On Nov. 13, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey visited in Washington with his counterpart in the United States, Donald Trump. Both leaders are controversial, in different ways, both at home and abroad.
Significant diplomatic strains characterize current relations. Washington has denounced Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, as well as hostility to minority Kurds.
There is no denying the importance of the two nations. The U.S. possesses the largest and most productive economy in the world, along with the most substantial and objectively powerful military.
Turkey remains a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and traditionally a reliable ally of the U.S., both within and well beyond the North Atlantic Treaty organization, or NATO. Turkish culture emphasizes effectiveness in war, and the national history in that realm is impressive and undeniable.
Erdogan is autocratic, and greatly expanded presidential executive power. Yet he has done this through constitutional reforms, not arbitrarily. Elections are held, though freedom of expression has been curtailed.
In 2016, he demonstrated remarkable personal courage in thwarting an attempted military coup. Contemporary social media permitted him single-handedly to lead resistance to the effort.
Turkey’s undeniable significance for the U.S. and the wider international community is a result of central objective facts, undeniable whatever one’s editorial opinions.
In contrast to some other Middle Eastern nations, Turkey has been fundamentally modernizing the economy. This includes expanding trade and investment, reaching significantly into Central Asia as well as Europe.
Additionally, Turkey has been able to maintain reasonably good cooperative relations at the working level with Europe and the U.S. Economic development reinforces security relationships and influence.
NATO ties remain quite strong. The Turkish military is the second largest in NATO, after the U.S. Turkey was a major combatant in the Korean War. In Afghanistan, the nation is a leader. Turkey oversees vital sea and land routes, including the Bosphorus Strait.
Finally, Turkey represents a marriage of firmly rooted Islamic religious and cultural traditions with Western government and economy. This draws on the nation’s Ottoman heritage of combining religious and secular dimensions. Terrorist groups have not gained support and Islamic extremism remains weak.
In “Lords of the Horizon — A History of the Ottoman Empire,” Jason Goodwin notes that he is writing “about a people who do not exist. The word ‘Ottoman’ does not describe a place. Nobody nowadays speaks their language… (Yet) for six hundred years the Ottoman empire swelled and declined.” (1998 edition, p. xiii)
From the thirteenth century to the empire’s accelerating decline in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman territory — which crested at the Danube in Europe — was built on military success reinforced by secular executive practices, but not investment and trade.
While the Industrial Revolution initially passed Turkey by, that has changed dramatically. Over the last decades of the twentieth century, the economy became a powerhouse. Economic growth and investment became strong, both corruption and inflation were greatly reduced, and government red tape and bottlenecks were steadily opened. Much of the credit belongs to reform Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal, who held office from 1983 to 1993. His relationship with President George H.W. Bush was particularly important during the 1990-91 Gulf War.
In 2015, Turkey hosted the influential G20. Economic progress continues, though Erdogan’s autocratic style over long tenure is worrisome.
Beyond Turkey’s importance, the overarching objective fact in this region is that Russia has now replaced the U.S. as the strategic leader. Meanwhile, Washington focuses on the impeachment circus.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan/Palgrave). Contact email@example.com.