As a follow-up to my prior post on how demographics are affecting the calculus of international relations in the Middle East—and between Turkey and Israel in particular—I’d like to start with some comments from Mark Steyn.
Steyn is a bit of a controversial shock jock—the Howard Stern of conservative commentary, if you will—so I hesitate to quote him too regularly. Still, despite his rhetorical bluster, he is a man who has a firm understanding of demographic trends and what they mean for the future. (His 2006 book America Alone, though a bit of a political screed, is also an astute look at global demographic trends and what they imply for geopolitics.)
Writing for Investor’s Business Daily (link to article) on the Mavi Marmara incident, Steyn writes,
[W]hat was most striking was the behavior of the Turks… Ten years ago, Turkey’s behavior would have been unthinkable. Ankara was Israel’s best friend in a region where every other neighbor wishes, to one degree or another, the Jewish state’s destruction…
Making me reminisce about some of my own late-night bar conversations in Istanbul, Steyn continues,
I remember sitting in a plush bar late one night with a former Turkish foreign minister, who told me, in between passing round the cigars and chugging back the Scotch, that, yes, the new crowd [the AK Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan] weren’t quite so convivial in the wee small hours but, other than that, they knew where their interests lay.
Like many Turkish movers and shakers of his generation, my drinking companion loved the Israelis. “They’re tough hombres,” he said admiringly. “You have to be in this part of the world.”
Six years later, the Turkish state is tacitly supporting a “charity” organization suspected of ties to terror groups and has gone so far as to threaten breaking the Israeli blockade by force—an overt act of war.
Turkey has essentially turned its back on more than twenty years of friendship with Israel and by proxy more than eighty years of friendship with the West in order to pursue an independent foreign policy nearly 100% at odds with its former allies. Some have called Erdogan’s policy the “re-Ottomanization” of Turkey. We’ll return to this theme shortly. But first, we will return to Steyn.
Steyn asks rhetorically, “Who lost Turkey?” His surprising answer is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the staunchly secular post-Ottoman Turkish state.
The short version of Turkish demographics in the 20th century is that Rumelian Turkey — i.e., western, European, secular, Kemalist Turkey — has been out-bred by Anatolian Turkey — i.e., eastern, rural, traditionalist, Islamic Turkey.
Ataturk and most of his supporters were from Rumelia, and they imposed the modern Turkish republic on a reluctant Anatolia, where Ataturk’s distinction between the state and Islam was never accepted. Now they don’t have to accept it. The swelling population has spilled out of its rural hinterland and into the once solidly Kemalist cities.
Some readers might have heard the expression “Young Turks.” For those unfamiliar with the term, the Young Turks were a reform movement in the late 1800s that sought to modernize the Ottoman Empire, making it more Western.
But as Steyn puts it, the Young Turks are now the Old Turks. The new Young Turks are less modern than their forbears. Call it the “demodernization” of Turkey.
The Re-Ottomanization of Turkey
How can we explain Turkey’s diplomatic break with its decades-long allies? In short, Turkey is doing it because it can. With EU membership now highly unlikely, Turkey has decided to change it focus to its other frontiers. Rather than being an unwanted periphery member of the West, Turkey sees an opportunity to reassert the role it played prior to World War I — the leader of the Islamic world and of the broader Middle East.
Writing for the Financial Times, Josef Joffe writes,
Next to Iran, Nato member Turkey is now the biggest headache for the west. With Egypt sinking into torpor and Riyadh firmly ensconced on the fence between Washington and Tehran, Turkey has seen the leadership of the region up for grabs – and is going for it. It has drawn Syria into its orbit and has reached a nuclear deal with Iran, its rival for hegemony.
What better way to pursue this end than to lead a crusade against the Jewish state? Going after the “Little Satan” is the card that trumps them all, and it embarrasses the “Great Satan” to boot. The real game is about dominance at the expense of America... The US must learn that the real contest is between itself, Turkey and Iran. It is now up against both.
So, Turkey’s war of words with Israel has little to do with the Palestinian cause and everything to do with reestablishing Turkey as the preeminent power in the Middle East — a role it has eschewed for nearly a century.
Given the regional alternatives, Turkish hegemony might not be the worst outcome. Turkish hegemony would certainly be preferable to Iranian or Saudi. Though drifting towards soft Islamism, Turkey is still a constitutionally secular republic. And despite Steyn’s grim words, secular Turks are not exactly dying out. Were Erdogan to lose the next election (which could happen if the Kemalist opposition found credible leadership), Turkey’s anti-Western lurch could come to an abrupt end.
Outside of Israel, Turkey also has the most developed and diversified economy in the region and has its most important city in Istanbul. Among emerging markets, Turkey remains one of Sizemore Capital’s favorite investment targets.
Still, shifting geopolitical relationships promise to make this region highly volatile in the decades ahead. And if we intend to invest in this part of the world, we must understand the changes taking place.