George Friedman: Turkey’s Failed Coup Puts It On The Path to Becoming A Major World Power
In my book The Next 100 Years, I argued that Turkey is going to become a major regional power. Recent events would seem at odds with this view. But in fact, they confirm it.
Emerging as a regional power puts great pressure on a nation. The shift in external reality causes internal shifts as well. This is what we see in Turkey: a clash between rival factions with diverse visions, a coup of some sort, and for now, a dictatorship.
Increased global power flows from greater domestic strength. But it also feeds back into the internal system. This creates strain on social and political fault lines.
We see examples of this throughout history.
How the US and Japan emerged as global powers
The Mexican-American War turned the US into the leading regional power in North America. The war also spurred the early stages of industrialization. Railroads, the telegraph, and various forms of hydrocarbon-powered factories began to change the nature of commerce.
The North evolved its economic and social systems. But, the South wanted to retain its plantation-based economy and social system. This split led to the Civil War.
Some thought the Civil War would end the regional power status of the US. But this view was wrong. From 1865 onward, the US grew its economic and global power.
Although tragic, the Civil War did not change the course of the US. Instead, it cleared the decks and created a new power structure to deal with the new realities of a mechanized society. The ascent of the US, to that of a regional power dominating a continent, ripped the social fabric and led to war.
Also consider Japan’s journey to become a major power as it industrialized in the late 19th century. After Japan defeated Russia, its economy evolved quickly while the social structure stayed fairly static. That led to tensions between the liberally minded business class and the socially conservative military.
Japan experienced instability in this new role as a regional and economic power. Military dictatorship soon followed.Since the late 1990s, Turkey has experienced three major stressors.
First, it had a period of rapid economic growth. This caused tension between the existing elites and the new centers of economic power.
It also promoted political rivalry. On one side, a new economic order focused on exports and access to EU markets. On the other, an older and less dynamic system tried to preserve itself.
Second, there was the question of Islam’s role in politics. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey as a staunchly secular society. But, in 2002, the dynamics of the region shifted. Religious Muslims gained more power and began asserting themselves.
President Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, acted as an agent for the Muslim community. The army, which was constitutionally responsible for upholding secularism (Turkey is the only country I know of where this is the case), found itself confronting the AKP.
Third, its economic power and the complexity of the regional political climate were both growing. This brought Turkey into regional conflicts. The AKP tried to limit its involvement, but that created tensions with the US and other nations. Turkey became entangled in events in Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea.
The divide between the AKP and the military
Tensions exist between the AKP and the military. There’s also friction between old and new money, and between secular Istanbul and the more religious, traditional Anatolia.
There was no way to continue militant secularism as the Muslim community grew more assertive. Yet, the military has always been part of Turkish politics, and its officer corps is committed to secularism.
Turkey had to make room for religious Muslims. Tension was growing between the old Europhile elites and the Euroskeptic emerging powers.
Turkey also had to start managing its regional power. The first step would be to redefine its relationship with the US. The military was pro-American, while Erdoğan was not eager to engage in America’s regional agendas.
These external pressures and internal social change created an unstable situation. Turkey was a volatile mix of political ingredients that was destined to explode.
There was no civil war, at least not yet, and the military was unable to impose a dictatorship. But the new realities had to be dealt with.
Many have asked whether the coup attempt was real or staged by Erdoğan. It’s an interesting question. Either way, the fact is that a dictatorship has emerged and imposed a state of emergency.
Erdoğan is conducting a massive purge of opponents. The focus, though, has been on the military. Turkish society is being transformed.
The state of emergency legally lasts for three months but can be extended. Or new laws can be passed to justify continuing the dictatorship.
By the time it’s over, dictatorship will not be needed. Erdoğan will have broken his opposition. It’s easy to think that this is about Erdoğan. But that would be a mistake.
What we are seeing is a convulsion in a system that has been under major pressure from the very things that have made it successful.
Where Turkey goes from here
As the US Civil War and Japanese militarism showed, this spasm will have lasting effects.
But, the question is not one of right or wrong.
The state that Atatürk created can no longer exist. The pro-European secularism of the 1920s has weakened.
The economic boom introduced new players to what was a closed circle of elites. The military can no longer function as overseer of Turkish politics. Those days are at an end, but they will not end quietly. Erdoğan is now trying to bury the past.
But this should not be understood as the failure of Turkey as a society, nor as rendering Turkey incapable of being a regional power. These events will strengthen Turkey’s ability to act regionally, based on its interests.