Wed, Jan 16, 2012 | By Richard Weitz
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst, vol. 6 no. 1 (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. © Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012.
Whether within a NATO context, acting in parallel with the United States, or as an autonomous actor, Turkey’s importance to U.S. strategy will likely continue to grow in coming years. Turkey has already become a much more prominent global actor backstopped by a dynamic diplomacy, one of the world’s most energetic economies, and a turbulent neighborhood whose security vacuum propels Turkish involvement. Turkey’s rapid economic growth is facilitating the modernization of the Turkish armed forces and the country’s domestic defense industry. Turkey is located astride multiple global hotspots in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. With Europe’s possibly entering a period of prolonged stagnation and with U.S. attention drifting eastward, Turkey could become one of the most influential NATO countries.
Every few years, the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) publishes studies of how the world might evolve over the next two decades. The authors of Global Trends 2025, which appeared in 2008, highlighted several factors that they believe warrant focusing much attention on Turkey’s evolving role in the international system. Turkey’s economic prospects dwarf those of other NATO countries. Turkey’s recent high growth rates and modest inflation should continue due to Turkey’s vibrant middle class and strategic location between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. In a forecast reminiscent of those common during the early 1990s, which failed to materialize, the report states that, “Over the next 15 years, Turkey’s most likely course involves a blending of Islamic and nationalist strains, which could serve as a model for other rapidly modernizing countries in the Middle East.” Yet, the authors note that Turkey’s evolution depends heavily on external factors, especially its relationship with the European Union. In its assessment, the failure of the EU to encourage Turkey’s membership aspirations could delay the country’s political and human rights reforms. Turkey would also want to sustain good relations with Russia, Iran, and Central Asia given Ankara’s dependence on foreign energy supplies.
Conflict and armed engagements between Israel, Iran, and Turkey contribute to instability in the region, which remains unstable as most populations in the Middle East live in poverty. Turkey could play a prominent role in modernizing and reforming the region’s militaries. Previous Turkish governments developed a strong, positive relationship with Israel and any future government could reverse the friction now existing between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Israel. Turkey’s future leaders might also pursue far less conciliatory policies with religious regimes such as Iran, especially if Iran developed nuclear weapons or pursued destabilizing policies in Iraq, Central Asia, or the South Caucasus. An already important member of NATO’s missile defense system, Turkey could play an even greater role in this architecture in the future.
A more recent study, Global Trends 2030, predicts that by that year, the diffusion of power among countries will see Asia surpass Europe and North America in terms of aggregate GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment. In this vision, a regional power such as Turkey will become especially important to the global economy as Europe, Japan, and Russia continue to slowly decline. However, this study views Turkey not as a single entity, but rather as a collective with countries such as Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and South Africa. Termed the “Next Eleven” by Goldman Sachs, they will surpass Europe, Japan and Russia in terms of global power by 2030.
Turkey especially has a major opportunity to secure a strong footing in the future global economy. Aging is the key structural change underlying the negative economic outlook for Europe, Japan, and the United States. Turkey’s youthful population will only decline slightly by 2030 and an influx of young migrants should help maintain a stable workforce.
Africa’s demographic “youth bulge” could reinforce Turkey’s economic growth — a reality that other emerging regional and global powers, including China, India, Brazil, and Turkey have already begun to seize. Turkey has invested heavily in several North Africa countries. As of late 2011, Turkish investments in Africa have reached more than 5 billion dollars. Assuming continued growth, Turkey and other members of the Next Eleven will play a very important role in the future of Africa as well.
However, one area of concern in Global Trends 2030 is Turkey’s youthful, ethnic Kurdish population. In general, the amount of armed conflict over the past forty years has decreased; even when armed conflict has occurred, the amount of violence towards citizens has been limited as well. However, during this same time period, there has been an uptick in intrastate violence in countries where a population contains a politically dissonant, youthful ethnic minority. More than 80 percent of all armed ethnic and civil conflicts have occurred in such countries. The ethnic Kurds in Turkey have a pattern of actively participating in intrastate conflict. Kurdish fertility in southeastern Turkey is at four children per women. This high rate of fertility combines with the overall decline in fertility of ethnic Turks will result in Turkey seeing a higher percentage of ethnic Kurds than ever before.
The U.S. Intelligence’s evolving assessments regarding Turkey have been accompanied by Washington-based studies and seminars that have sought to tease out their policy implications, which the NIC is not supposed to do. One scenario focuses on how Turkish leaders use (or misuse) modern information and surveillance technologies for untoward purposes. Turkey’s leaders might be tempted to employ technology to increase surveillance of the general public to stifle political dissent as well as religious extremism and terrorism. Turkey’s leaders might be drawn to the East Asian model of China/Singapore, which promises economic growth while preserving political stability and state control. The NIC authors believe that this would be easier to implement in Turkey’s urban centers, but more difficult in Turkey’s less connected interior, which is more conservative and aligned with religious movements. The effort could easily backfire domestically as well as alienate Turkey from its natural allies.
Turkey will become increasingly at risk for cyber warfare as its economy modernizes and more Turkish citizens and firms gain access to the Internet. If a group or entity wished to target Turkey, using cyber warfare to disrupt river channels could be effective in damaging agriculture and limiting the usefulness of dams designed to collect hydroelectric energy from the rivers. Cyber warfare can also be used as starting point for a greater social failure, with the concentration of ethnic groups in urban areas needing just a spark — such as a targeted electric outage — to erupt into intrastate violence and conflict.
A nuclear Iran presents several problems for Turkey as well. In the event that Iran realizes its nuclear aims, Turkey might seek to take matters into its own hands through diplomatic action or more problematically through achieving its own nuclear capability rather than relying on NATO. This response could foster conflict in the Middle East, as well as create an impending sense of doom that could derail Turkey’s economic growth. Additionally, this approach could lead to greater separation between Turkey and the West.
In the past, modernization was synonymous with Westernization; the increasing influence of countries reflected a Western-styled modernization occurring as wealth and technology spreads to the east and south. But as future countries experience growth, they could have competing interests, not only with the Western world, but also with each other in regional hotbeds such as Africa and Central Asia. These competing interests are further compounded by regional tensions and rivalries between China and India, China and Japan, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Islam, and Turkey and Iran. Beyond resentment of U.S. dominance both economically and politically, how much does the BRICS and the Next Eleven countries agree on? This question could confront Turkey’s future leaders with hostile or conflicting relationships that lead to conflict in coming years.
Despite the growing prominence of India, China, Turkey and other developing countries, the NIC generally believes that the United States will continue to maintain the strongest military preeminence in state-on-state scenarios through at least 2030. So the influence exerted by Turkey will be achieved through diplomatic channels and other tools besides military strength.
However, with so many countries coming into prominence, there is a concern that the scenario embodied by the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” can occur. Adding other players to delicate negotiations can needlessly complicate them. Already some of the emerging powers, democracies as well as authoritarian regimes, harbor resentments against Western-imposed policies that may surface in unexpected ways. This was seen in 2010 when Brazil and Turkey tried to launch their own diplomatic effort to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. The developing secondary players in the global arena today (Turkey, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa) are likely to play an increasingly important role in regional security and global rule shaping.
It is only natural that the U.S. intelligence community ponders the impact of Turkey’s growing significance in global affairs. Turkey can be expected to exercise considerable influence over global and regional power dynamics during the next twenty years. The legitimacy, stability and alignment of Turkey will certainly have a major impact on the balance of power in Southeast Europe, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Eastern Mediterranean, and not least the Middle East. Turkey can either be a valuable source of stability in these regions or a dangerous contributor to their problems.
If Turkey ignores its own demographic situation involving the youthful Kurdish population, or engages the Iranian nuclear problem unilaterally, Turkey’s likely bright future could become considerably dimmer.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.