Turkey's Emergence as a 'Center Power' in Mid-East Is a Game-Changer

06/06/2010 06:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ISTANBUL -- From the confrontations with Israel over Gaza to the Iranian nuclear swap proposed recently with Brazil, Turkey has been in the global spotlight lately.

Because the ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party) belongs to Turkey's Islamist tradition, many see the turn of events that has brought Turkey to the world's attention as the result of an ideological shift in Turkish foreign policy.

I would argue, however, that most of these incidents -- including the latest deadly flotilla incident that may have changed the nature of Turkish-Israeli relations forever -- stem from structural causes having to do with Turkey's new vision of itself as a "center power" in the broader Middle East.

Turkey and Israel today have such diverging visions for the Middle East that their policy preferences and approaches are increasingly irreconcilable. There is also a sense of competition. Under the rubric of model partnership, first raised by President Obama in his first visit to a majority Muslim country after his election, Ankara believes that it can forge a new relationship with the U.S. as its main partner in the region, in the process inevitably eroding Israel's most favored and protected status.

The key to fulfilling Turkey's vision is a Middle East order that is based on economic integration and political stability. Achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the precondition for such an order, but Israel's current policies are blocking the path to that peace. Israel remains steadfastly against lifting the siege of Gaza, or seriously committing to a credible peace process. Turkey believes the siege must be ended and a way must be found to engage Hamas in the political process, an ambitious project to be sure.

At the same time Turkey continues to engage Iran, despite criticism that Tehran uses these efforts to buy time for further uranium enrichment. And it continues to raise the issue of Israel's nuclear arsenal in every available forum. On this score, Turkey's persistence seems to have paid off. The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference in New York recently passed a resolution, with US support, calling for Israel to open its nuclear program to international scrutiny.

In light of this larger context, the unnecessarily harsh and bloody Israeli raid on the Gaza aid flotilla was widely seen in Turkey as the result of a strategic decision by the Israelis to frustrate this new activism.

Even if there is a discernible Islamist ideological undertone to Turkey's current foreign policy when it comes to Israel, Turkey's increasing involvement in the broader Middle East is mainly interest driven and should be understood as such. Those who insist on an Islamist explanation of Turkey's new foreign policy conveniently ignore the openings to non-Muslim countries in the Balkans and the Caucasus not to mention Russia.

The most clearly elucidated vision of Turkey's new interest-driven activism comes from Ahmet Davutoğlu, the current foreign minister. In his view, Turkey's location at the center of what he calls the Afro-Eurasian space -- where the great empires of history once reigned -- enables it to rise to the status of a center power of the whole region. By eliminating conflicts with its neighbors zero problems Turkey will be able to consolidate its regional leadership and play a key global role in the post-Cold War strategic environment.

According to Davutoğlu, four principles guide relations with other regional actors: a) a secure neighborhood based on a common understanding of security; b) high level political dialogue with all; c) economic interdependence in regional relations, making borders irrelevant by creating free trade zones (Turkey and several of its neighbors lifted visa requirements for travelers and signed a multitude of trade, transportation and investment agreements); d) multicultural, multi-religious coexistence and harmony.

Turkey's emergence as an increasingly confident, perhaps overconfident, independent player will have important consequences for the shape of the geopolitical landscape in the decades ahead. Facing apparent rejection as an aspirant to EU membership, Turkish public opinion has more or less decided that it is better to go its own way. Ironically, as the disunity of the EU causes it to fade in global influence, Turkey will become even more important as a regional power.

Turkey's transatlantic ties will be increasingly defined by its bilateral relations with the United States instead of as part of Europe if EU-Turkey relations don t take a turn for the better soon. Iran on the one hand, and Israel on the other, could present serious obstacles to a new mode of cooperation between the US and Turkey or Turkey could be a key player in helping resolve both conflicts. In either case, the new relationship will stand on a more equal basis than at any time in modern history.