Global Leadership: American Retreat, BRIC Ambivalence, and Turkey’s Rise

19 May

As the American president, Barack Obama, sets forth his views on the future of the Middle East it seems a good time to take stock of the leadership vacuum in world affairs, and whether there are alternatives to the role the United States has played ever since World War II. While Obama welcomed the regional moves toward democracy and deplored those regimes that hold onto power by using violence against their own people, there was little cause given in the speech for either American balance with respect to the Israel/Palestine conflict or commitment to a more equitable world economy. In other words, the speech was mainly a courtly exercise in cheerleading for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East but not an attempt to be a creative and innovative global leader with respect to regional problem-solving.

A disturbing feature of the present global setting is the absence of constructive global leadership, especially in relation to peacemaking and addressing issues of economic distress and environmental danger. True, the election of Barack Obama as the American president in late 2008 temporarily gave rise to widespread enthusiasm around the world that the United States could again do what it did after World War II, generally promote global wellbeing. Obama was viewed as offering the world a vision of peace and justice anchored in the promise of a new approach to both the Israel/Palestine conflict and troubled interactions between the West and the Muslim world. It was hoped that Obama would certainly allow the Bush era global war on terror or GWOT to subside, if not altogether end.

It was always doubtful in my mind that Obama would satisfy these high expectations that he further encouraged by carefully crafted visionary speeches in Cairo and Istanbul delivered early in his presidency. Although the language used by Obama on those occasions was a welcome change from the belligerent rhetoric that emanated from the White House during the Bush presidency, it seemed unlikely in my mind that Obama would be able to satisfy these promises, and that even if he did, I doubted that his policies as distinct from his words would be transformative. There was too much pressure exerted on any elected president in the United States to defer to the Pentagon, to please the Israeli Lobby along with its Congressional mouthpiece, and to cozy up Wall Street. Such pre-existing structural constraints were intensified in Obama’s case because these interest groups seemed somewhat worried that he might really mean what he says, and take the determined action on behalf of change that his presidential campaign so well articulated.

There was no need for these pressures groups to worry. Obama turned out to get the message before it was even delivered. From the outset of his presidency he was eager to please the Pentagon, Israel, and Wall Street, often going the extra mile, disappointing his political base but never earning the trust of these entrenched interests no matter how hard he tried. Obama has turned out to be conformist beyond what even skeptics such as myself expected. In fairness, he did inherit a broken economy at home and a radicalized Republican Party opposition that was intent on making his life as difficult as possible no matter what he did. At the same time he did not have to cave in so abjectly, and abandon those most afflicted by the economic downturn while giving the banks and corporations most everything requested without any strings attached: too big to fail, too small to save.

On critical issues of foreign policy nothing fundamental has improved during these past three years. The United States continues to back Israel unconditionally even in the face of acute Palestinian suffering and Israeli defiance toward international law and its refusal to support Washington’s wishes to keep a nominal peace process going. On economic policy the White House allowed the boys from Goldman Sachs to have their way, allowing scandalous gains to be pocketed and setting the stage for a future even deeper recession. In the area of peace and security, the war in Afghanistan was imprudently escalated, withdrawal from Iraq remains inconclusive, and more recently supported a politically dubious intervention in Libya’s internal conflict by NATO. At the same time, the United States continues to spend more on its military than the rest of the world combined, while seeming to be obsessed about its escalating fiscal deficit that it seems to be addressing with measures that impact negatively on the wellbeing of workers and welfare recipients.

The United States is also faltering in its role as champion of the global public good, a role that it did often seem to play effectively in the aftermath of World War II and periodically during the Cold War. However, if we look at the what the United States has done globally in relation to such serious challenges as climate change and extreme poverty, the results are practically nil. At this point, the United States seems disinclined and incapable to provide the kind of leadership the world needs or wants in the early 21st century, which partly is a result of a domestic refusal to expend substantial resources on behalf of global public goal. It is true that the Obama administration is ready to forgive Egyptian debts up to $1 billion and to extend a line of credit for another $1 billion, but this does not seem a sufficient show of support to qualify as leadership on the scale that seems warranted by the regional developments encapsulated by the phrase ‘the Arab spring.’

A secondary source of potential global leadership are the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the new presences on the geopolitical world map, robust economies with an independent approach to global policy, countries never implicated in colonialism, and possessing obvious ambitions to be given a more prominent place in the geopolitical pantheon. Again mostly disappointment, although Lula’s Brazil did make some extra-regional gestures in the direction of asserting a non-American approach on some global issues, but its impact has been far too marginal to be taken seriously. These BRIC governments, each a regional powerhouse, seem to lack the vision, will, or the diplomatic capabilities at this stage to provide a global alternative, or even a serious challenge, to faltering American leadership. At the same time, maybe it is a matter of waiting, enabling more accumulation of relevant experience that might give these governments, singly and collectively, the confidence and the understanding to provide the kind of leadership that would allow the world to meet its mounting challenges in more effective ways. For now these countries are domestically preoccupied, seeking to achieve as rapid economic growth as possible, overcome poverty at home, and content to be front row spectators of the geopolitical drama unless it impinges directly on their territorial reality (as does Georgia for Russia, Taiwan and the South China Sea Islands for China, Kashmir and Afghanistan for India).

This BRIC posture of geopolitical ambivalence was manifest in the recent UN Security Council debate on what to do about the unfolding political situation in Libya. In the end the Security Council in Resolution 1973 authorized a No Fly Zone designed to protect Libyan civilians that were claimed to be at grave risk of slaughter due to the aggressive tactics and bloody language of the Qaddafi regime, especially in and around the city of Benghazi. In the vote the four BRICs plus Germany abstained, despite having essentially expressed in the debate preceding the vote their sharp reservations about the feasibility and desirability of the proposed military operations, which were repeated after authorization was granted. As the situation has further developed these concerns turned out to be well-founded, and maybe in retrospect the political leaders of these governments have had second thoughts about whether it was wise and correct to go along with the American and European advocacy of a military intervention. China and Russia had the option to veto the decision, which would at least have removed the UN imprimatur from the military operation, possibly leading NATO to embark upon the intervention on their own authority (a meta-legal coalition of the willing) in the manner of the Kosovo War of 1999. Undoubtedly, a motive for BRIC passivity in the Security Council was anxiety about how their ‘no’ vote would be viewed if indeed Qaddafi forces were to occupy Benghazi and carry out the vengeful threats of the ruler.

As it has turned out, what was a distinct possibility all along, this undertaking seems far less linked to a humanitarian intervention prompted by the alleged need to avoid mass atrocities against civilians by the Qaddafi regime than a thinly disguised effort to tip the balance in an internal Libyan struggle for control of the state. The ‘rebels’ that form the anti-Qaddafi opposition remain a shadowy coalition, which seems regional and tribal in its essential character, but does feature urban and middle class advocates of democracy and human rights, projects its political goals as secular, inclusive, and constitutional. Nevertheless, this uprising is a violent insurrectional challenge to the established, if oppressive, political order in Libya, and constitutes an unresolved power struggle that should not be confused with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia or the spectacular populist nonviolent challenge to the Mubarak regime mounted in Tahrir Square and throughout the whole of Egypt. Due to this Libyan reality of civil warfare, external involvement has been sought and present, most recently in a series of international initiatives designed to test whether a negotiated compromise between the warring parties can be found to bring the fighting in Libya to an end, which would seem to depend on agreeing about a procedure for achieving democratic reform and power sharing. As has so often been the case in recent times, military intervention as the solution has proved to be a costly failure, even if, as here, it proceeds with the legalizing blessings of the United Nations, and even if it should eventually rid the country of the Qaddafi regime.  The UN should never support such violent geopolitics except to offer protection to a beleaguered civilian population facing imminent catastrophe.

Despite the disappointing failure of the BRIC countries to stand up to the West on Libya, we should not ignore the overall benefits for the peoples of the world of this diffusion of power to non-Western countries. This prospect of greater multipolarity with respect to economic and political global police remains an attractive one for the future. A more activist global role for the BRIC countries is desirable because of their seeming disposition toward greater reliance on diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution, which might serve as an effective check on recourse to violent geopolitics that continues to find favor in Washington as the preferred mode of conflict resolution. These countries have not risen to prominence because of their military prowess and do not seem to harbor ambitions to greatness by way of militarism. This is not to say that their diplomacy renounces military options on all occasions. But generally the BRIC countries, aside from internal issues or on their borders, seek peaceful alternatives to satisfy their national goals rather than relying on the military leverage that remains so beloved by hard power realists who continue to dominate the foreign offices of most Western powers. In this regard, a strong BRIC presence is to be welcomed in many global policy arenas as a way of demilitarizing geopolitics.  Brazil (along with Turkey) has prefigured such an approach in a persisting effort to find ways to defuse regional tensions in the Middle East arising from allegations that Iran’s nuclear program is covertly seeking nuclear weaponry. Such a diplomatic initiative aims to avoid a dangerous regional war with global implications that is likely if the United States/Israel reliance on coercive diplomacy (sanctions and military threats) should escalate in the future.

It is against this background, that the emergence of Turkey from its accustomed shadow land of subordination to the United States is one of the most encouraging dimensions of the global setting in this second decade of the 21st century, and offers the world a secondary model of diplomatic leadership that is already exerting a major influence within its region and beyond. The credit for this extraordinary development belongs to the top echelons of the AKP, the political party that has governed Turkey since 2002 with increasing populist backing from the citizenry. The priority of this new leadership when first elected was to push as hard as possible on the closed doors of the European Union with the goal of Turkish accession to membership within a few years. This was a natural issue to concentrate upon as it bridged the basic divide in Turkish society, enlisting even the grudging support of the strict secularists who did little to hide their hostility and suspicions about the AKP and of military commanders who had previously resisted elected leaders that seemed to cross the red lines of Republican Turkey. The Turkish military periodically intruded upon the governing process whenever their leading generals perceived departures from the vision for modern Turkey fashioned by Kemal Ataturk, whether these departures were attributed to the Marxist left or more recently to conservative Islam. The unifying effort to satisfy the EU gatekeepers also allowed the AKP to explain and justify its reformist initiatives within Turkey, allowing the government to take some major steps to improve the protection of human rights and even to set limits on the former degree of military control exercised over the civilian governing process. This disciplining of the notorious Turkish ‘deep state’ should not be underestimated in the continuing struggle to deepen constitutional democracy in the country.

As time passed two developments dampened Turkish eagerness to pursue the EU track: first, an eruption of Islamophobia in several crucial European countries (France and Germany), which meant that Turkish membership in the EU would not come about soon, if ever, no matter how many policy gymnastics demanded by the Europeans were acceded to by Ankara in its futile effort to satisfy EU admission criteria; and secondly, in light of these locked EU gates, it seemed increasingly sensible for the Turkish government to let go of national hopes and expectations of soon becoming part of Europe, while not altogether abandoning the Turkish goal of eventually being accepted by the EU. With this understanding, Turkish foreign policy began to pay increasing attention to an attractive array of non-European diplomatic options.

The principal architect of Turkish foreign policy throughout this exploratory period was Ahmet Davutoglu, first as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and for the last two years as Foreign Minister. Turkey has been extremely fortunate to have the benefit of Davutoglu’s deep historical, political, and cultural understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie on the country’s horizons, and the main political leaders of the AKP, especially Prime Minister Recip Teyyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, deserve credit for appreciating and supporting Davutoglu’s diplomatic vision, which inevitably has given rise to domestic controversy and is not without risks. It is rare for a major government to put its trust in such an outstanding intellectual and morally upright personality as Davutoglu, someone who did not emerge from either the corridors of power or the enclaves of economic privilege, was not beholden to any special interests, and seemingly harbored no political ambitions beyond a professed interest in returning to academic life at the earliest possible time to fulfill his dream of establishing and shaping a world class university as a learning community responsive to his vision of humane politics and ecumenical culture. Davutoglu combines a brilliant political mind with astounding energy. He is endowed with the skills of a seasoned diplomat, which is rather amazing considering his prior absence of government service. Beyond these capabilities, what is most impressive about this Davutoglu phenomenon is the innovative diplomatic orientation that is daring and  extraordinarily attuned to the times. So far it has taken full advantage of opportunities for expanding Turkish influence and beneficial economic relations. Davutoglu also appreciates the importance of skilled institutional support for Turkish foreign policy, and exhibits an administrative resolve to build an energetic and competent Turkish Foreign Ministry that understands the role of soft power in the pursuit of peace and justice in the region and the world.

In some respects, Davutoglu’s arrival on the scene was timed perfectly for the enactment of such a vision. The Cold War alliance rigidities no longer made sense in the altered conditions of the new century. This freed countries in the Middle East from the constraints of bipolarity, thereby clearing space for diplomatic maneuvers. Davutoglu also realized that the Middle East due to its oil reserves, the dangers of further nuclear proliferation, the persistence of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the challenge to Western interests by a resurgent Islam was becoming the new strategic fulcrum of struggle with respect to the unfolding of world history. In this role, the region was superseding Europe that had been the scene of both world wars in the 20th century and remained the prime strategic site of struggle throughout the Cold War. There was also the widespread appreciation that festering regional tensions posed dangers for Turkey and others, and harmed with prospects for trade,  investment, and stability. Davutoglu’s style and approach seemed designed to work wonders in such a regional setting. First of all, Davutoglu made clear that his goal was not victory, but accommodation and reconciliation based on respect and mutual benefit, expressed vividly by the phrases ‘zero conflict with neighbors’ and ‘zero-problems foreign policy.’ This approach was dramatically put into practice in relation to Syria, replacing border and policy tensions during prior decades with open borders, an outcome that could not have been anticipated before it happened. Of course, the brutal repression of the Syrian uprising in recent weeks has posed unanticipated and awkward difficulties for Turkey, showing that turbulence of regional politics can nullify seemingly successful conflict-resolving initiatives.

Similarly with Iran, rather than hide behind a wall of fear and hostility, Turkey has refused to be dragged into the confrontational approach insisted upon by Washington and Tel Aviv, seeking along with Brazil to find a pathway to mutual acceptance on the hot button issue of Iran’s contested nuclear program. In reaction, there was much annoyance voiced by those governments that wanted to lend credibility to the military option. Turkey was harshly criticized for moving out of ‘its lane’ by an arrogant foreign policy commentator in the United States. The imperial pretension here is embarrassingly manifest: Turkey’s lane is supposed to be subservience to the hegemonic role of the United States (and Israel) even in the region where it is located, and even taking into account that if war breaks out Turkey’s political and economic interests will be greatly harmed. While avoiding an abrasive response to a steady stream of criticism from Washington, Turkey has made it clear that it will continue to act as an independent state pursuing its goals on the basis of its values and interests, and is no longer prepared to defer automatically to the United States in the manner that had been the practice during the Cold War. To be a geopolitical poodle seemed somewhat more justifiable in that context as there did exist a shared fear of Soviet expansion that needed American military capabilities to deter and contain.

Of course this litany of praise does not mean that everything Davutoglu tried has succeeded, or that there are not still unmet challenges. To attempt as much as he has in such a short time is remarkable, and has been recognized even by the mainstream magazine Foreign Policy, that listed Davutoglu as seventh on the list of the 100 top world thinkers in all fields, placing him immediately behind Celso Amorim, Brazil’s much admired foreign minister. It was appropriate that these two individuals should be rated as the two most highly rated statesmen in the world, and far ahead of such geopolitical heavyweights as those making foreign policy on behalf United States and China. I am not enamored of such evaluations overall, but the acknowledgement of Davutoglu’s and Amorim’s achievements as compared to the foreign ministers representing every other country seems to me to be deserved, and is a revealing acceptance of the dramatic Turkish (and Brazilian) rise to prominence  on the global stage of diplomacy.

If we consider the unmet challenges, probably the foremost one remains the Israel/Palestine conflict. Davutoglu made a determined effort to engage Israel constructively in several respects. Davutoglu offered Turkey’s services as a truly credible broker to help negotiate a sustainable peace between Syria and Israel, including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There was progress for a while, even some hope of an agreement for a brief period, but the process was a casualty of Israel’s aggressive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, and some bitterness between the two countries ensued as a result of Erdogan’s dramatic condemnation of Israel’s conduct at the World Economic Forum. It was also never clear that Israel was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights, removing its settlements and settlers, as well as the economic infrastructure that has evolved over the more than forty years of occupation.

Daringly, in the aftermath of the Hamas electoral victory in Gaza at the start of 2006, Turkey at the urging of Davutoglu explored the possibilities of treating Hamas as a political actor rather than leaving them out in the cold being branded as ‘terrorist.’ Although these initiatives were widely endorsed throughout the world as constructive, Israel was not ready to move in either of these directions, and so neither was the United States (despite having previously urged Hamas to compete in the Gaza elections, and thereby shift their resistance to Israeli occupation from a violent track to a political one) but who could say it was not worth the effort to try. If it had succeeded, the most acute Palestinian misery in Gaza would almost certainly have been lessened, and some kind of wider reconciliation between the two peoples might not seem as remote as it now appears to be. Davutoglu’s attempts with regard to Syria and Hamas had they succeeded would have unquestionably been beneficial for the region, and were well worth the attempt.

Less controversial and not as salient, but equally impressive as a departure from the earlier Turkish norm for diplomatic engagement, have been Davutoglu’s initiatives in the Balkans and Caucasus, seeking to overcome hostile relations in these troubled regions. Perhaps, his most notable success in these settings was to host an amicable meeting between Bosnia and Serbia, two states formed from the carcass of the former Yugoslavia that had treated each other as enemies ever since the struggles of the 1990s when Serbia promoted secession of the Serb minority and supported systematic ethnic cleansing of genocidal proportions in Bosnia. Not only was the meeting a surprising success, but also an agreement was reached to have annual gatherings in the spirit of confidence-building between these previously hostile neighbors.

This diplomatic outreach has produced mainly benefits for Turkey. I believe it has contributed to a growing sense of Turkish self-esteem that reaches backwards in time to the Ottoman glory days and forward to establish Turkey as a major regional presence with significant global standing and respect. This status was reflected in Turkey’s election to the Security Council for the first time. Turkish hard- core secularists have given this diplomacy a mixed reception, registering complaints about alienating Turkey previously closest allies, United States and Israel, without achieving offsetting gains. Secularists have also objected to what they view as an overly friendly relationship forged with Iran, which is regarded as an anti-secular theocracy. But over time, Turkey’s rising regional stature and domestic economic success has diluted such opposition.

The personal achievements of the Davutoglu’s diplomacy has been reinforced by the wider impacts on the region of Turkey’s domestic stability and pragmatic adaptation to the world economic recession. Turkey has become a trusted diplomatic partner throughout the region. In this period of upheaval in the Arab world, Turkey offers a model worth learning from, if not emulating, while of course affirming the autonomy and distinctiveness of each national experience. Turkey is especially admired for the way it has blended a democratizing leadership with Islamic leanings with respect for the societal pluralism and secular principles. In this regard, Turkey offers a positive example of accommodating Muslim values and national and cultural traditions that contrast with negative models of repression, rigidity, and abject submission to neoliberal globalization. Turkey has avoided the fate that has befallen Iran as a consequence of its outright subordination of politics to religious authoritarianism, as well as overcoming the anti-religious suppression of fundamentalist secular regimes.

In the end, the future for Turkey remains uncertain. There are still unresolved problems that could create internal conflict and crisis, including the issue of Kurdish rights and the unresolved conflict over the future of Cyprus, as well as the struggle between the regime and its domestic enemies that has led to disturbing large-scale roundups of opponents charged with political crimes and to the harassment of critical journalists. Relations with Israel remain tense in the stalemated efforts to restore normalcy between the two countries in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident of 31 May 2010 when a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza was attacked in international waters and nine of the political activists and humanitarian workers on board were killed by Israeli commandos. Perhaps, most threatening of all to this Turkish vision of a politically friendly and economically prosperous region is a continuing fear that the encounter with Iran might yet lead to a most destructive war. Finally, the spillover from the Arab tumult could produce a variety of negative effects due to Euro-American military intrusions as the ongoing intervention in Libya suggests, and while this situation presented Turkey with opportunities to serve as a peacemaker, its main effect so far has been to generate dangerous geopolitical tensions within and beyond the region.

All in all, Turkey has emerged from the first decade of the 21st century as a pivotal country in world affairs, often spoken of in the exalted terms as deserving to be now regarded as a junior BRIC, and operating regionally and globally in a manner that is exemplary in many respects. Turkey cannot alone overcome the continuing global leadership deficit, but its diplomacy during the last decade casts a bright glow on a darkening sky. Turkey more than any other country in this period is providing the world with a set of blueprints that depicts the contours of what benign global leadership could become in this period. As argued here such leadership is urgently needed to cope with the destructive sides of a heightened globalization and with the unmet challenges of a series of environmental, ethical, and political threats to the present and future wellbeing of the peoples of the region and the world.

5 Responses to “Global Leadership: American Retreat, BRIC Ambivalence, and Turkey’s Rise”

  1. Richard Fairbanks May 19, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Thank you, Richard, for yet another post, demonstrating careful, considered, and wise contemplation; I learn much from your posts.
    I am curious that you did not mention Tibet as being subjected to colonialism. Your thoughts?
    Blessings to you for your efforts . . . and oft-demonstrated patience!

    • Richard Falk May 19, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks for this supportive comment.

      I am not sure whether ‘colonialism’ is the best label for Chinese oppression in Tibet. As you know both Taiwan and PR of China insist that Tibet is part of China. I have regarded the struggle of the Tibetan people as primarily one of self-determination, although there is clearly an issue of imperial rule involved, but it is rather distinct from the Western type of colonial order that we usually have in mind when speaking of ‘colonialism.’ Thanks for the comment.

  2. Beau Oolayforos December 7, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    While it is definitely heartening to learn about Turkey’s rise, there are always, as you mention, the dark shadows of domestic repression, and denial of Kurdish rights. One hopes that Davutoglu & Co’s diplomatic skill can be focused in such a way that Turkish Kurdistan might someday resemble Swiss Ticino, where people grumble in Italian about German-speaking hegemony, over white wine & fondue.


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