David Ignatius's excellent column in today's Washington Post, "Obama's Turkish alliance," focuses important attention on one of the most important trends reshaping the current Middle East -- the rise of Turkey as a regional power broker. That rise, crafted by the country's driven, high-strung Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the important collaboration of his capable Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is underscored by a point Ignatius hints at in the article.
While Obama has made building ties with the world's emerging powers a centerpiece of his foreign policy (beginning, as Ignatius notes, with a stop Obama made in Turkey on his first trip as president), there have been hiccups along the way. Among the most notable of these was the Turkish-Brazilian effort to help broker a deal with Iran regarding fuel for its nuclear program. The United States was unhappy with what one administration official described to me at the time as the "naive freelancing" of the two countries, and it produced a chill. Ignatius's article notes that while a chill followed, a forthright discussion between Obama and Erdogan helped put the relationship back on firmer footing. What he also suggests is that another driver of the restoration of better relations was Turkey's increasing centrality to issues of great importance to the United States -- from the transfer of power in Iraq to Kurdistan to Iran to relations with Syria to relations with Israel to combating terror to diplomatic and political maneuvering surrounding upheaval in the Arab world. This broad agenda of intersecting interests has not only given Turkey great leverage with the United States, but also given it the latitude to survive disagreements like that over Iran (or those associated with its chill with Israel over the Gaza flotilla) in ways that aren't typical in such emerging-power relations with the United States. Indeed, the Brazil-U.S. relationship has taken considerably longer to recover precisely because there are fewer areas of urgent concern in which the United States has felt Brazil plays a central role.
(Fortunately, as a result of the deft foreign-policy stewardship of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her strong Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, and the especially effective work of U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon, the U.S.-Brazil relationship has also slowly gotten back on track with a Rousseff visit to the U.S. planned around the time of the upcoming Summit of the Americas now being discussed between the two governments.)
Turkey not only has an indispensible role to play on a host of issues important to the United States, but the country's leaders have also been willing to take diplomatic risks to play that role. While this has led to tensions with the United States and severe strains with the Netanyahu government, it has also led to much greater credibility for the Turks in interactions with other governments in the region. In particular, some in the Egyptian leadership have seemed intrigued by the idea that a Turkish-Egyptian partnership could counterbalance the traditional leadership role played by the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia. And many in the West feel Turkey is an indispensible partner if more direct pressure is to be applied on the Syrian regime.
Recently, Turkey has reported disappointing economic results. This is hardly a surprise -- being at the intersection of a swooning European economy and the churning Middle East creates as many problems as it does advantages at the moment. But Turkey is not alone among emerging powers struggling in economic headwinds at the moment. In the past couple weeks, gloomy numbers have come out of China, India, and Brazil as well. And Russia has taken a hit due to the cloud of suspicion hanging over its most recent elections. Which is to say that, these days, none of the BRICs offer an entirely sunny picture. The comparison is made for obvious reasons. While Turkey is not as big or as economically promising as the BRICs, it is increasingly seen as a candidate to be a member of that class of vitally important emerging powers because it has the one advantage that real-estate investors everywhere appreciate the most: location, location and location. And now, it has at the helm a couple of crafty, ambitious leaders who have grasped that the ultimate power magnifier is the willingness to use the influence you have. If the BRICs were conceived in terms of both economic and political power, Turkey arguably would already be an official member of the group. And, effectively, it already is, joining in many collaborative undertakings with the other emerging powers.
It may not be good news for Israel or for Bashar al-Assad or for Greece or for the Kurds ... but Turkey's reemergence as a powerbroker in the world's toughest neighborhood looks likely to continue for years to come.