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Power, Influence and the Normalization of History

Friday, Oct. 29, 2010

Turkey's deepening ties with China are worth paying attention to regardless of the academic reasoning used to justify them. But I thought Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's formulation was worth passing on. Referring to Francis Fukuyama's famous "end of history" as a framework for understanding the end of the Cold War, Davutoglu instead referred to the Cold War and the colonial period that preceded it as historical anomalies, with Turkey's foreign policy orientation now reflecting the ways in which history is undergoing a "normalization."

I've seen this same anomaly framework applied by French Gen. Vincent Desportes to Cold War approaches to strategy and tactics, with the new counterinsurgency emphasis representing a return to a more-Clausewitzian approach. And Hubert Védrine titled a recent book "Continuer l'Histoire," which was cleverly translated as "History Strikes Back," although it literally means, to continue history. But both were from a distinctly Western perspective, with the latter being a discussion about the persistent relevance of nations in the era of globalization.

With all the discussion these days about U.S. and Western primacy and relative decline, it's worth considering what a normalization of history represents to the rest of the planet. For Turkey, it means deep ties with both the U.S. and Europe on one hand, and with China -- as well as Iran and Syria -- on the other.

There are still a lot of caveats. China is operating under many constraints, including suspicions over its strategic and commercial intentions, but also the almost-universal fear among its trading partners of being overwhelmed by trade imbalances. But other South-South networks are emerging, with Turkey simply representing an early adapter in this process. That means that while the U.S. will continue to possess a disproportionate amount of power for the foreseeable future, we will find it increasingly difficult to wield that power effectively in order to translate it into influence.

The question is how American exceptionalism will adapt to the new normal that the rest of the world is busy preparing for. Recently we've done a good job of exploiting China's mistakes, particularly in Asia. But we should be putting more energy into exploring how to capitalize on Turkey's successes.