The rise of East Asia has for some time been a point of departure to explain events and politics elsewhere. This is warranted but should not be overblown. Geopolitics requires equal attention to every region’s broader setting, including that of East Asia, and their specific ecosystems. Some of the widely shared conclusions regarding the western half of Eurasia predicated on the East may not be that obvious.
For starters, the gravitation towards East Asia is indeed strong because of the sheer size of its economic expansion, which is also the prime source of its growing political and military heft. And China, by far the continental leader, and the United States’ only potential global peer, is pushing and pulling matters with increasing determination and efficiency. People naturally take note. But even if China stands out with such scale, its emergence has not been a unique occurrence. It was just the big one. The world beyond the West has long outgrown its template of business. This was a process which had already begun during the Cold War era, but few would care to take notice of it then. The Cold War froze Europe, not the rest of the world, for better or worse. Therefore, placing the East Asian juggernaut -again, with due respect- in the wider frame of homegrown progress across the world will put matters in clearer perspective. And even fascination should have its limits. China is prone to economic slowdown as any other.
Clarity will be important because it has consequences. For only in this way can we accurately determine why and how we should change our ways. Regionalism, in the favorable sense of the word, has been an equally robust product -if less eye-catching than the East Asian economic success- of this process. Because its driving force is collective regional ownership of fate, a by-product of national empowerment, rather than some regional alliance scheme adjunct to big power or bloc politics. Few would have imagined that for example ASEAN, seen hardly as more than a talk shop at the time of its inception, would transform into a ten-member-strong common space of diverse cooperation and a framework which also brings together outside powers, and on its own terms.
Distant countries are also seeking and establishing partnerships with the same motive. Because they do not only identify commonality of interest but are also capable of aligning them. The recent expansion of the BRICS to include a range of middle-sized powers across the world indicates that the trend is gathering speed and expanding in scope.
Second, polarity is a suitable concept to underline group behavior under centripetal powers, but risks missing the diverse and diffuse environment in which it takes form. Even the multitude of current global scene descriptions in terms of polarity -ranging from still unipolar to bipolar, from tripolar to multipolar- in effect attests to factors present beyond polar centers. There must be some other reason luring countries to different clusters. A common mistake made is that the present is predicated on the immediate past. Asking why that recent past could not live on in the first place will therefore be a sensible way to proceed. Bipolarity in the latter half of the 20th century was more an aberration than a full-fledged international system. Although centered on Europe, it showcased the continent’s inevitable diminution -in both relative economic and absolute political terms- on the world stage, but ideological warfare backed by nukes feigned something different and bigger. Consuming the world eventually consumed Europe.
Also, much emphasis has been put on the unipolar moment following the Cold War. It is true that the U.S. stood alone for at least over a decade as the overwhelming power to attract or discipline others. But even then, those others did not include everyone. Some just chose to remain outside the gaze of the U.S. until a better day. There was no compliance. This is particularly true for China. In other words, unipolarity did not mean reigning or shaping the world accordingly.
Third, geopolitical dynamics change, but you stay where you are. Pundits occasionally tend to drift with the wind. The concentration of geopolitical stakes anywhere is of interest to every country, but that does not automatically make them its part. In fact, for most, it is that concentration’s ripple effect which must be taken more seriously. To illustrate the point, in the Mediterranean, you cannot opt to be a constituent part of the East Asian dynamics just because Europe’s relative weight is diminishing. Geopolitics is not yet another, interchangeable, commodity. It is not chosen. Major trends elsewhere can only be factored into your own geopolitical space. And it is your footprint in that very space which determines the extent of your ability both to cope with and to benefit from power shifts elsewhere, not the other way around.
This brings us to the fourth point. Rising tensions do not in themselves signify the preeminence of a particular geopolitical circumstance. Asia-Pacific makes to the headlines more often not least because the specter of Thucydides’ Trap between an emerging and an existing power keeps haunting minds. But matters are tense in that hemisphere simply because major stakes are unsettled. By contrast, in the Transatlantic, stakes are either settled or reasonably well managed. This does not diminish its importance or make it adjunct to the opposite side of the globe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine clearly demonstrated what will be at stake when this overall tranquility is challenged. It is only when we make this distinction can we grasp the fuller extent and the true nature of Asia-Pacific’s influence on Europe and beyond. It is not preeminence, but connectivity.
And West Eurasia is the physical expression of that connectivity. The push-and-pull effect of the countervailing dynamics is most acutely felt along its eastern belt -including the land-locked Central Asia- where Europe and Asia progressively blur into one another. This vast area holds the unenviable reputation of containing many of the world’s intractable disputes which occasionally degenerate into violent conflicts. Maybe it was only a matter of time in its north that war would revisit Europe in the form of Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine.
There is an unmistakable systemic element in this and many other rivalries. This element either overlaps or is conditioned by what parties perceive as their geopolitical prerogative. For Russia, already straddling eleven time zones, territorial perpetuity is the core of its security perception. This perpetuity includes Ukraine and several others to its West but this time the trigger seems to have been Ukraine’s democratic vocation. This is commonly understood as Russia’s frustration at having the West ever closer to its borders. Russia’s concern is more profound than that. Ukraine presents the democratic alternative within Putin’s Russian homeland. It then becomes an altogether different ballgame. Because Ukraine’s democratic vocation is internalized, it holds the specter of replicating itself in the entire country. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski had once remarked, “Russia can be an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both”.
The abundance of unaccountable governments is a fundamental source of strife and instability in the Euro-Asian connecting belt, but there are associated reasons too. In the Arab proper, many states were carved out or demarcated according to outside priorities. Today, borders among Arab states are not questioned (Saddam made that mistake in 1990) but who truly stands for or defends the notional Arab nation remains a contested ground. This claim is a foundational theme across all individual Arab national identities. It serves as a cause both for inter-Arab solidarity and simmering competition. Its deeper effect is however felt domestically, where the legitimation of the government has been only indirectly related to the people and bolstered by religion. Arab uprisings in 2011 tested that in earnest and remain a beacon. But we know what followed was more in the known style of the region.
Scramble for oil beginning more than a century ago from the West and the North transformed the fate of a geography stretching from the Caucasus to Iran, and to the Indian Ocean, shoring up local hierarchies. Otherwise, big power balancing acts converted large swathes of land like Afghanistan into isolated buffers, effectively freezing their history. The dissolution of the British Raj and the partition of India in 1947 widened and accentuated the belt as Pakistan strategically disrupted the geographic east-west connectivity of the sub-continent’s north. From there on, the Central Asian states, whether within the Soviet fold or independent later, remained firmly huddled away from broader dynamics.
Whether modern democracy and the rule of law, as a West European creation, is a socio-cultural genetic quality or has universal relevance (I obviously preach the latter) is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, this belt presents some of the toughest challenges to the sprouting of democracy. Global shifts may as well work to bolster its existing structures, but the strong political, economic, and social currents being generated through these shifts will also test their resilience.
What is hitherto outlined is not to suggest that this belt represents an integrated or a self-sustaining whole. In fact, from north to south, its segments are exposed to as well as help shape different geopolitical ecosystems. Additionally, unlike a host of previous views and theories on Eurasia’s intermediate area, my analysis is not predicated on civilizational distinctions as autonomous determinants, between the East and the West.
The northern segment lies in the Eurasian Slavic space, corresponding to an area which is “above the three Seas” (Aral, Caspian, and the Black Sea), and to the west of the Ural Mountains. This vast northern intercontinental space has been historically exposed to invasions and population movements on the east-west axis. From the imperial Russian perspective, controlling Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland of the World Island” would be a job incomplete. This east-west axis is physically continuous. This continuity is accentuated by the presence of non-Russian Slavic nations and extends to the northern plains of central and western Europe. Numerous and sizeable non-Russian populations live under Russian sovereignty, and Russia remains a very influential -if diminishing- power across the Caucasus.
By contrast, the geopolitical connection of Turkey with mainland Europe is not one of territorial perpetuity but one of interdependence. Although a common feature of Russian and Ottoman histories has been land grab in Eastern Europe, and hence the reason for eleven major wars between them within the span of two centuries, the similarity belies their diverging motives. The Anatolian Peninsula has been, through millennia, more east of Europe than west of Asia. The Peninsula’s unforgiving mountainous topography in the north, east and south contributed to its relative detachment from the Asian landmass. The Republic of Turkey represents only the most recent link in a bond that solidly began with the Macedonians and carried on by the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Even the Persians outstretched themselves, before the Macedonian expansion, to do the same. İstanbul’s location is the projection of this interdependence. In former times, empires marched their warriors to make the point. Nowadays, the norm for modern nation states is to settle into mutual frameworks of civilized alignment.
Turkey thus sits at the intersection of three (West Asian, European, and Mediterranean) geopolitical ecosystems. Towards the north, it must hold onto its ground. Its own vital east-west connectivity should not be disputed, disrupted, or overwhelmed. Hence the superficiality of the fears and the dreams of Turko-Russian cohesion. To its northeast, the Southern Caucasus at once represents a problematic vital region, strategic access to West and Central Asia, and interaction with Russia. This is the region where power struggles between and within the Slavic North and West Asia have been most acutely felt. The Southern Caucasus is a knot of ethnicities mimicking its topography, which requires careful disentanglement. To its east, Iran protrudes onto the rugged intersection, itself buffered by the Zagros Mountains in the west and the Elburz Mountains in the north. The Turkish-Iranian frontier is one of the oldest state borders in the world (since 1639), attesting to a stability borne out of time-honored mutual recognition of the futility to test each other’s putative strength. In the south, Turkey shares the Mesopotamian basin and more with Iraq and Syria, and perhaps more significantly, constitutes the northern bulk of the Eastern Mediterranean.
In such a geography, matured by the incessant buffeting of history, Turkey looks West. This is not to deny Turkey’s Asian and Middle Eastern dimensions and aspects of identity. But precisely for those reasons, it already satisfies, through its diversity, these bonds of affinity. Otherwise, and in no small measure by historical legacy, the Arab fold is at least as distant from as it is close to Turkey. Beyond that, Turkey continues to have an enormous interest in its south, but this pertains mainly to its regional footprint as a modern middle power.
As for normative and systemic orientation, however, Turkey’s West Asian intersection has been historically exhausted. The Turkish history in the wider region with Arabs and Iranians had evolved in a way which led the Seljuks and then the Ottomans to rise above both the genealogical caliphate and the static Sassanid balancing act tradition, and as a dynamic and dominating political power. Many in Turkey and yet even more in Europe still do not understand that Turkey’s transition from sanctified, self-assumed dynastic power to people’s sovereign will was not a simple matter of elitist choice. It was the sole path to move forward, as had earlier been the case with West Europeans. Turkey’s luck at the time was its exceptional leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who showed the way when it was not readily apparent.
Fast forward to now. The entire Eurasian middle belt is in flux and cracking open. In the north, an already more profound outcome of the war in Ukraine has been the breaking of Slavic perpetuity east of NATO. This may or may not foreshadow Ukraine’s own membership in NATO, or its swift accession to the EU, but for Russia, damage is already done. Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine turned out to be a step too far in its series of moves there as well as in Georgia, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, all indirectly facilitated by China’s growing profile as a countervailing force against the U.S. and its allies. Russia could thus more confidently focus on pockets of vacuum without having to look over its shoulder all the time but eventually overplayed its hand. Russia now faces a more united and bigger NATO, with Finland already in and Sweden on its way.
We are observing the initial signs of the war’s more far-reaching consequences also in the south. The Karabakh dispute, the principal source of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, is suddenly coming to a decisive conclusion following the “one day war” in September. The enclave’s fate now seems firmly sealed within Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. The conflict had handed Russia considerable leverage as a power broker (to prolong the dispute) so that it could thrive on the parties’ mutual enmity. While the current Armenian Prime Minister’s intimacy with the West has evidently been a factor in the Kremlin’s cold shouldering of its CSTO ally both now and during the 2020 Fall war, Russia’s aloofness has more to do with itself together with the power shifts in the region. Azerbaijan is in far better shape now than it was in early 1990s when it lost control of both Karabakh and twenty percent of its territory to then militarily superior, Russia-backed, Armenia. After then, Azerbaijan drew on its own natural resources for economic growth and national strength, but perhaps more crucially, relied on ties other than with Russia for its viability. Turkey figured prominently in Azerbaijan’s new connectivity. Armenia, by contrast, banked on Russia, became anemic, and depopulated. Pashinyan came to power surfing on the resulting public resentment, and even military defeats did not cause his deposition, at least until now. Russia is simply not an economic counterweight either here or in the wider post-Soviet geography (the Eurasian Economic Union was an attempt by Russia to hold some of the economic reins, but its future is less certain particularly after the Ukraine war). But Russia’s attempt to swallow Ukraine exposed both its true ambitions and inherent weaknesses to its former constituent partners in an unmistakable way. Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova now display a stronger determination in advancing their institutional bonds with the West. Armenia has recently hosted military exercises with U.S. participation, and perhaps more crucially, decided to join the International Criminal Court, which has an arrest warrant for the Russian President.
The landlocked Central Asian states are not missing out on the moment either. In recent decades they have balanced their acts mainly between Russia and China, with increasing emphasis on the latter. Because the dissimilar continental footprints of these unequal powers are becoming more evident by the day. The scale, diversity and advanced state of the Chinese economy translates itself into denser and more integrated relations and prospects for them. Be it in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), energy networks or specific bilateral and regional development schemes, China’s allure overshadows Russia’s uninspiring grandstanding. And Russia can still thrive as a fossil fuel superpower by feeding the Chinese economy only to help it grow further. Meanwhile, these countries’ interest in all directions, including the West, is growing beyond oil and gas market access schemes (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are themselves important exporters) or the modest premium they have hitherto received for their intermediate geography. They are coordinating better among themselves; an improvement that became easier with Uzbekistan emerging from its relative isolation. Uzbekistan borders all other four plus Afghanistan. Their growing agency is also related to their sour experience hedging their security with one or other big power. The sudden and chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan, in 2021, probably served as the last straw. They had regarded the Taliban as a serious challenge to their own domestic stability and welcomed the U.S.-led effort. But eventually it could not deliver. So, they decided to come out themselves to be in a better bargaining position by involving a multitude of regional and major players. It is well-timed, because, with China, and emerging India, the matrix in which Central Asia now finds itself is already a global playing field. The U.S. President Biden’s meeting with the five Central Asian leaders -unprecedented at this level- on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, in September, focusing on security and economic cooperation, signals the realization of the need for broader diversification and balance, also by the U.S.
With Afghanistan having effectively turned itself into an isolated buffer once again under the Taliban, and in acute need of help to survive, the regional focus is further sharpening on countries nearby.
Iran is once again approaching the recurring paradox of its long history. Its domestic fortitude wanes even as it spreads out. There is a connection. A middle power like Iran naturally seeks regional influence. But it is molded in the Islamic regime’s compulsion to satisfy its existential priorities. The old imperial imperative has been replaced by ideological necessity. The regime’s ideological scope is broader than Iran. But it stands alone. It must also have a certain following abroad to remain sufficiently secure and relevant at home. Domestic unrest, either simmering or erupting, pokes further its existential fears, and induces it to make a stand more aggressively abroad. The demonstrations driven by women last year and the ongoing tense atmosphere are the most recent links in a growing chain of events consistently denting the regime. It is a revolution, slow motion. The regime can shore up its material strength by closer and heftier economic exchanges with China and others and prop up its international standing through loose regional schemes like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but these cannot not improve its fortunes before the swelling dissenters at home or the growing consensus against it in the Middle East.
Pakistan has been a predictable unstable country, but even that ambiguous condition may be approaching its end. Pakistan’s China connection is indeed significant, yet this does not heal its domestic afflictions. The circumstances and the geopolitics of Pakistan’s divorce from India in 1947 may have set the stage for continued animosity between the two, but this instability was exacerbated on Pakistan’s part by the religious identification of politics (now it has a fuller counterpart in the form of BJP under Modi). The Cold War era dynamics led Pakistan to sharpen this identification (the state was also declared an Islamic Republic), but its ever-deeper involvement in Afghanistan, seen as strategic depth, had a more profound impact. It resulted in the approximation of the two countries. Prison or exile follows almost every orderly or forced end of term for its leaders, but there is now less interest abroad to help prevent Pakistan from wobbling too much.
The Arab world, as we habitually refer to that vast geography, has accelerated its diffusion on the East-West axis. The East gravitates towards the Indian Ocean and the West towards the Mediterranean. The Gulf States, already awash by oil and gas revenue, increasingly connect with the East Asian economic dynamism and diversify their own economies. History and demographics bind the Arab East to Asia and the Pacific, and the Arab West to Europe and the Atlantic even as they, too, seek closer ties with Asia. Its Mediterranean basin members are more prone to new rounds of popular discontent. 2021 has been an illustrious year for how smoldering resentments can again transform into mass outcries. The more recent demonstrations in Syria also show that the culture of dissent has taken root even under the sternest of circumstances.
The unravelling of the common Arab fate is also substantiated by the normalization of an increasing number of Arab states’ relations with Israel. The League of Arab States’ two decade-old bargain to normalize these relations in exchange for a viable two-state solution between Israel and Palestine now appears consigned to archives.
But none of these can neutralize the risks inherent in leaving the question of Palestine unresolved. Indeed, war has returned -for now to the immediate conflict theater- in a shocking fashion on 7 October. It will test both the viability of the emerging regional alignments and Iran’s capacity -together with its regional proxies- to precisely disrupt that. And the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once again regionalized.
West Europe, which had circumnavigated the world, and claimed it, finds itself either restricted by formidable powers or otherwise surrounded by problematic neighborhoods. Central and Eastern Europe, now more fully embraced in the continental ecosystem, share this condition. And this condition is at once the cause of Europe’s alignments on intercontinental scale and its defensive posture along its rim. The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union may have been primarily caused by its growing unease over Brussels’ expanding powers, but the EU’s stiffness borne out of its overly continental focus should not be discounted as a factor.
And all is not harmonious within continental Europe itself. As already noted, the Slavic space in its east is not totally divorced from Russia. This continuing affinity may nowadays be less related to kinship than to the region’s longstanding overall conviction that others (West Europeans in the current context) have a disproportionate say over their state. As an avid reader of history, I have always been amazed by the scant emphasis many Western historians accord to East Europe, as if it had little value on its own beyond being coveted by a few empires. This is not merely a perception and still has consequences. Poland, for example, was twice wiped off the political map, and had to reassert itself against all odds. Non-Slavic Hungary does not feel much differently. Slovakia has recently elected a politician echoing native frustrations. This is a recurring cycle in Europe’s east. During the initial phase of the war in Ukraine, the conventional wisdom, reinforced by declared official positions, was that the frontline states of Eastern Europe were more resolved in standing up against the Russian aggression, than the EU and NATO members to further west and south, who were not experiencing the heat of the war as directly, and had greater economic stakes with Russia. In the process, these roles have been partly switched. Broader strategic calculus induced the West to line up behind Ukraine’s defense effort and its economic viability in an unprecedented fashion, while the East became increasingly concerned about the ramifications of a protracted conflict.
Also, democracy seems to connote something a bit different in at least some of these eastern members of the EU. Public, which replaced the sanctified and self-assumed basis for legitimate authority, is prone to be understood as an abstract whole detached from its underpinning concept resting on equal rights and freedoms for all and safeguarded for all, in countries that have not gone through the fuller struggle which brought about the rule of law. Half a century spent under communism has its more abiding legacies. And your self-perception impacts on what you make of your geopolitics, more so if it involves a certain degree of fluidity.
The differential along Europe’s north and south, in this case in relation to Southern and Eastern Mediterranean, is likewise evident. The EU’s efforts to collectively face rising security and migratory challenges from its immediate south and beyond have been only a partial success. And the interests of its members in this region are as varied as ever. Altogether, the EU must reassess its involvement in the region as the U.S. retrenches there politically and militarily even as its relative economic presence lessens -an opening China, Russia and others have eagerly seized on.
Up in the extreme north, the five littoral states of the Arctic Ocean sit almost on one another’s lap, contrary to the false impression reflected in the maps spreading the globe. Up there, they and others which overlap the Arctic Circle have distinct commonalities beside differences. The Arctic Ocean and the Barents, Norwegian and the North Seas together constitute a flexible geography where these counter considerations merge as those waters intersect and separate when sailing down south. Coming back to corridors, a considerably shorter, sea-borne route between East Asia and the Atlantic will likely become available in the decades ahead thanks to global warming that will melt more ice and for longer periods in the frosty north. Russia will control much of it. Iceland will probably become the Singapore of the north.
The Transatlantic connection has proven vital once again with the war in Ukraine. The United States is indispensable for the continent’s defense not only in terms of military capability and resources, but also as an organizing power. It is leading a campaign -with growing European military and even bigger economic and humanitarian support- in Ukraine’s defense, progressively adding to its operational and lethal capacity. It has bogged down Russia along that eastern frontline also strategically. Russia has the means to fight a long war, and is in fact executing that, but the bloody stalemate is also depleting and degrading its overall capacity. Russia has thus returned to its economic toolbox, and in coordination with Saudi Arabia, is preparing to make the oncoming winter a remarkably cold and expensive one for Europe. And the U.S. may not remain the steadfast center indefinitely after all. In early October, the Republican led House let the government rolling without an additional penny for military aid to Ukraine. And under America’s current peculiar circumstances, Trump’s antics may prove to be his ticket back to the White House next year, a prospect that already confounds Europe. And the protectionist legislative steps the U.S. has taken seemingly aiming China will have repercussions on its trade with Europe, which may prompt counter measures.
As already noted, Russia benefits from China’s ascent because it can operate with more ease in its own neighborhood. And the symbiosis with China allows it to project their combined clout. Didn’t the two countries’ leaders agree just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that their cooperation had no limits? In another respect however “no limits” is an indefinite statement. And it is already showing. Economically, China has been of valuable support (but Yuan is becoming the exchange and possibly a reserve currency), militarily not so until now. Politically, it is supportive of Russia without selling out Ukraine’s independent existence. Essentially, China manages the conflict as a counterbalancing element. Russia’s continuing aggression pins down sizeable U.S. and Western capacity. Beyond that, China’s interests in Europe are not served by confrontation. Its economic stakes there are way higher than Russia’s.
In turn, stalemate on its western front is shifting Russia to the South. The swift developments in the Karabakh dispute are also not unrelated to that. Russia is realigning its geographic layout in the face of its Ukrainian adventure which has also effectively shut off any possibility, for a long time to come, to materialize East Asia’s land connection to Europe over Russia. That part of China’s BRI is accordingly gone. The “middle corridor” which would run across the Central Asian states, the Caucasus and Turkey before it connects to mainland Europe remains an alternative. Factor in the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor launched during the G-20 Summit in New Delhi, in September, with the United States as a co-sponsor of the initiative. Russia must have had these in mind too. More broadly, Russia is seeking a Caucasian region more manageable for itself under the new circumstances.
Russia’s interest extends further south. It will be in Syria, long term. It is also working to undergird as tightly as possible North Africa, hence the Mediterranean, through the Sahel. OPEC+ brings Russia with the Gulf and Iran into strategic coordination. China’s diplomatic activism in the MENA region on top of its growing economic and political footprint coincides with Russia’s presence, though it is not evident that the two can work coherently together. Their means of approaching the region could not be more different.
The global South does not take sides in the Ukraine war or in systemic rivalries. Many of today’s rivalries are concurrently nestled in shared stakes anyway. For a third party, it does not matter who you are, they just look for the best possible deal. The West does not have the upper hand like before. It is no different.
Starting with 2009, the Turkish government chose to experiment, with increasing fervor, a foreign policy based on its self-identification informed by a notion of timeless statehood imbued in patriarchal religiosity. It did not view Turkey as a modern nation which had overtaken its past, but rather as the modern-time continuity of that past. For a while matters looked well, for two reasons. It continued to capitalize on and consumed the Republic’s stature, strength, and capacity. And to a considerable extent it still operated within the time-tested templates of regional and international engagement. But in lockstep with growing authoritarianism at home, it moved beyond that frame. Agitated action accompanied ideological passions when the going got tough. The rest is known to all who followed the course. The experiment exacted an enormous cost. The government recognized that its ways had to change. We are in that phase now.
External funding for economic recovery is high on the government’s agenda. Mending bilateral relations with Arabs and Israel -but mainly on their terms- is on course. This reversal however cannot make up for Turkey’s lost regional reputation as a stability generating power. With the West, tensions cooled down, but relations remain transactional. Normative ties are at an all-time low. They mirror Turkey’s domestic outlook. The war in Ukraine has shown to the government that geopolitics cannot be bent.
These changes do not in themselves translate into a coherent policy. Rather, the government’s current foreign policy is guided by necessities combined with the quest to make sense of Turkey’s dislodged relations. It is more an expression of partial substitution of the West with the East, Europe with Asia, rather than a weighed coordination. Turkey runs the risk of squandering both. For this is quite a different proposition than what its geopolitical imperatives and proven direction dictate. The S400 episode remains a cautionary tale.
We end up with Europe again. The civilizational warriors there and the Islamist-nativist coalition in Turkey may rest assured that their shared prophecy has materialized. Turkey’s EU membership prospect is dead. That is not all. It’s membership in the Council of Europe -a famously overlooked foundational institution in Turkey- is on the line. This is a lose-lose situation. Curtailed geopolitics means curtailed regional and global relevance, for both.