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From the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China
I recently read Henry Kissinger’s remarks in June about Turkey. I compare it to what he said about Turkey back in 1992, and the difference within the 25 years is heartbreaking. Developments in Syria are poisoning Turkey’s intimate relations with its allies. Let me elaborate.
A seasoned diplomat once told me how it was Kissinger who coined the phrase “Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.” It was in a closed meeting with then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel just after the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The late Mr. Demirel had just made his seventh comeback as prime minister after the military coup of 1980.
The Soviet world was collapsing, and the American-backed liberal order reigned supreme. “I see a whole Turkic world from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China standing up,” Kissinger noted. Later, Demirel used the phrase often to illustrate the awakening of a Turkish brotherhood across Eurasia. Turkey as a functioning democracy, and a thriving market economy, extended from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.
It captured the imagination, and Turks loved it. Here we were, a pivotal nation in a great new project. It was only 1992. Turkey’s economic transformation had only just started in the early 1980s, but the country was fast transforming from an agrarian backwater to an industrial powerhouse. In 1980, per capita GDP was $1,500, by 1992, it was $2,500. Still lower than global average, mind you, but a significant change nonetheless. Exports increased from $3 billion to $15 billion. Still far from todays $150 billion, but we were getting there. So the transformative capacity of the country was far more modest in 1992 when compared to today’s situation. Yet the country was on an upwards trajectory, which is less than what can be said about it today.
Let me come to Kissinger’s 2017 remarks. I was reading the published transcript of his contribution to the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security this June. He was talking about chaos and world order in our turbulent times. His main argument is that the West should not engage in the world’s struggles without a “geostrategic concept.” Order requires a mutually inclusive common policy ground. I agree. Yet what interested me most was his description of modern Turkey. It summarizes the image problem of Turkey today, if you ask me.
Kissinger had only two sentences for Turkey. “The Western calculus has been complicated by the emerging transformation of Turkey, once a key moderating influence, from a secular state into an ideologically Islamic version ...Turkey’s support to the Sunni cause occurs side by side with its efforts to weaken the autonomy of the Kurds.”
I beg to differ. First, the notion that Turkey is transforming from a secular state into an ideologically Islamic version is a perception error. It stems from a perception that focuses on a single variable – namely the prevalent rhetoric dominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If you look at Turkey closely however, its political shift is far more complex, and Islamism is arguably not even the most dominant part of it.
Second, the Western position in Syria has been fluid for a very long time. Before accusing Turkey of not towing the line, you first need to focus on twists and turns of Western policy toward the Syrian quagmire. That’s why a geostrategic concept is so vital.
Third, that common geostrategic concept needs to take into account everybody’s individual concerns. Israel is very much concerned with the growing power of Hezbollah as a result of the Syrian civil war. Similarly, Turkey is concerned about the radical success of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party/People’s Protection Units (PKK/YPG) and its stronghold just outside its border. Turkey steps outside the Western playbook whenever it feels existential angst that the West does not account for. That’s what happened with Cyprus in 1974, and it’s what’s happening in Syria now.
Fourth, Turkey could play a positive role in bringing stability back to our region. Yet the lack of a long-term Western strategy and the evident short termism of our allies on the ground make things difficult for all of us. They reserve the role of a spoiler for Turkey - a negative role we are not prepared to play. A negative role does not become the emerging trading nation Turkey is so well equipped to be.
Turkey needs to enlarge its regional vision. The “Adriatic to the Great Wall of China” framework still has great potential. While Chinese President Xi Jinping is working to materialize his Silk Road vision for the transformation of Asia, it is time for Turkey think about its contributions to world order in more concrete terms. Israel is the only other actor in this region capable of planning at this level. There is no reason Turkey should not benefit from this, and develop a new grand plan stretching its Middle Eastern role out to the great developing nations of Asia.