Erdogan’s Calculus: An Analytical Approach

Erdogan’s diplomatic initiative to break the Mideast logjam with fresh thinking has provoked lots of smoke but much less analytical fire. How might we think through the options facing the region?

Turkey appears to be challenging the world to think more deeply about the state of affairs in the Mideast and to move toward a positive-sum solution. Most of the relevant actors seem unable even to imagine and perhaps do not want a situation in which the U.S., Iran, and Israel might all benefit.

Yet, it seems obvious that all three countries, and Turkey as well, would benefit if an international security regime that put a cap on the militarization of nuclear technology. Indeed, the leaders of all of those countries except Israel have called for this, although, with the exception of Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu, most seem to have trouble imagining a balanced way to get there. Moreover, the degree to which current powerholders rely on the fear of nuclear war to buttress their personal positions constitutes an enormous obstacle. Beyond that, settling the nuclear issue seems workable only in the context of fundamental changes in U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. What Erdogan and Davutoglu undoubtedly have thought about but are, perhaps wisely, not discussing in public is the degree to which removal of Mideast nuclear tensions depends on the willingness of Washington to replace its 21st century military-centric Mideast/Central Asian policy with a diplomacy-centric policy and the willingness of Israel to replace its post-1980s (roughly) Greater Israel policy with a “good-neighbor” policy of living within its legally recognized borders.

For Turkey, in particular, the rationale of trying to bridge the nuclear gap between Iran and its antagonists is crystal clear. Turkey’s plan of becoming the regional energy hub virtually requires resolution of the nuclear crisis. Even more important, Turkey would almost certainly lose from a prolongation of the crisis: if it turns to war, Turkey gets the fallout; if not, Turkey will come under pressure to participate in a wasteful regional nuclear arms race. Moreover, the higher the tension, the more Turkey is likely to be forced back into subordination to its American bloc leader. That, in turn, seems likely to raise the prominence of the Turkish armed forces in domestic affairs, undermining both the delicate position of Turkish democracy and the fortunes of the Erdogan regime.

If the challenge Erdogan has taken on is great, the logic of it is so persuasive that his effort can be assumed to be sincere. How he and his foreign minister rank the various goals that they surely have in mind is more difficult to answer.

Ergogan’s major goals:

  • security – a peaceful regional environment, requiring both resolution of the nuclear crisis and resolution of Iran’s demand for a “place at the Mideast table”
  • economic – international acceptance of Turkey as the hub of hydrocarbon pipelines from Iran, Kazakhstan, etc. into Europe
  • moral – justice for Palestinians and the creation of a less egregiously unbalanced regional nuclear regime
  • personal – success could cement the hold of moderate, reformist Islam on Turkish politics and make his name in history.

Debate has arisen over the reasons (e.g., economic) for Erdogan’s initiatives to restrain Israeli militarism and invite Iran “to the Mideast table.” A better analytical approach is to recognize that he almost certainly has a wide range of goals, as indicated above. These four goals, then, constitute the obvious (albeit not necessarily the only) “driving forces” underlying Erdogan’s initiative.

Starting, for analytical simplicity, with the first two–security and economic, axes representing the range of possible outcomes can be defined as follows:

  • Security – from “zero-sum” to “positive-sum;”
  • Economic – from “isolated” to “regional hub.”

The objective of both the selection of driving forces and the way that the axes are defined is to provoke interesting analysis. In this light, it may be advantageous to define “security” as “zero-sum to positive-sum” to underscore the distinction between competing blocs and a mutually beneficial regional security regime (rather than, e.g., “insecure” to “secure”). Similarly, defining the economic extremes as “isolated” and “regional hub” focuses on Turkey’s economic policy choices rather than outcomes (e.g., “poverty” and “wealth”). It may seem likely that becoming a regional hydrocarbon hub would produce wealth, but that is an analytical conclusion.

The two axes now define an analytical landscape of possible futures that can simplistically be thought of as offering four broad alternative options. Rather than getting bogged down in the typical scenario analysis exercise of weaving fairy tale stories about each one, it is analytically useful simply to conceive in a general way of the distinctions by suggesting the obvious alternative outcomes with titles.

The result, as graphed, shows what we may take as Erdogan’s calculus:

  • In a zero-sum security context with Turkey economically isolated, regional tensions and the absence of regional economic integration can be expected to interact, with each making the other worse, generating a vicious cycle.
  • The combination of a zero-sum security context with regional economic integration may seem fairly advantagous but is likely to be unsustainable, generating instability.
  • A positive-sum security environment lacking regional economic integration might be sustainable but would leave Turkey relatively weak.
  • The combination of a positive-sum security regime and economic integration would be mutually reinforcing, generating a virtuous cycle in which participants increasingly see cooperation as to their advantage.

Now we have the analytical raw materials for beginning to think seriously about where Turkey stands and how it might design an effective policy. The image alone helps structure thinking, but the essential element is still missing. The key at this point is not to construct stories about how you think the future might develop in each quadrant of our analytical landscape but to ask a simple question with inevitably complicated answers:

how are the underlying dynamics likely to affect behavior in each quadrant?

Briefly, we have decided that economics and security are the key elements affecting the future, and we have made some simplistic guesses about how they might interact (e.g., to produce a vicious cycle at one extreme and a virtuous cycle at the other), but we have yet to do any real analysis. What has been accomplished is the setting up of the analytical stage in preparation for serious evaluation of how Erdogan may be assessing his options and how Washington and Tehran might determine the appropriate reaction. Those wishing to proceed (be they students writing a term paper or decision makers) should start by asking, “As X (e.g., economic integration) increases, what else happens?” Grab pencil and paper. It gets complicated.


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