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reflections

Jan 30, 2009 | 01:11 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The World's Pivot

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan created a stir at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday with a lengthy condemnation of Israel’s recent actions in the Gaza Strip. Erdogan’s speech was clearly prepared beforehand — read directly from papers he was holding — so this was no off-the-cuff comment that could be written off. And sitting right next to the Turkish prime minister the whole time was none other than Israeli President Shimon Peres. After Peres delivered a counterpoint, Erdogan went on what detractors would probably label a rant, which ended with a brief argument with the moderator about time limits before he abruptly walked off the stage, having said, “I do not think I will return to Davos.” Back in Turkey, the response was mixed: Some were surprised by their leader’s actions, and some were thrilled to see him lambaste both Israel and the European elites at Davos. Indeed, it is a matter for debate both within and outside Turkey just where Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are taking Turkish policy in the near future. There are those who see his bold criticisms of Israel as a clear bid to seize a leadership position for Islamic sentiment throughout the Middle East. Others see Turkey asserting itself in order to counter, or perhaps collaborate with, a resurgent Russia. Still others see Turkey pushing to join, or perhaps utterly reject, the European Union. The one thing that is clear is that Turkey is moving more assertively than it has in decades. It has been almost 90 years since the world has seen Turkey as a place that projects any power on its own. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks have been extremely insular, dabbling only rarely in events beyond their borders. Granted, Turkey was a key participant in the NATO alliance during the Cold War, given that it shared borders with the Middle East, Iran, the Soviet bloc (Bulgaria) and the Soviet Union itself. It has been a long time, however, since Turkey pursued an activist foreign policy — and most of the world has forgotten just what that means. Turkey occupies on some of the most valuable real estate in the world. The Anatolian plateau is high and easily defensible, and as a peninsula it also supports a thriving maritime culture. Both are excellent assets for growing a successful state. But Turkey’s most important feature is its critical location. It sits astride the land routes connecting Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East — not to mention the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It is the only country in the world that is positioned to project influence readily into all of these regions. A deeper look reveals that the territory that comprises modern-day Turkey has been at or near the center of the human story for thousands of years. It was the home of the Hittite empire some 3,300 years ago, and afterward its Aegean coast was part of Classical Greece. Not only was Anatolia a key component of the Roman Empire, but Byzantium — based in what is now Istanbul — was Rome’s immediate political, cultural, religious and economic successor. That entity in turn was succeeded by the Ottomans, who crafted what was at the time the world’s greatest empire — which almost unilaterally enabled humanity to emerge from the Dark Ages, even at times conquering a good portion of what would eventually become Western civilization. For about half of the past two millennia, Anatolia has commanded the world’s most powerful economic and military forces. The bottom line is this: Any time in human history that the Anatolian Peninsula has not been a leading force in geopolitics has been an aberration. The land that links Europe to the Eurasian steppe to the mountains of Asia to the Mediterranean basin and the deserts of Arabia is geographically destined to play a major role on the global stage. If the world has a pivot, it lies in Turkey. And although the direction of its movement remains up for debate, Turkey — after more than 90 years of quiescence — is moving again.

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