A Power is (Re)born

The 21st century will probably be a century of tectonic shifts in the global balance of power. One of the most important beneficiaries of the processes could be Turkey.

At the beginning of the 21st century the abbreviation BRIC, designating Brazil, Russia, India and China, was sensationalized. These emerging great powers belong to some of the world’s biggest economies measured by purchasing power parity (PPP). Their participation in the world economy and, consequently, political influence are rising at the expense of the traditional West (the EU, the USA and Japan). But the world is becoming flatter than it seems at first glance. After the giants, there appears to be a group of a dozen or so middlesized powers. Muslims are the largest cultural group in most of them.

Some of these countries already have the status of regional powers and more and more frequently have global aspirations. In the future, some of them could tip the scales in competition between the giants.

One of the most important middle-sized powers is Turkey which ranks 16–17th in the world when it comes to population and the size of its economy with 75 million inhabitants and GDP PPP 1.1 trillion. It also stands out among similar countries by having considerable influence in neighboring areas as well as in activity on a global scale. In the next several dozen years, its regional and global influence could rise dramatically. Using its potential to the fullest will depend, however, on overcoming internal weaknesses.

The Turkish Connection

Turkey’s potential has four foundations: advantageous geopolitical positioning, a dynamic economy, growing political stability and military strength. They constitute the basis for a much more active and independent foreign policy than in the previous decades and for gaining the status of a key midsize power with global aspirations.

Turkey has an exceptional, strategic location in terms of geopolitics. Zbigniew Brzeziński, not by chance, in the 1990s considered it to be an important pivot, a country “holding others together“, and one of critical international significance on a global scale. From a global perspective, it is a first “station” on the route connecting Europe through Central Asia with China and India (the former “Silk Road”). It belongs geopolitically to a few key strategic regions (the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Middle East and the Caucasus) and is located in a close proximity to Africa. In its vicinity, there is an essential part of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. Finally, Turkey is a natural transit country for transportation of raw materials, most of all gas, to Europe, its main consumer. Surrounding regions, particularly the Middle East, are characterized by high instability. Compared to them Turkey stands out as stable and dynamic. It is mainly characterized by a substantially bigger economy, higher number of inhabitants, larger GDP per capita and a stronger military than the countries lying in its broader vicinity.

A decisive requirement for countries in the international arena to be great powers in the 21st century will be their economic condition. Since 2002, Turkey’s economy has been developing at a very fast pace: more than 5% a year and few times, growth exceeded the level of 8–9% a year. In the end, GDP PPP per capita in Turkey amounts to 15 thousand USD and is considerably higher than the world average. Over the last few years, Turkey has also succeeded in improving various macroeconomic indices, e.g. budget deficit decreased from 10% of GDP to lower than 3%, whereas government debt fell from 75% to lower than 40%. There has been an unprecedented inflow of foreign investments (more than USD 110 billion for the years 2002–2011; mostly after 2005). A very positive phenomenon is a visible rise of the productivity of Turkish workers, now it constitutes almost 75% of the EU average. In this respect, Turkey outdoes Bulgaria, whose GDP PPP per capita is very similar. The condition of infrastructure has also been substantially streamlined and 5000 km of asphalt highways have been upgraded to two lanes in fewer than 10 years.

Rapid economic development has gone hand in hand with the modernization of society. The number of people working in the agricultural sector has substantially declined in the last decade. Increased quality of education is proven by the impressive progress in the PISA ranking, done by OECD, assessing high school students. Mid-term and long-term prospects for economic development are positive. Price Water House Coopers and Goldman Sachs have predicted that in 2050, Turkish economy will probably become the 10th largest in the world, bigger than Italy, slightly smaller than Germany and similar to Russia. What is more, Turkey may join the most developed countries when it comes to wealth. The most essential long-term advantage may turn out to be demographics. In the UN’s forecast, the population will have grown from 75 million to 92 million by 2050.

Turkey’s economy faces, however, major structural challenges. Turkey is highly bureaucratic; it places between 60th and 70th in global rankings of economic freedom. Corruption is a problem; it has similar levels to Central Europe. Despite increased expenditure on research and development, the Turkish economy, taking into consideration a relatively high GDP per capita, has not been innovative. The share of technologically advanced products being exported is low. Still almost 10% of residents are illiterate. Turkish universities are worse than colleges in some poorer countries. Even though the inflation rate has decreased radically, and for many years it has not exceeded 10%, it is a threat to economic stability. The level of investment and savings amounts to about 15–20% of GDP, considerably below the index level of the Four Asian Tigers. Currency reserves are also limited (10–15% of GDP). A serious problem is constituted by the level of deficit on current accounts (on average about 7% of GDP over the last few years). This is inter alia the result of trade deficits resulting from a dependence on energy imports from abroad and the role of risky foreign capital. Turkey’s Achilles’ heel is the particularly low level of women’s participation in the formal job market. Nearly one quarter of Turks is still employed in agriculture and unemployment has not fallen lower than about 10% for years. The distribution of wealth is much less even than in the EU, in particular by region. Overcoming these challenges requires structural reforms and a more effective use of Turkey’s potential.

The Kurdish problem

Turkey’s economic stability will depend highly on the political situation. Recently, it has undergone an important democratization which has improved internal stability. The main advocate of change was the post-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is not unfortunately a genuine democratic power in political terms. Turkey is still considered by Freedom House to be a partially free country. In some spheres (e.g. freedom of speech) there has been regression compared to the situation in 2005.

Unquestionably, the most challenging issue for political stability and Turkish democratization are the Kurds. An armed conflict lasting approximately 30 years has cost directly and indirectly around USD 110 billion and taken the lives of at least 30 thousand people. The Kurds, who to various extents identify themselves with the Kurdish nation, constitute about 15–20% of the population of Turkey. What is more important is that they have a considerably higher birth rate than ethnic Turks. Even though most Kurds live in south-eastern Turkey, many of them have emigrated to big cities in the west. Turks and Kurds are joined by religious and family bonds, yet among young Turkish Kurds their national self-awareness, as well as loyalties with countrymen living in neighboring countries, like Iraq, Iran and Syria, are gaining strength. Recently, the government has considerably widened the cultural rights of Kurds within the public and private media, established Kurdish faculties at universities and plans to introduce Kurdish into schools as a teaching language, but this does not satisfy the expectations of the Kurdish nationalists who want Kurdish as an official language at the local level and a wide territorial autonomy.

In the context of the instability of the region surrounding Anatolia, an essential foundation of Turkey’s potential is its military strength. Taking into consideration its current and contracted weapons, the modernization of equipment, their battle experience, training and expenditures on defense, the Turkish army ranks around 9th in the world. Turkey possesses nearly 220 modernized F-16s, and in the upcoming years the air force will be strengthened by more than 130 American fighter planes from the newest generation of F-35. The Turkish Navy is also one of the strongest in the world. It has 30 frigates, corvettes and submarines; nearly 20 will be introduced in the next years. It is this kind of army, which China’s investments on armaments show, that constitutes the key instrument for defense policy on a global scale.

Strategic depth

In the first decade of the 21st century, Turkish foreign policy, under the rule of AKP, underwent a very distinct transformation. It has also become more independent. Not only due to the rising potential of Turkey, but also due to worsening relations between Ankara and the USA (till 2010) and some EU countries, as well as changes in the global balance of power. This basis became the concept of “strategic depth” according to the incumbent Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu. It presupposes that Turkey should run an assertive multi-vector policy, based on soft, not hard, power, it should play the role of a “central country”, and be the source of local stability, without problems with its neighbors. According to this concept, Turkey has to become active in the global arena and in far-flung regions of the world.

Under the influence of the Arab Spring and considerable deterioration of relations with some countries, like Syria, Iraq and Iran, Davutoglu’s concept has been substantially adjusted. Now, Turkey is putting a much stronger emphasis on support for democratization abroad than it used to. Turkey’s relations with the USA are very good today and Ankara’s aspirations to adjust its policy to USA priorities is visible, for example, a radar for the anti-missile shield aimed at Iran was located in Turkey.

Turkey’s foreign policy has been economized over the last few years. In 2002–2011, exports increased almost fourfold, yet naming Turkey a “trading country” would be an exaggeration. Investments abroad have substantially increased. The specialty of Turkey’s presence in the world has become the construction industry. In the years 2002–2011 Turkish companies abroad had contracts worth more than USD 160 billion. They ranked second in the world after China.

Under the policy of soft power Ankara has played the role of mediator and has been the author of various diplomatic initiatives in the last decade. Some of them were crowned with success, revealing the growing power of Turkey, some, however, ended with defeat, showing its limitations and excessive self-confidence. Turkish development aid has been significantly increased. Today it constitutes almost 0.2% of GDP, more than twice as much as in considerably wealthier Poland. Turkey has opened hundreds of schools and a dozen or so universities worldwide, offering scholarships and courses to tens of thousands of foreign students, officers and officials. Ankara has also signed free trade and visa waiver agreements with many countries, which has triggered an influx of tourists on an unprecedented scale. A symbol of Turkey’s openness to the world is the success of Turkish Airlines which has become one of the biggest airlines in the world.

All these actions have led to a situation in which the economic and social dimension of Turkish influence have considerably grown in many countries (e.g. Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt, Libya and Turkmenistan). As can be seen, the essential areas of implementation of the “strategic depth” concept are the traditional regions of Turkish involvement: the Black Sea (including the Caucasus and the Balkans), Central Asia (including Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Middle East. In each of these regions, Turkey has become to various extents one of the major players. The strongest is Turkey’s position in the Arab world, where the influence of world powers is smaller than in the Western Balkans and Central Asia. In accordance with public opinion, research like regular surveys by the Turkish think thank TESEV, the Arabs’ approval of the Turks has reached an unprecedented level. No country, including Arab countries, is as popular among them as Turkey. What is more, for the vast majority of Arabs, a democratic and economically dynamic Turkey ruled by a party with Islamic roots is a source of inspiration. An unprecedented substantial increase of Turkey’s engagement in Sub Saharan Africa is a new and interesting phenomenon confirming the Turkish global aspirations.

Turkey and the EU: A Never-Ending Story?

Turkey has become an important country for the BRIC countries. The most spectacular example of this phenomenon was a Brazilian- Turkish diplomatic initiative regarding Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. In the case of China, it suffices to mention the Turkish economic activity in China’s Xinjiang province, China’s investment agreements in Turkish infrastructure and Turkish- Chinese military maneuvers, the first in history between the NATO member and the PRC’s army.

It cannot be ruled out that Turkey by its own effort will manage to overcome its internal weaknesses and become a key midsize power. It would be, however, much easier if modernization and democratization were supported from the outside. Most likely to play the role of an external anchor is the EU with which Turkey has been holding accession talks since 2005. The European perspective had an essential influence at the beginning of the 21st century on initiating political and economic reforms. Negotiations came to a dead end, first of all due to France’s opposition and to a smaller extent due to Germany’s, as well as the unresolved problem of Cyprus.

Turkey, growing in strength claims that the deeply troubled EU is not so important and attractive anymore. This is mostly rhetoric. The EU is the biggest trading partner of Turkey with more than a 40% balance of trade, the source of great majority of foreign investments, which supports economic modernization and the main source of tourism revenues. Turkish politicians, off the record, confirm that a permanent economic recession in the EU would impact Turkey much more than Far East countries. In the EU, there are 5 million people of Turkish or Kurdish origin— equivalent to the population of Slovakia. Last but not least, the EU is an important player in the neighboring regions of Turkey.

The fundamental question for the future of Turkey is whether the EU is going to ignore a growing midsize power at its gate. Even not fully using its potential, Turkey may create various challenges for EU foreign policy. On the other hand Turkey, a democratic, prosperous country and a member of the EU, may become an important asset both in a global game and in the European sphere.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 04/2019

The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

This issue provides not only a retrospective look at the last 30 years but also reflects current challenges for the Visegrad group. That found its purpose in the dismantling of liberal democracy, unfortunately for all its citizens. Read the brand new Aspen Review.

Download PDF