Good news: The world is waiting for Turkish leadership

Good news: The world is waiting for Turkish leadership

The anecdote, mentioned previously in this column, dates back to more than half a century ago, but it explains some of Turkey’s policy failures today. When, in the late 1950s, Kemal Nejat Kavur was serving as the Turkish ambassador to Moscow, Andrei Gromyko, the then Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, asked him: “Your Excellency, your country has the highest number of men under arms in Europe. If you turned them against your traditional enemies, the Greeks, they would be too much for them. But if you turned them against us, it would be too small. What’s the reason for this?”

During most of the past century, Turkey’s “sizing” problem reflected the secular state’s misperceptions about security threats. Today it reflects a combination of the Islamists’ illusions of grandeur, their “conquest-fetish,” the humiliating sorrow about having lost an empire (and the seat of the Caliph) and past feelings of inferiority complex vis-à-vis the world’s major powers (which, making things worse, are sadly not Muslim nations). 

Although his words may have caused spasms of laughter in a number of world capitals, Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman was not joking when he recently said “the whole world is waiting for Turkish leadership.” Mr. Kahraman, number two in Turkey’s state protocol after the president, said: “Turkey holds a big mission … But [in addition to Turkey’s political borders] we also have borders of the heart, of spirituality: A geography of the heart and spirituality. The whole world is waiting for our leadership.” The whole world, from Bolivia to Vietnam, New Zealand, Canada, Iran and Russia must have sighed with relief that their painful longing for Turkish leadership did not go unnoticed in Ankara. 

Turkey’s foreign policy calculus has dramatically swung from “zero problems with neighbors” to “precious loneliness” and now to “more friends and fewer enemies.” That’s nice: Blessed are the peacemakers. But Gromyko’s teasing lines from the 1950s look real and contemporary enough to be spoken to Turkey’s current ambassador to Moscow. 

According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, released in February, Turkey was the sixth largest arms importer in the world between 2011 and 2015 – the same years when Ankara aggressively claimed to have developed indigenous arms systems, including a fighter jet. But that is the defense procurement side of the story. The inconsistency lies in the policy part. 

Turkey, in theory, is developing local drone systems, corvettes, submarines, a new generation battle tank, missile systems, helicopters and satellites. It is also building, under Spanish license, a landing platform dock which government big guns often like to liken to an aircraft carrier – and which will come with a price tag of nearly $1.5 billion. 

But all of that, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thinks, is still not good enough. In a recent speech Mr. Erdoğan said: “Obviously I view it as a big shortcoming that Turkey still does not have a nuclear aircraft carrier.” 

A nuclear aircraft carrier? Will all those war toys make the Turkish arsenal more friends and fewer enemies? Will it be the stockpile, including nuclear, that Turkey will use to bring Turkish leadership to the whole world? One landing platform dock and one nuclear aircraft carrier to tame all the “infidel” world powers? Once again, as Gromyko put it too realistically, if Turkey wanted to invade a few Greek islands all that war gear would be too much; but if it wants to set sail northbound into the Black Sea it would be too little. 

Unfortunately, “the whole world” will have to be a little more patient to embrace the much-longed for Turkish leadership.