Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Our Foreign Policy Future in Central Asia

The following statement is as close as I can come to a succinct formulation of our foreign policy vision.  The interested reader can find the full exposition in a White House document on national security strategy from 2010.

"The starting point for that collective action will be our engagement with other countries. The cornerstone of this engagement is the relationship between the United States and our close friends and allies in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East—ties which are rooted in shared interests and shared values, and which serve our mutual security and the broader security and prosperity of the world. We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence—including China, India, and Russia, as well as increasingly influential nations such as Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia—so that we can cooperate on issues of bilateral and global concern, with the recognition that power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero sum game."
A problem with this paragraph is that one could substitute the name of any other country for that of the United States, and the statement reflects a bland sameness.  As we lurch from one international crisis to another, reacting to unanticipated events, I began thinking about Central Asia beyond 2012.  This will likely be a theater where none of the policy desiderata in the above paragraph may be achievable.

Turkey, a country of some 68 million people, has not been a focus of media attention in Central Asia, compared to Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, for example.  Yet, within its geopolitical ambit sits the Balkans, the Caucusus, and the Middle East. Turkey falls under the Western security apparatus, although at a distance. It has had second class citizen ties to the EU since joining the Council of Europe in 1949.  My thinking about this issue was inspired by the research of Svante Cornell, Director of the Central Asia - Caucusus Institute, and the Silk Road Program at Johns Hopkins University, my graduate alma mater.

Turkey's economy has been experiencing GDP growth in the 7 percent range, and it has tapped a long standing wellspring of entrepreneurship and Western-style capitalism.  Prime Minister Erdoğan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party ("AKP"), has a goal for Turkey to be among the top ten leading economic powers by 2023. 

As Cornell points out, since 1990, Turkey's GDP has grown four-fold, its exports five-fold, and foreign direct investment in Turkey has grown to twenty-five times the 1990 level.  France and Germany have long opposed Turkey's joining the EU as a full member, and Germany's unending rhetroic about Turkish guest workers, together with the opposition to membership has had a psychic impact on Turkey's foreign policy tilt, according to Cornell.

Whereas Turkish foreign policy from Ataturk's time was built on a pragmatic reticence, Prime Minister
Erdoğan's policy focus has been vocal and sometimes strident.  It has also clearly shifted eastward, away from Europe. He has also made public overtures to Iran, Syria and the Sudan.

For all our talk of isolating Iran, the Turkish PM has become a vocal supporter of Tehran's nuclear ambitions.  A long, cordial relationship with Israel deteriorated to the point of the 2009 shouting match with Shimon Peres at the Davos economic summit.

Given, Israel's choreographed saber-rattling at Iran, we should be very concerned about how the Turkish tilt towards rogue states may play out in the next few years.

Turkey sees itself as an "honest broker" among the Central Asian states and the West.  Referring to the Obama administration's paragraph above, we probably don't have the same "shared interests and values."  Turkey envisions an important role for itself at the Afghan peace talks scheduled for 2014, after the putative U.S. exit. 

The Erdoğan government in Turkey has begun a direct energy trade with the Regional Authority of Kurdistan, and there have been lots of announcements of expanded trade in oil and gas through pipelines to Turkey.  None of this sits very well with the Shia-dominated government of Iraqi President Maliki.  Turkey is also concerned about Iraq being overly influenced by Tehran, despite Turkey lending its verbal support to Iran's nuclear program.  So, will Turkey and Iran be rivals for center stage or allies?  It is not clear at all.

It is clear that Turkey will have a visible and important role to play in Central Asia post-2014 Afghan peace talks.  Russia and Pakistan will have their own interests.  Unfortunately, our "partnerships" with the latter two nations are threadbare.  Our 2014 exit and its aftermath will not be a quiet period for U.S. diplomacy.

No comments: