Turkey – A Rising Regional Power – Strategic Challenges and Prospects

Source FNFThe Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s (FNF) Transatlantic Dialogue Program (TAD) was delighted to welcome Dr. Rainer Adam, Regional Director for East and Southeast Europe of the FNF, to Washington, D.C. in October. Dr. Adam was visiting Washington as part of the Promoting Tolerance Program, a study trip organized by the American Jewish Committee and FNF. On October 9, 2015, TAD hosted Dr. Adam for a discussion on the current strategic challenges and prospects facing Turkey, a nation that has emerged as a rising power in the region.

The discussion began with a brief summary of the current situation in Turkey. In recent years and months, the nation has becoming increasingly prominent on the global scale while simultaneously dealing with a series of domestic challenges. From an international perspective, Turkey is grappling with its proximity to the ongoing conflict in Syria, meaning the country plays a critical role in questions of refugee resettlement and Russian engagement in Syria. Internally, Turkey has to cope with an economic crisis that combines low growth and declining consumer confidence. In terms of security and foreign policy, Turkey suffers from spillover effects of the conflict in Syria and Iraq and a current broken peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Dr. Adam then illustrated some of the characteristics that define a “regional power”. Influence of these nations is typically limited to capabilities within their region (rather than the entire world). These states dominate their respective regions in military and economic terms and see themselves as being dominant in the area. Self-image is an integral part of becoming a controlling authority in a region.Source FNF

Splitting his presentation into three parts, Dr. Adam moved on to describe some of the challenges currently facing the Turkish government. After nearly two decades of peaceful, democratic development, the nation is confronted with a series of strategic roadblocks to success. The failure of most Arab Spring revolutions shattered the hopes of many that Islam and democracy are compatible. The resources of the Turkish government are strained by growing internal strife and violence (and, as a result, the potential for civil war). They struggle with internal security due to growing threats from the Islamic State (ISIS) and airstrikes against the PKK.

Turkey is also trying to balance a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation with decades of misperception on all sides of the equation. The country needs to undergo political reform by amending party laws and demonstrating that Islam and democracy are, in fact, reconcilable. According to Dr. Adam, Turkey needs to experience further economic change and modernization through productive industrial growth and finance reform, as well as increased foreign investment. To do so, the nation should establish a more firm rule of law that will protect investors. And finally, Turkey must improve education (particularly of math and science) for its younger generations.

The nation’s geopolitical and geostrategic position has complicated its relationship not only with its regional neighbors, but also with the European Union (EU) and the United States. Many of Turkey’s neighboring Islamic countries do not appreciate it as a regional power. Dr. Adam pointed out, however, that they must come to terms with its designation and accept that the nation will insist on playing a decisive role within Islamic states. With regards to the EU, Dr. Adam stressed that the EU member states should not give up on Turkey as they need their help, particularly in light of the current refugee crisis. While the situation with Russia makes a fresh start nearly impossible, the EU can still attempt to engage Turkey to form an international coalition to deal with security issues of spillover conflict and refugee resettlement.

A recent survey by the German Marshall Fund (available here) did provide glimpses of hope for US-Turkey relations. A majority of citizens surveyed believe that Turkey has a good relationship with the United States, despite a general mistrust of neighboring countries and multilateral/international organizations. Although Turkey prefers to act unilaterally, the United States must begin to treat Turkey as more than just a reliable area for security but a true partner facing its own internal struggles.

In the coming months, the United States and Europe will need to find ways to come to terms with Turkey’s strategic importance while simultaneously respecting the country’s desire to remain a somewhat independent regional power. To be a successful regional presence, Turkey will need to focus on political and economic reform while improving domestic security for its citizens.

Katrina Potts, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Dialogue, FNF