One of the great challenges the next US president will face is how to manage the decline of Turkey. The Turks under Recep Erdoğan are an unreliable partner and becoming a source of instability in Europe. The great neo-conservative dream of having NATO extend to every country on earth except Russia will not come to pass. Instead, it will either go away entirely or become something else, something that does not include Turkey.
The news that the Germans will prosecute a comic for making sport of Erdoğan, has all focused on Merkel, but that’s not the real story. This is all about Erdoğan and internal Turkish politics at a time when he is not very popular and the Turks face some very serious threats to their south and east. Pushing around Merkel is mostly about Erdoğan looking tough and important. In his part of the world, that is still how the game is played.
The immediate issues are the geopolitical problems the Turks face. Syria has collapsed, sending refugees into Turkey. This further destabilizes the Kurdish regions, which is exactly what the Turks do not want. Kurdish nationalism is probably the thing they fear more than anything. With neighboring Iraq a host for ISIS, their southern border is essentially a state of nature populated by homicidal lunatics with military gear they got from America.
They used to have influence in Syria and Iraq, but that’s no longer the case. Instead, Iran is fast becoming the regional hegemon. The Turks know their history and they understand that the Persians have always been the dominant player in Mesopotamia. The Iranians are not going to be happy just controlling the Gulf. They are not involved in Syria and Iraq as a hobby. The Mullahs of Iran imagine themselves as the heirs of Cyrus the Great, without the philo-semitism.
All of this is why Erdoğan is working the Europeans so hard. First he turns on the migrant spigot and then he makes Merkel grovel to have it shut off. This latest stunt is entirely for domestic consumption. This makes Erdoğan look tough to his people, which makes it easier for him to deal with the problems to his south. The game here is to extract as much from the Europeans as possible so he can be as aggressive as he needs to be with the problems to the south.
The problem for the Turks is they can’t make all of this work. The deal they made with Merkel included a provision for Turkish citizens to travel in Europe without a visa. Every young Turk with anything on the ball will find work in Europe. At the same time, those Syrian migrants are going to keep coming and those Kurds are going to keep breeding and dreaming of the day they have their own country. Turkey has the European disease and the Muslim disease. That’s going to be lethal.
That bit about the Kurds is something the West does not fully grasp. The demographics of Turkey present a very serious long-term threat to the stability of the country and the dominance of the Turks. Turkish TFR is at 1.5, while Kurdish TFR is 4.5. The math says Kurds will outnumber Turks in 20 years. Erdoğan does not talk about this all the time because he is bored. The Turks, unlike the Europeans, understand that the future belongs to those who show up.
It’s hard to know, but the noises coming from Erdoğan suggest he thinks he can solve his European disease by embracing his Muslim problem. The ruling party gets its support from the more rural parts of the country, which is the very Muslim part of the country. Turkey becoming more Islamic means becoming more hostile to the West. History shows these things have a way of spiraling out of control quickly.
Then there is the elephant in the room. NATO is a legacy organization without a reason to exist. The Soviets are no more and there is no threat of the Red Army roaring into Germany. Whether the treaty is scrapped or redrafted, the next president is most likely going to preside over a radical redrawing of America’s military commitments to Europe. There’s a pretty good shot that part of it will include dropping Turkey from the deal.
The irony here is that we have the expression “Sick Man of Europe” because of the Russians. Tsar Nicholas I said of the Ottoman Empire “We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.” If the West has not thought about this with modern Turkey, they will be thinking about soon enough.
The challenge for the next president will be in letting things play out on their own. Here’s where the lesson of Libya comes in to play. Like Quaddafi, Erdoğan may simply be a guy you do business with because he keeps a lid on the Arabs to the south. That may require bribery and a lot of looking the other way as he suppresses the Kurds, but it’s the cost of keeping millions of migrants flowing into the Balkans. What Turkey will never be is part of Europe.