This article argues that recent upheavals in Turkey’s domestic and regional dynamics – the transition to a more crisis-ridden foreign policy around 2011 and the breakdown of the “Kurdish Opening” in 2014-2015 – arose not from any fundamental change in strategic vision, but primarily from external developments such as the collapse of central authority in Syria and Iraq. These developments emboldened the PKK and its offshoots to adopt a more intransigent attitude, and prompted Turkey to add a hard power component to its previously soft powerdriven effort to expand its regional sphere of influence.With events unfolding rapidly, however, Turkey’s leadership now confronts some urgent decisions with implications both for its long-standing strategic vision and for the future character of the Turkish state.
In a curious and hitherto largely overlooked episode, the revisionist “neo-Ottomanist” ambitions of King Hussein of Jordan and Turgut Özal of Turkey converged during the 1990s with the interests of an influential group of “neoconservatives” centered in Washington to press for a radical redrawing of the Near Eastern political and territorial map. Due to a combination of material and normative limitations, neither Hussein’s nor Özal’s ambitions materialized, but the common central elements of their visions –a rejection of the nation-state system imposed on the region after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse; the evocation instead of past imperial greatness, updated to reflect contemporary democratic norms; and a style of rule characterized by a cosmopolitan and accommodating realpolitik– constitute an alternative to rival (authoritarian secular-nationalist, liberal, militant Islamist) prescriptions for the region’s future at a time when the erosion of the post-Ottoman status quo continues to accelerate.
During the first years of its tenure in office, as the AK Party focused on consolidating its position domestically, Turkey’s reengagement with the Arab world after decades of alienation took a largely unproblematic form. Inevitably, however, as Turkish activism deepened, conflicts of interest emerged both with other aspirants to regional influence such as Iran and Israel, and then – especially after the outbreak of the 2011 uprisings – with many Arab regimes as well. The future character of Turkey’s engagement with its Arab neighbors will depend on its ability to combine an adherence to a conception of community based on Islam rather than ethnic nationalism, with a commitment to democratization both at home and regionally.