As U.S. power recedes, a restive, assertive Turkey is among the old geopolitical patterns beginning to reemerge. Turkey lives in a tough neighborhood; her leaders will always seek some level of strategic and military autonomy. But 2010 has seen a series of developments that go further than that. Modern Turkey’s posture today is just about one military deployment shy of “power projection” – a dimension of national power that has been, in the period since World War II, the province of select members of the G-8.
The events of this year put in interesting context Prime Minister Erdogan’s announcement on Monday, in advance of the upcoming NATO summit, that Turkish participation in a NATO missile shield would be conditional: a Turk must command the missile defense system if it is to have components on Turkish soil. Depending on how it plays out in negotiation, this stipulation could have an import similar to France’s withdrawal from the NATO military command structure in the 1960s – that is, it could be a source of friction for the alliance but not a defeat for its common security purposes.
It’s not certain that such optimism is warranted, however. Turkey’s demonstrations of strategic independence have come in a flurry over the past six months. Last week, the Turkish military hosted a Special Forces drill with its Chinese counterparts, the second military exercise ever held between the two nations. The first was an air force exercise conducted in Turkey in September and October 2010. The Chinese fighters heading for that exercise stopped to refuel in Iran.
Greece was already paying close attention to Turkey’s military posture after the Turkish navy deployed a general-purpose task force to the Mediterranean from May to July. Turkey hasn’t deployed a naval task force for a general-purpose patrol since she was the seat of the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I. In the NATO era, long-distance deployments by the Turkish navy have been for NATO operations: alliance exercises, commemorative port visits, and contingencies in the Adriatic Sea or off Somalia. The unprecedented task force deployment this year included visits to Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Italy, along with a pointed collection of port calls in Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Athens was especially concerned when the Albanian parliament passed a bill allowing Turkish troops on its soil prior to the Turks’ visit to the Albanian naval base at Durres. That visit reportedly included more than 1100 Turkish marines embarked in the navy ships.
But Greece had been alarmed even earlier when a Turkish submarine visited Albania following a NATO exercise in February and March. Turkey’s intensification of ties with Albania – a predominantly Muslim relic of the Ottoman occupation – is taking a decidedly military turn. Russia, dependent on Turkish impartiality for her maritime access from the Black Sea, is taking notice as well. In September, the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed an amphibious landing ship to the Mediterranean for the first time since the 1980s, with an intensive schedule of “port calls in Greek and Montenegrin ports.”
In general, Russia and Turkey are jockeying to see which one can hold his enemy closer. Turkey’s outreach to China comes in the context of a longstanding, Ottoman-era interest in Central Asia, which modern Turkey has expressed largely through parliamentary resolutions backing old ethnic Muslim allies. The move to hold military drills with China, however, is an unmistakable signal. It has lent color to a Central Asian rumor that Turkey has concluded a military basing agreement of some kind with Azerbaijan. And apparently, the Turks have at least agreed with the Azeris to build missiles together.
Russia must obviously be concerned about the influence of an increasingly Islamist Turkish government in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where Moscow’s biggest worry is Islamist insurgencies. The U.S. and NATO have their own concerns. At the top of the list is the possibility that Turkey’s sponsorship of the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May was just the opening salvo in a campaign to destabilize the Levant. Besides the question of general maritime security in the Eastern Mediterranean, NATO may be called on to extract UN missions from Lebanon or the Sinai Peninsula if eruptions ashore can’t be contained. The real possibility that Turkey and NATO aren’t after the same thing in the Levant is already in view.
We are not anywhere near the situation of 1571, when the Ottoman imperial navy deployed 280 ships to establish its mastery of the Mediterranean over the combined fleets of a few Western city-states and confederacies. In that year, the memory of the West’s defeat at Constantinople in 1453 was still fresh and the Ottoman Empire’s star was in the ascendant. The Ottomans’ resounding naval defeat at Lepanto, off the coast of Greece, might have been decisive in the maritime realm, but on land the Ottoman forces continued to occupy and forcibly convert much of the Balkans and Southeastern Europe for another three centuries. That, of course, does not describe the current situation.
But Turkey deploying military force into the Mediterranean for her own national purposes is a reversion to a pattern that predates the Great War. Deploying naval force sounds the echoes of an even earlier time. It is, moreover, an inviolable axiom of geopolitics that nations do not change their naval postures because they are happy with the status quo. Erdogan, with his penchant for claiming Jewish historical sites for Islam, cozying up to Syria and Iran, and promising naval support for blockade-busting flotillas, has already signaled the portents of his brand of Islamism. The trend of his navy’s activity has meaning, and the meaning isn’t a positive sign.
Over on the other side of Asia, Russian resentments from more than a century ago are cropping up in Moscow’s overall Far East posture, and specifically in Russia’s dealings with Japan. Those historical resentments have a strong maritime element to them. Watch the seas in the coming years. They will be a key harbinger of fresh rumblings on the international fault lines long held dormant by the Pax Americana. Geography hasn’t changed; American will has.