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Turkey Expands Influence Abroad

  • Mana Rabiee

Turkey's bid to enter the European Union remains uncertain despite the start of key meetings with EU officials in Istanbul earlier this month. But, Turkey's uncertain future as a bona fide European power is not stopping Ankara from flexing its political muscle in the region.

The scene in Istanbul was warm and cordial. Two high-ranking European Union officials met with Turkey's Foreign Minister for key talks on Ankara's bid to join the European bloc.
But under the surface, relations between Turkey and its traditional partners in the EU and beyond have been strained.

Ankara is frustrated by a perceived rebuff of its EU aspirations; Turkey's vote last May against further UN sanctions on Iran has disappointed the United States.

More recently, Ankara demanded an apology from its decades-old ally, Israel, over the attack on an aid flotilla last month which killed eight Turkish nationals and one US-born Turkish-American.

But this Muslim nation that straddles the East and the West is not letting recent events stop it from flexing its political muscle beyond Europe's borders. The government of President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been systematically mending Turkey's once-frayed political relations all across the Middle East - with countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria.

It has been acting as a mediator to bridge regional conflicts as well -- in what analysts have dubbed the "Mid East Cold War".

Today, with the sixth largest economy in Europe and a growing geopolitical influence, Turkey is fast becoming a soft world power. Last month, a delegation of top Turkish diplomats made the rounds in Washington to essentially remind their American counterparts of just that point.

"Turkey now is for the first time acting with the psychology, with an understanding, with a confidence that reflects the realities of the post Cold War era," said AKP party member Dr. Suat Kiniklioglu. "We believe - and some of you might call us naïve -- that what France and Germany succeeded to do in Western Europe, that we can facilitate a geographic space in the Middle East, in the Caucasus, in the Black Sea and the Balkans, where the free movement of people, ideas, goods is possible."

The Turkish Ambassador to the United States said the Washington trip was also aimed at the "reeducation" of American lawmakers on Turkey's changing foreign policy stance.

Critics of this newly-emboldened Turkey say the country is turning away from the West - Europe in particular - and is looking eastward in search of political partnerships with neighbors like Iran and Syria - alliances which Western powers find unsettling.

But Ibrahim Kalin, chief advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister, says Turkey is simply applying the European "good neighbor" policy to its own region. He says Ankara is diversifying its foreign policy to help ensure peace and stability in the Middle East. In Turkish political circles, it's called the "zero-problem with neighbors policy".

"We don't see any contradiction in terms of values there. When our European and American allies make similar attempts to improve relations with their own difficult actors like Russia or China, this is hailed as a major contribution of world peace. Some people still have a hard time reconciling with the fact that other nations of the world deserve equal respect from us. And this is what we try to do in our foreign policy in our part of the world," he said.

Turkey can afford to appear confident. Its economy is now the 16th largest in the world with a Gross Domestic Product of nearly $750 billion.

What's more, Turkey gives nearly $500 million in foreign aid to more than 30 nations, helping it wield further global influence.

Ibrahim Kalin insists Ankara's new geopolitical paradigm simply reflects the changing realities of the 21st Century. "We still need to overcome the problem of Euro-centrism in world politics. The idea that the march of history somehow began in Europe and still continues in Europe, with some little parenthesis in between such as the Islamic world, such as China, such as the Ottomans. That needs to be overcome," he said.

In this new world order, developing nations like China, India and Brazil enjoy greater political and economic power - while traditional global powers seem to lose some of their influence on the world stage.

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