BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Enormous changes are afoot not only in the Middle East and Europe, but all of Eurasia. Demography informs much of these changes–native-born populations in Europe are in terminal decline (dittos for Russia), meanwhile the Middle East is brimming with young, unemployed men, just looking for a good jihad. To the East, Asia has monumental levels of capital that it is looking to splurge coupled with an abundance of human capital. From an innovation standpoint, most experts continue wondering when the next great innovation hub will be birthed–and very few are sanguine that such a hub will be in the Western world (it will most likely arise somewhere between Beijing and New Delhi, depending on how things break over the next decade or so).
For Turkey, which sits at the crossroads of the Orient and the Occident, they are well-suited to choose their own destiny. Or, at least, Turkey’s nominal Sultan, Recep Erdogan is poised to pick his country’s future. And, while even a decade ago that choice would have likely been to remain standing beside the West, those days are long gone. Fact is, between the alienation Erdogan feels from Europe (the European Union refuses to allow for Turkey’s accession into the EU and both the EU and the United States continue dinging Turkey for its flagrant human rights abuses) and the rising relations with Iran, Russia, and China, Turkey’s future likely lies to its east.
For most Western analysts, this is an improper assumption. After all, Turkey forms the vital southern front of NATO and has been a long-time partner in that alliance. But, most Western analysts completely ignore the economic and demographic changes between the West and East. What’s more, many analysts refuse to acknowledge that the West–including the United States–is in relative decline, whereas the East is not (though nothing is certain and, if the U.S. plays its cards right, it could come back with renewed vigor).
In the summer of 2016, several data points were unveiling themselves which prompted myself (and several hedge-funders) to posit a long-held belief that China may be on the verge of collapse. If that did come, I argued, the old Chinese dynastic cycle would begin once again. Well, despite the negative trends that were working against the Chinese, it would seem that they weathered the proverbial storm well. Whatever the long-term holds for China (a rapidly graying population, political instability in its periphery, hostile neighbors, and a rising generation of Christian Chinese citizens, who might just be the key to democratizing China), for now, the Chinese seem to be poised to retain–and possibly expand–their dominant position.
Indeed, this is the thesis of the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman in his thrilling new book, “Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond.” In his book, Rachman posits that wealth has transitioned from the West to the East for so long that, coupled with massive demographic changes, the East is prompting major changes to the international system (specifically, China). David P. Goldman of the Asia Times Online speculates that Asia (again, specifically China) has a major surplus of capital and wants desperately to invest it. Since most Chinese refuse to invest their earnings in fellow Chinese, but instead wish to invest in “more stable” foreign markets (i.e. Western ones, with predictable and fair laws and regulations), Goldman postulated in 2011 that the United States in particular, which is currently lacking in capital and credit, needed desperately to entice these Asian investors to the West.
The process of Easternization has also allowed for the Chinese to initiate and maintain their One Belt, One Road program. Essentially, this program is designed to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road routes that once linked China with Europe (and everywhere between). These are land-based trading networks. China aims to be the engine of this new Eurasian-wide network. By creating this hub, the Chinese not only hope to increase revenue and their influence throughout Eurasia, but they also hope to mitigate the threat that the United States Navy poses to their trade. China is heavily dependent on foreign trade for their economy. Upwards of 70% of China’s trade is conducted over maritime trading routes.
Thus, the Chinese economy is highly susceptible to disruption. Given China’s recent wave of aggression directed against its neighbors (and, therefore, the United States), the Chinese recognize that the United States could easily impose a blockade as a way to force to back down from its more aggressive stances in the South and East China Seas. In fact, I have outlined how such a U.S. Navy program might work. The Chinese cannot unburden themselves of being dependent on international trade–especially if China is to make its all-important pivot away from an industrial, manufacturing economy into a total post-industrial, knowledge-based economy. Such an economy is predicated more on consumption much more than production (though, to be sure, producing new technology and other Information Age-products is still key). Essentially, China must continue to be a global nation if it is to dominate the world through its all-powerful economy.
With the development of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative, they have also provided a perfect pretext to do something that has otherwise been lacking in China’s 5,000-year history: the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing aims to unite as much of the far removed Chinese hinterland in northwest China with its prosperous coastal towns on its eastern shores as it can. After all, it is the countryside that has produced the greatest amount of political disruption throughout Chinese history. The coasts have always benefited from foreign trade whereas the interior of the country was very often neglected and abused by the leadership in Beijing (this goes back to the very first Chinese imperial dynasties, and is not exclusively a modern phenomenon in China).
The CCP understands that it must link the entire country together as never before and effectively “share the wealth” with the interior, to avoid massive instability from consuming the Chinese system.
This provides considerable opportunity for Turkey. While Turkey does not share any borders with China whatsoever, it does sit in the region previously known as “Anatolia”–the land that links the East with the West. Turkey sits atop the Middle East, it straddles the geostrategic Black Sea (controlling the Bosporous Strait, a key seaway for international trade and travel), and it resides at Europe’s underbelly. Plus, there is a large–and growing–ethnic Turkish population in China’s western provinces. Indeed, as recently as June of this year, Chinese state media have published opinion pieces warning of the potentiality for a “Pan-Turkic Union” to arise that would threaten China’s internal political stability.
For Turkey, however, the presence of such a large ethnic Turkish population implies great opportunity for them: they have an “in” as it were with a large chunk of Chinese citizens in a region that is growing in strategic and economic importance. Combine this with Turkey’s position as a vital crossroads of civilization, and China and Turkey are poised for an increasing level of positive and exclusive interaction. It will likely first be at the economic level, but ultimately, such relations would eventuate into closer military and diplomatic ties. China is a vital economy that will link Eurasia together as never before, if its One Belt, One Road Initiative accomplishes that which everyone in the CCP dreams it will. Turkey undoubtedly wants to capitalize on that.
Turkey, Iran, and the Wider Middle East
Indeed, the one thing that President Erdogan needs now more than ever is a vibrant economy. Right now, Turkey’s economy is sputtering along, which has led to political instability. Since assuming power, Erdogan has embarked on a steady path toward destroying Turkey’s nascent democratic system and replacing it with a strongman rule (with Erdogan as the head of state). Erdogan has long represented the most conservative elements of Turkey’s overwhelming Sunni Islam population and has also enacted increasingly repressive laws aimed at curbing the influence of Western ideals and patterns. For all intents-and-purposes, as I have argued, Erdogan is Turkey’s de facto Sultan leading a Neo-Ottomanist political counterrevolution aimed at curbing the once-secular and nominally pro-Western sentiments of modern day Turkey’s founder, Kamal Atatürk.
Despite having been rejected as a serious contender for EU membership, Turkey has long enjoyed its unique relationship with the United States through NATO. However, the first real cracks in this relationship began to appear in the run-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. During that time, American forces wanted to use Turkish airspace and territory as a place to open up a vital second-front in the invasion of Iraq (Turkey borders northern Iraq). Since the long-time American allies in Iraq, the Kurds, lived in northern Iraq, the United States wanted to deploy forces from Turkey, link up with the Kurds, and push on down south to Baghdad (with the bulk of the Anglo-American invasion force coming up from Kuwait).
The Turkish government denied the request. The Turks understandably feared what the toppling of Saddam would do not only for the wider Middle East, but also what it would do for Turkish territorial integrity. You see, the Kurdish people exist on territory that spans northern Iraq, southern Turkey, and parts of both Syria and Iran, as well as a section of Azerbaijan. The Kurds are the largest stateless people in the world. And, in the specific case of both Turkey’s Kurdish population as well as Iraq’s, they have been calling for independence for decades. The Turkish government feared that granting America’s request would all but ensure the rise of an independent and free Kurdish state in northern Iraq that would become a beacon for the other Kurds–particularly those in Turkey–to declare independence and join with that new Kurdish state. Such a move would see Turkey losing at least one-third of its territory to the newly formed Kurdistan.
Since that point, the Americans have been on thin ice with the Turks. From then on, a series of internal political perturbations within Turkey have also rocked the Turkish-American alliance. The Turks under Erdogan have all but written off accession into the EU. But, after the Iraq War of 2003–and the subsequent political unrest that occurred as Erdogan increased his share of power in Turkey by cracking down on his own people and committing egregious human rights abuses–the relationship became strained. Then, of course, there was the fact that Turkey had become wealthier under Erdogan’s rule, and that newfound wealth not only empowered Erdogan’s regime, but it also allowed for the Turks to begin returning to the long-abandoned fantasy of rebuilding the old Ottoman Empire under Istanbul’s control.
This urge was the basis of Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism. So long as the United States was meddling in the Sunni Arab world, Turkey’s grand designs for the region would be complicated, as the Americans would likely never support the return of the Ottoman Empire. What’s more, it was unlikely that the Sunni Arab states would welcome a Neo-Ottoman empire nor was it possible for either Israel or Shiite-led Iran to accept such a scenario. So, once it became obvious to the Turkish government that the United States would disallow a resurgence of Turkish leadership in the region, as well as the fact that the United States had no discernible plan for stabilizing the situation in the Middle East (that it had helped to exacerbate with its ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003), the Turks began to move away from the West.
Throughout the period, the Turkish government quietly increased its position and influence in the region. Erdogan’s government has been accused of lending support to jihadist terror networks operating in places like Libya and Syria. Meanwhile, Erdogan has openly supported the overthrow of long-time American ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and enthusiastically embraced his Islamist successor, former President Mohammed Morsi. At the same time, Turkey, trying to play the classic role of Mideast intermediary, increased its ties with Shiite-led Iran. First, there was the gold deals with Iran. Then, there was the proposed pipeline deal that would link Iran with Syria and transport oil and natural gas into Europe.
The Russians backed this plan.
Russia and Turkey
In fact, many believe that a key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria was about securing access to the territory that would make the construction of this vital pipeline into Europe possible. Turkey had initially signed on to an alternative pipeline proposed by Saudi Arabia. However, when the Obama Administration refused to intervene against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the Russian pipeline became a fait accompli. Turkey began to sense that America was looking for the exits in the Middle East under former President Barack Obama’s leadership. So, Turkey began to make alternative calculations.
The Turks moved away from their opposition to Assad’s continued rule, going so far as to reluctantly embrace him, and then, thanks to Turkey’s budding relationship with the Russians, fully supported the Russian-backed pipeline. Today, Turkey is in a nominal alliance with Russia, Syria, and Iran and shares these countries’ goal of ending the Syrian Civil War with a victory for Bashar al-Assad. Of course, in order to complicate the Kurds’ life, the Turks have also lent aid at times to groups like ISIS–notably during the 2015 Siege of Kobane.
Throughout the 2000’s, Russia was increasingly supportive of Turkey. Initially, the Russians advocated to their European trading partners for allowing Turkey into the European Union. The Russians argued that, under Erdogan (and his ruling AKP–the Justice and Development–Party) Turkey had become a modern, democratic, economic dynamo worthy of EU membership. Many Turks living in the EU (as well as those opposed to the rise of an Islamic state in Turkey becoming part of the EU) campaigned against it. Still, the damage had been done: Turkey had become close with Russia, thanks to increased trade and the continued push on the part of Russia to incorporate Turkey into the larger European political sphere.
Turkey’s position has long made it a constant issue for Russian foreign policy. Historically, Turkey and the Russians have been on opposite sides–most recently during the Cold War. But, given Russia’s growing importance in global energy trade, and its rising influence in the Middle East, Turkey is making a strategic calculation to move closer to Russia. There is another reason, of course: Russia, like China, advocates for the creation of a multipolar world order that diffuses as much power as possible away from the United States and to many poles of power around the world. Turkey aims to be a major pole for the Middle East. Also, Russia’s continued embrace of Erdogan in particular means that Turkey will push itself away from the West, which continues to call for greater levels of democratization and respect for human rights within Turkey.
Recently, Turkey purchased the advanced Russian-built S-400 missile system. This is an anti-aircraft system that Russia claims has the capability to shoot down even advanced American stealth jets, like the F-35. It’s part of Russia’s new commitment to A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area-Denial) aimed at stunting American power projection into contested regions. The problems faced by Turkey’s acquisition of these Russian-build systems is that such systems are not compatible with the larger NATO defense network. Since Turkey is the primary pivot of NATO’s southern defensive perimeter, the purchase of these incompatible systems is as much of a symbolic shift as it is an actual shift in Turkish foreign policy: namely, Turkey is leaving NATO’s orbit (perhaps not officially, but certainly unofficially). Fact is, Turkey has become increasingly opposed to the West and, along with Russia, China, and Iran have formed a bulwark opposed to the West.
The Turkish-Russian-Chinese-Iranian condominium is frightful for several reasons. First, it brings together a historically important and powerful Sunni Muslim state with a rising Shiite Muslim power, Iran–in a way that is inimical to American interests. Second, it also subordinates these two Islamic powers under both Russian and Chinese power. In the case of Russia, it allows them to limp on as the chaos state that they’ve been operating as for some time now. In the instance of China, it allows them unprecedented access to a critical component of the world, and grants them ability to dominate that region over the long-term. Third, in the context of global trade, Turkey and Iran both can now become important members of China’s growing One Belt, One Road Initiative (even as Russia seeks an outsized role in this endeavor). Fourth, it signals the death knell of the Western-led NATO alliance and further undermines European solidarity (particularly as Russia attempts to pull both Germany and France closer into its orbit).
These trends are likely irreversible, especially given the West’s pronounced relative decline. It also symbolizes a growing economic and military alliance between four powerful actors, most of whom have reason to resist the West and loathe the United States. The Turkish decision to go east, as it were, should be a wake-up call to the United States and European leaders: quit trying to prop up the necrotic NATO and stop pushing larger European integration. Face it, the EU is disintegrating and NATO no longer has the kind of cachet or relevance it once had. It is time for a new security paradigm on the continent, one that is led by the Europeans and conducted at the sub-regional level.
The great British geostrategist, Sir Halford Mackinder, cautioned his students about the dangers of allowing an alliance of states or a single power to rise to dominate the vast resources and human capital of Eurasia. He (rightly) believed that such a condominium would prove unstoppable for the Maritime powers, such as the United States and United Kingdom. While I remain skeptical of the staying power of such an alliance (Russia is terminally weak, Turkey has structural defects in its government that may prove destructive, China has demographic issues, and Iran seems intent on committing national suicide with their continued quest for nuclear arms), one thing is certain that such a coalition, if left unchecked in the near-term, could prove devastating for American grand strategy.
The West blew it with Turkey and now Turkey is going to make the West pay–at a time when the West can ill-afford such burdensome costs.