Return to Ottomanism?
Neo-Ottomanism is not exactly a popular phrase in Turkey today. The leadership in Ankara wants to be clear: they have no intention of projecting imperial power or re-establishing the modern equivalent of the Ottoman caliphate. However, if you look at the friendships that Turkey has cultivated and the trade relations it has emphasized—Syria, Armenia, Greece, Palestine, Iraq, Libya, the Balkans—you can see a map of the old Ottoman empire reassembling itself.
In other words, just as the AKP has turned geography to its advantage, so it is transforming an imperial albatross into the goose that lays golden eggs (in the form of lucrative trade deals). In a similar way, China has tried to revive its old Sinocentric imperial system without stirring up fears of the Chinese army marching into India or the Chinese navy taking over the South China Sea, even as it—like Turkey—also establishes friendly relations with old adversaries (including Russia).
Still, even this amiable version of neo-Ottomanism can raise hackles. "We want a new Balkan region based on political values, economic interdependence and cooperation and cultural harmony," Foreign Minister Davutoglu said nostalgically at a conference in Sarajevo in October. "That is what the Ottoman Balkans was like. We shall revive such a Balkan region.... The Ottoman centuries were a success story, and this should be revived." A furor followed among some Serb commentators, who viewed this romanticized version of history as evidence of a Turkish desire to Islamicize the Balkans.
What Turkey means by its vision of Balkan harmony may prove critical in the context of European integration. The Ottomans and Western Europe fought a succession of wars over control of the Balkans. Today, the EU and Turkey compete for influence in the region, and much hangs on Turkey's prospects for joining the twenty-seven-member European organization. Although Turkey began the process of meeting requirements for joining the union, the talks stalled long ago. In the meantime, some European leaders like French President Nicholas Sarkozy have spoken out against Turkish membership, while the spread of Islamophobia throughout Europe has dimmed what enthusiasm may still exist for bringing Turkey on board.
In Turkey as well, public support for membership has declined from 70 percent in 2002 to just over 50 percent today. In fact, Turkey's turn toward the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa has in part been a reaction to the fading of the EU option. Fine, the Turks are saying, if you don't want us, we can play with others.
And play they have, particularly when it comes to the energy game. If oil had been discovered in its territory just a little sooner, some form of the Ottoman Empire might have survived as the wealthiest energy player in history. The riches of Iraq, Kuwait and Libya all once fell within the territorial limits of its empire.
Today, Turkey lacks energy wealth, but has worked assiduously to ensure that a maximum number of oil and natural gas pipelines flow through the country. Europe and the United States have funded a series of pipelines (like the Nabucco pipeline from the Caspian Sea) that use Turkish territory to bypass Russia and lessen Moscow's ability to blackmail Western Europe by threatening to withhold energy supplies. Turkey hasn't stopped there, however. It negotiated directly with Russia for another set of pipelines—the South Stream, which goes from Russia to Bulgaria through Turkish territorial waters, and the Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, which would transport Russian and Kazakh oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through Turkey.
Turkey now relies on Russia for 60 percent of its energy imports and Iran for another 30 percent. In this sense, "zero problems with neighbors" could just as easily be understood as "zero problems with energy suppliers."
Turkey is also a builder. Of the top 225 international contractors, thirty-five are Turkish, second only to China. Like China, Turkey asks no difficult questions about the political environment in other countries, and so Turkish construction companies are building airports in Kurdistan and shopping malls in Libya. Despite political tensions, in 2009 they were even involved in nine projects worth more than $60 million in Israel.
Finally, there is culture. Like the Confucian institutes China is establishing all over the world to spread its language, culture and values, Turkey established the Yunus Emre Foundation in May 2009 to administer cultural centers in Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Egypt, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Israel. Turkish schools have sprung up in more than eighty countries. Turkish culture has also infiltrated Middle Eastern life through television, as Turkish soap operas spread the liberal cultural values of moderate Islam. "The Turkish soaps have been daring and candid when it comes to gender equality, premarital sex, infidelity, passionate love, and even children born out of wedlock," writes journalist Nadia Bilbassy-Charters.
Turkey's leaders may not themselves be comfortable with the neo-Ottoman label—in part because their ambitions are actually much larger. Their developing version of a peaceful, trade-oriented Pax Ottomanica takes in Turkey's improved relations with sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific. Turkey declared 2005 the "year of Africa" and accepted observer status in the African Union. In 2010, it has already opened eight embassies in African countries and plans to open another eleven next year.
At the pan-Islamic level—and a Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, now heads up the fifty-seven-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, the leading international voice of Islamic states—Turkish leaders think in terms of the ummah, the global Muslim community. For some critics, Turkey's Islamic character and its ruling Islam-influenced party—as well as its recent attacks on Israel—suggest that the country is on a mission to re-establish, if only informally, the Islamic caliphate. In the most extreme version of this argument, historian of the Middle East Bernard Lewis has argued that Turkey's fundamentalism will strengthen to such an extent that, in a decade's time, it will resemble Iran, even as the Islamic Republic moves in the opposite direction.
This is, however, a fundamental misunderstanding of the AKP and its intentions. Islamism has about as much influence in modern-day Turkey as communism does in China. In both cases, what matters most is not ideology but the political power of the ruling parties. Economic growth, political stability and soft-power diplomacy regularly trump ideological consistency. Turkey is becoming more nationalist and more assertive, and flexibility, not fundamentalism, has been the hallmark of its new foreign policy.
In 1999, Bill Clinton suggested that if Ankara launched a reformist movement, the twenty-first century could be "Turkey's century." Turkey has indeed heeded Clinton's advice. Now, Europe and the United States face a choice. If Washington works with Turkey as a partner, it has a far greater chance of resolving outstanding conflicts with Iran, inside Iraq, and between the Palestinians and Israelis, not to mention simmering disputes elsewhere in the Islamic world. If the European Union accepts Turkey as a member, its economic dynamism and new credibility in the Muslim world could help jolt Europe out of its current sclerosis. Spurned by one or both, Turkey's global influence will still grow.
By all means, get that Lenovo computer, buy stock in Haier and encourage your child to study Mandarin. China can't help but be a twenty-first-century superpower. But if you want to really be ahead of the curve, pay close attention to that vital crossroads between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It won't be long before we'll all be talking Turkey.