Turkey’s Independent Line

There’s been a glaring absence of coverage in the American press of the ways in which Turkey has been increasingly pursuing an independent line in its regional foreign policy. What’s more, Ankara is basically ignoring pressure from Washington on a number of high-priority items despite belated American intelligence-sharing in the campaign to eradicate PKK bases in Northern Iraq. Three recent examples have gone all but unnoticed. The first was Turkey’s refusal to deploy more troops to Afghanistan at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest. The second was its recent involvement in advancing Israeli-Syrian dialogue in the face of American efforts to isolate Damascus. And the third is its ongoing reticence to play a more prominent role in Washington’s efforts to contain Iran.

The temptation is obviously to paint this as another example of declining American influence, but I think it’s more complex than that. Turkey’s success in defining its strategic vision independently of the U.S. is based in part on its relative position of economic and military influence, and in part on the reserve of goodwill it has accumulated in the region. But it also demonstrates the ways in which the emerging geopolitical landscape favors dynamic, regional Middle Powers adept at navigating the complexities of local conflicts. Now while that might seem to be another way of formulating a relative decline in American influence, it doesn’t have to be, and I’ve made the argument before that an intelligent American foreign policy would go to great lengths to make sure it doesn’t.

In basing its regional policy on an approach — containment of Iran and Syria — that is in opposition to the expressed interests of our two most dependable allies (Turkey’s energy interests in Iran and Israel’s security interests in Syria), the Bush administration has put too high a price on our friendship at a time when the cost of going it alone is extremely low. What’s more, given the economic interconnectivity of the globalized age, the collective impact of sanctions on Iran hurt our friends as much as they hurt our enemies. So instead of formulating a policy that invites participation, we’re almost encouraging our allies to find alternative approaches.

Whether the emerging world order will be a multi-polar or non-polar one is open to debate. One thing that’s certain is that America will still be necessary, but not sufficient, and that in many cases our power will be poorly adapted to the circumstances on which it must be brought to bear. Which means that our best hope of leading will be to cleverly identify who to follow. Middle Powers like Turkey offer a sensible litmus test of the soundness of our regional policy. That might be antithetical to American instinct and habit born from a century of dominance, but times change, and we’d do well to change with them.