Understanding what President Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to do is actually not that complicated. Like many other leaders, he foresees that political and economic relations and power balances will begin to be redefined in 2021. We are on the verge of a give-and-take process that only compares to what came after large-scale wars. Erdoğan aims at taking Turkey out of this process with no losses or even with gains if possible, and at the same time designing the administrative structure in Turkey in a way to keep him in power for a longer period. But this is a hard challenge since everyone is trying to do so, with Greece having goals in the eastern Mediterranean or the United Arab Emirates trying to do the same in the Gulf.
But what makes Erdoğan’s challenge even more difficult is not limited to external factors, there are others.
Looking at the recent developments in Turkey and the globe, one can observe a war for share that is almost as simple as the one before World War I. The main difference between the two eras is that the number of actors with the capability and tools to set the game or spoil it has increased.
Rise of China, the arrival of the virus
Turkey is among those actors. Although not global, it is one of the important regional players. Just like India, Brazil, Japan or Australia. However, the leading actor that forces the political and economic transformation and redefinition of the world order is China.
The challenge of the U.S.-led capitalist system, which enjoyed a “unipolar” world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is getting harder with the state capitalism China developed under the Communist Party. China was once mistaken as a “third-world country” but today it is the second-largest economy in the world after the U.S. The rise of China already required the political restructuring of the capitalist economies that reached a disentangled level with Donald Trump’s ruling. The first economic shrinkage in the EU with the departure of Britain was yet another indication of this. Both the class conflicts and the regional ones have been deepening.
The pandemic that emerged in China, a bitter joke of history, have made these conflicts more visible and accelerated the developments. Trump’s ruling came to an end in four years, with the pandemic playing a role. With the U.S. preparing to enter the new year under Joe Biden’s rule, 2021 is seen as a year of restructuring on a global, regional and national scale.
Spoil the game if you cannot set it
For a long time Turkey has been a regional actor with more power to spoil the game rather than setting it itself. An outsider eye would see the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 and 1916, even the War of Independence that ended in 1923, or Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus in 1974 within the scope of this approach. Even Turkey’s NATO membership became true when it showed that it can spoil the game.
Such capability was rather utilized thanks to its geographical positioning or its military power.
Erdoğan’s risky foreign policy that angers Turkey’s Western allies is actually based on proving them Turkey’s power of spoiling the game. And now Erdoğan is trying to raise his hand for a stronger position at the table in the process of redefining political and economic balances.
This approach may summarize Erdoğan’s U.S. and EU policies, which form the axis of Turkish foreign relations. “If you count me as one of you, we will fight together against others,” it says, which is generally about problems including migration and terrorism, and issues deriving from the Middle East and Russia. “Otherwise, don’t expect one-sided help from me,” it implies. This is what has been done in issues varying from the purchasing of the S-400 missile from Russia to hurting France in Libya or acting as a counterweight to Russia and Iran in the Azerbaijan issue. The international balances are suitable for such strains. İlham Aliyev was expressing a global trend when he openly stated that with a military campaign of 44 days he got what could not be achieved through diplomacy in 30 years.
Difficulties of Erdoğan’s challenge
Erdoğan’s challenge is difficult for several reasons.
First, thinking that national interests can only be protected by a conflict strategy led by the military is political shortsightedness. As war theoretician Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” which means that war is not politics but just an extension of it. The longer the task of the military takes, the greater impact it gains over politics.
Erdoğan’s second-leading challenge is that a policy to put your military power at the disposal of politics and diplomacy requires a power to support and sustain it economically. The president said only six months ago that gaining over interest rates is not only forbidden by religion but it is also an enemy to the economy, and today he is calling on citizens to exchange their U.S. dollar savings with Turkish Lira and deposit it in banks. Those who believe the economy is in good shape are few.
Third, if 2021 is going to be a year of restructuring in the world, it requires reforms in the domestic political and economic structures of these countries. Erdoğan also promised reform. But from the very first day and not only Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the ruling party’s partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but all ruling stakeholders said “We don’t want it.” If a judicial reform is not going to change the definition of political crime and terrorism, and if a political reform will be limited to guaranteeing him to win the next election, then what Erdoğan is trying to do is really difficult.