My son wants to study a non-European language that's going to matter in the future. He has been contemplating Arabic or Hindi. But after the last few weeks, I'm thinking -- Turkish. All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about Turkey -- and it turns out almost no one does. There's no real mystery in that: Americans tend to benignly neglect other countries until they become a problem. And until just the other day, Turkey was a fun tourist destination; now it's a problem.
Turkey has thrust itself into the American national consciousness by working with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, which the United States viewed as unhelpful, at best; by voting (along with Brazil) against Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran; and by assailing Israel in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla. Senior Obama administration officials have begun to worry that the West has "lost" Turkey; Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently fretted that Turkey is "moving eastward" and blamed the European Union for blocking Turkey's aspiration for membership. The Wall Street Journal editorial page goes a step or three further and accuses Ankara of throwing in its lot with the fundamentalists and the Israel-haters.
Turkey didn't set out to be a problem. Over the course of the last decade, the country's diplomats seem to have taken a leaf from China, whose doctrine of "peaceful rise" dictated harmonious relations along its borders and a relatively low profile in global diplomacy. Turkey's policy of "zero problems toward neighbors" smoothed away conflict with Middle Eastern partners, including both Israel and Iran. Through a series of bilateral agreements, Turkey has established a visa-free zone, and it hopes to establish a free trade zone in much of the area once occupied by the Ottoman Empire -- without, as a Turkish diplomat pointed out to me, seeking to re-create Ottoman hegemony.
But success breeds confidence and makes yesterday's modesty seem like undue timidity. Beijing, which once hid behind the skirts of the Non-Aligned Movement, now openly confronts Washington on both economic and military issues. And Turkey, no longer content to reduce friction along its borders, dreams of bringing a new order to the Middle East. "[T]he world expects great things from Turkey," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has written on this website.
He might be wrong there, but what's clear is that Turkey expects great things from itself. Turkey may well have overplayed its hand by forcing Barack Obama's administration to choose between its two closest allies in the Middle East -- Turkey and Israel -- but Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to have decided that they would rather overplay their hand than underplay it.
Perhaps all emerging powers reach this inflection point, where nationalistic pride almost compels overreaching. (See under: Brazil.) But Turkey is the only emerging power located in the Middle East, a region where supreme global conflicts play themselves out. A peaceful rise in East Asia is no great feat, but try living next to Iraq and Iran without antagonizing somebody. The Turks infuriated George W. Bush's administration by refusing to let U.S. troops invade Iraq through their territory. Had they acquiesced, they would have outraged their neighbors instead. Nor could Turkey's remarkably warm relations with Israel survive long at a time when the Israeli government is seen as utterly intransigent toward the Palestinians; the Gaza-bound flotilla was only the last straw. Turkey's aspirations for regional leadership virtually compelled the break with Israel. That had nothing to do with Ankara's rejection by the European Union.