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How should Turkey navigate in a post-American world?

Dec 29, 2023

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Since its establishment, Turkey has consistently pursued a foreign policy of neutrality in major conflicts, striving to maintain independence at any expense. With its strategic geographical position, robust industrial sector and youthful population, Turkey stands as an important player in global politics.

As President Tayyip Erdogan maintains his grip on power, Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan explores the potential ramifications of choices this influential nation could make over the next several years.

Excerpted from Peter’s Dec. 29 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Today’s country shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Sure, Turkey has been relatively silent over the past 70 years, but as American guardianship of the global seas declines, Turkey will reemerge as a dominant power.

Much of Turkey’s significance stems from its very, very fortunate geography; it controls the Turkish Straits and several other key waterways. This means that if anyone wants to move anything in this region, guess who they have to work with — Bingo — Turkey.

That’s the driving factor here, but it leaves Turkey with some big decisions. Should it partner with Ukraine against Russia or expand its influence in the Caucasus? Should it try to dominate the Aegean or displace German power in the Balkans? Should it absorb Mesopotamia and become the determining power of the Persian Gulf or make a bid for control of the Eastern Mediterranean? Given Turkey’s limited power to pursue all options simultaneously, it has some hefty strategic decisions to make that will shape its future.

Access Peter’s other post-American world commentaries:

Hey everybody, Peter Zion here coming to you from Colorado. Today, we’re doing the next in the post American series and we are going to focus on Turkey. Now the Turks have been a major power in the world, going back into the date that they basically split off from the Mongol hordes back in the 1200s, and eventually settled in the territory that we now know is this symbol settled wrong word Concord. Since then, they’ve been an indelible part of Middle Eastern and European politics. And the reason that I would say a lot of us don’t think of the Turks in that way, is because they have been taking a little bit of a break from history, their defeat at the end of World War One was so dramatic, and shattered their political and economic orders that they basically pulled the welcome mat in and kind of fell in upon themselves for most of the last century. And it’s only with the rise of the current president Erawan. In recent decades, that they’ve started to emerge, and the kind of relearning the world around them and discovering it a lot messier than they remember, most of the problems that you see, in the Southern Balkans, or the Levant and Mesopotamia can in some way be linked back to the disintegration of the sublime port in Istanbul, from a century ago. It wasn’t a pretty Imperial collapse, and the region still shows the scars. Anyway, the Turks have been coming back into their own, and they’re finding out that they have to make a lot of decisions. So one of the many, many, many, many, many reasons why the Turks are so important because they learned that the Occupy Istanbul sits on the Golden Horn and sits on the Turkish streets, which are the only source of water access between the Mediterranean beyond that the Atlantic in the Indian Ocean, and on the other side, the Black Sea, and through a series of navigable rivers that include the dawn, the Nieper, and an Easter deep into the Ukraine and even into the the Russian Interior. There’s a there’s a canal now that links to the dawn to the Volga, so that goes all the way to Moscow. And that means that by water, the Istanbul area has always been a linkage point, then there’s of course, by land, because if you go east into Anatolia, eventually hit Persia, and beyond that India and China, or you can go to the northwest of the Balkans and get right up into Europe. Danube goes that way too. So, in any world, where global trade is not a thing, for whatever reason, Istanbul is arguably the richest and most important city, economically and strategically on the planet. But that’s not where we’ve been living for the last 70 years, when the Americans created the global order. The Turks had this great geography, but all of a sudden, the Americans made it not matter because we made the global sea safe for everyone. And so all you had to get do was get to a body of water, and go anywhere, which is something that you could not do in the pre globalized era, because anyone who had a Navy would basically jealously guard, their own commerce, and shooted, everybody else’s. So we had this flip, and how commerce works. And the Turks went from having the best geography in the world to arguably among the worst, and so they disappeared. Well, that’s ending, the Americans are bit by bit, removing their guardianship from the waterways. And the Turks are discovering that they’re becoming incrementally more important. They’re also discovering as they re expand their influence back into all their old imperial territories, that a lot of these zones have developed opinions of their own, about how things should run. But with very, very few exceptions, the people who are developing those opinions aren’t particularly competent, and they’re certainly not very powerful there is there’s not a country that is within arm’s reach of Turkey, with the possible exception of Iran, where they could stand up to the Iranians in any sort of meaningful fight economically, politically, or militarily. And as long as that is the case, the Turks have this wonderful buffet of options in front of them. But while the Turks can go in any direction, they lack the power to go in all of them at the same time, they’re going to have to do something that no one likes to do, they’re gonna have to make some choices. So they just kind of go around the clock here and give you an idea of what’s in front of them. In no particular order. Here, I’m just kind of picking a direction and going north, into Ukraine. They’ve been there before. And by controlling the miles of the Nieper in the nista river, they were able to keep the Russian Empire at bay for a good century. They were also able to use their naval forces back in Istanbul, and anytime the rivers would thaw, they’d sail up, they’d smash anything the Russians tried to build, and then they’d come back and you know, be fine for the winter. The Russians have a naval problem that they can’t really focus on a new direction. And so the Turks were kind enough to hit him with a hammer every time. So with the Ukraine war going, the Turks while they’ve been politically on the fence and economically on the fence strategically, they are cheering on the Ukrainians. Day by day A and providing them with all the drones that it can possibly use in order to fight the Russians because the Turks know that, with the exception of Ukraine, obviously, that if Ukraine wins this war, the Turks are the natural and largest beneficiary of a Russian defeat and disintegration. Working from that same theory, you go to the northeast, you hit the caucuses, which is a place where empires often go to die. The Turks know this, their empire kind of died there, too. But that doesn’t mean there are a ton of opportunities, especially in the industrial age. You’ve got Azerbaijan, which is one of the world’s oil producers, kicks out about a million barrels a day, which flows through the caucuses region, and ultimately ends up in Turkey one way or another. There’s either a pipeline that crosses the land into Turkey to the super port of China in the Mediterranean, or there is naval stuff that comes out of the Black Sea, which ultimately has to flow through Istanbul. So no matter who wins in this area, if its riches are going to be tapped. Turkey has to be a part of that conversation, which of course, begs the question whether the Turks will expand in this direction. There is one of the three caucuses nations Azerbaijan who are ethnically Turkic, and have as a rule been allied with the Turks, on and off for all of their independent periods since they emerged from the detritus of the Soviet Union of late in 2023, the Armenian military was basically destroyed. The Azerbaijanis conquered some territory that they lost to the Armenians 2025 years earlier, and are now on the warpath, and the very future of the Armenian state is in question. And there’s really no one who could step in to broker a deal except turkey. So this is again, a very viable option. But let’s say you think that the church should take a little bit more bare knuckled approach, well, that probably won’t be the caucuses, that would be in Iran, go straight east, you hit what the Iranians call Iranian Azerbaijan, similar ethnic group to what is in Azerbaijan. And so the Iranians have always been nervous about an independent Azerbaijan on their doorstep, because they’re actually more is areas in Iran proper. Well, they are, again, ethnic kin, to Turkey. And if Turkey wanted to, we’re not saying they’re going to but if they wanted to, you could have a serious slam dunk fest, where we would put the Turkish military which is one of the best in the world, against the Iranian military, which is really just a bunch of barely trained infantry, I have no doubt who would win that conflict in the long run. But the key word there is long run, because this is a mountainous zone. And every mountain crest is a new battlement. And so for the Turks to do that would be a serious commitment, they could probably do very little else. You go to the southeast, you’re hitting Mesopotamia, and where the Kurds live, which are a minority that exists on both sides of the border, again, in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Cool, so need those anymore. And again, oil and gas, oil and gas, oil and gas, a little bit of wheat. Also access to the Persian Gulf, which would make the Turks a player and the world’s largest free energy market. In a time when global energy is no longer being protected by the Americans that would allow them to become a broker in any number of ways. They go straight south, they hit the Levant, which is where the Israelis are. Now the Israelis and the Turks during the first half of the Cold War, going up to about 1979 were tight allies with the Iranians. And then when Iran went its own way they remained allies. Until everyone came on the scene and Erawan doesn’t much care for the Israelis. It’s a very mutual feeling. Because no one is drawing a page from Turkish history. Not only for the Ottoman Turks, the economic and political and military superpower of the region, they were also the religious leaders. And Islam itself was based in Istanbul for a while. Well, they see the idea of Jews primarily of Western European descent, from their point of view, oppressing Palestinians who are Arabs, and Muslim as a bit of a problem. And so there’s a possibility here of a fight. But to have a fight, the Turks would have to integrate all of Syria and Lebanon. First God knows nobody wants that mess. So I think it’s more likely they’re gonna glare at each other, even though the smarter play would be to cooperate. Because if you can have the Turks and the Israelis more or less on the same page, they can easily keep other powers out of the region, while at the same time projecting power themselves into Egypt to control the Suez Canal,
which is you know, money, money, money, money, money. All right, continuing on clockwise now looking to the southwest, the eastern Mediterranean, specifically Cyprus and Greece. Now, the economist to me is like there’s nothing there to be had don’t go that way. But unfortunately, the Aegean Sea is the first stop pass is symbol to the wider world if you’re using that vector, and so There needs to be some sort of rapprochement or understanding or occupation of these lands by the Turks in order to have access to the wider world. Unfortunately, the Greeks and the Turks do not get along, and the Turks and Cypriots of each other so much. Also, getting involved in these places means dealing with a mountainous country, with a lot of naval frontage, and a sea environment where the Turks are always going to be involved somewhere else. So it’d make it easier for a another naval power, say the French to come in and muck things up seriously. And then finally, the last direction is to the northwest, into the southern Balkans, specifically the southeastern Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria, because here you’ve got the lowland of the Danube system, which punch up into Northern Europe. And you’ve got to have the more sophisticated ethnicities of all the countries that border Turkey. And so if you’re looking for general, economic activity, energy reserves, food supplies, some solid choices. In addition, those two countries are blocked off from the rest of the Europe by the Carpathian in the Balkan Mountains, make it a little easier to defend a little bit more naturally in the Turkish sphere of influence. So those are the options, Turks can’t, can’t even pretend to do them all, maybe two. Now, the strategic genius in me would say that the two to choose are pretty straightforward. You would number one, want to go for the Balkan vector, because the Bulgarians and Romanians have warm to cool relationships with the Turks already. And all three of them see each other as relatively reliable economic and security partners. The bad blood that dates back to the late Ottoman period is for the most part behind them. And especially when it comes to the Romanians and Bulgarians, they realize that there aren’t a lot of other options. If the United States loses interest in this part of the world writ large, all they’ve got left are the Russians. And that experience was as pleasant for the Romanians and Bulgarians during the Cold War as it was for everybody else. The second route that I would go to is I’d find a deal way to make a deal with the Israelis. Because that allows you to do an end run to a certain degree around Greece, allows you to block off Suez into your sphere makes it more difficult for anyone else, whether Britain, France, or whoever else to punch through from the western Mediterranean into the eastern. But history has a way of doing things that don’t sound particularly wise from an economic point of view. And we’ve all played risk and we all know it can go any number of directions. So this is the challenge in front of them. It’s an embarrassment of opportunities, and a lot of strength but not enough strength to seize the day on every single possibility. History can be hard, and history forces us to be choosy and in that the Turks are no exception whatsoever.

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