’ll see why in the case of the Iran fuel swap deal, whose real impact is to have replaced the EU3 with Turkey as the principle intermediary for the U.S. in negotiating with Iran. If the Obama administration can get past the ruffled feathers of the U.N. sanctions vote — and there are indications that that’s the case — then that opening could still be the path to the U.S. driving those negotiations much more directly.

The danger for the West is not Turkey’s new role, but rather Ankara’s growing temptation to use the most inflammatory approach to the Palestinian cause to burnish its claim to regional leadership, something Tom Friedman argued — albeit in typically Friedmanesque fashion — this week. Turkey playing rival to Iran as regional demagogue would seriously complicate the Obama administration’s Middle East policy and limit the U.S. ability to benefit from the relationship.

In both areas — Gaza and the Iran deal — it seems like Ankara is on the verge of overplaying its hand, and that kind of pride usually comes before a fall. By contrast, a modest and clever deployment of its rising profile as a force multiplier for its traditional friends and allies would greatly reinforce Turkey’s regional and global credentials. The Obama administration should be doing everything possible to discourage the former by actively rewarding the latter. The hamhanded handling of the Iran fuel swap deal was an unforced error. Hopefully the follow-up will be more skillful.

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