FOR MORE ON THE FUTURE OF Turkey, SEE DISUNITED NATIONS
The Accidental Superpower: Ten Years On
With a new “10 years later” epilogue for every chapter, comes an eye-opening assessment of American power and deglobalization in the bestselling tradition of The World is Flat and The Next 100 Years.
Today’s country shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Sure, Turkey has been relatively silent over the past 70 years, but as American guardianship of the global seas declines, Turkey will reemerge as a dominant power.
Much of Turkey’s significance stems from its very, very fortunate geography; it controls the Turkish Straits and several other key waterways. This means that if anyone wants to move anything in this region, guess who they have to work with – Bingo – Turkey.
That’s the driving factor here, but it leaves Turkey with some big decisions. Should it partner with Ukraine against Russia or expand its influence in the Caucasus? Should it try to dominate the Aegean or displace German power in the Balkans? Should it absorb Mesopotamia and become the determining power of the Persian Gulf or make a bid for control of the Eastern Mediterranean? Given Turkey’s limited power to pursue all options simultaneously, it has some hefty strategic decisions to make that will shape its future.
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Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Colorado today. We’re doing the next in the Post American series and we are going to focus on Turkey. Now, the Turks have been a major power in the world going back to the date that they basically split off from the Mongol hordes back in the 1200s and eventually settled in the territory that we now know is Istanbul.
Well, subtle, wrong word conquered. Since then, they’ve been an indelible part of Middle Eastern and European politics. And the reason that I would say a lot of us don’t think of the Turks in that way is because they have been taking a little bit of a break from history. Their defeat at the end of World War One was so dramatic and shattered their political and economic orders that they basically pulled the welcome mat in and kind of fell in upon themselves.
For most of the last century, and it’s only with the rise of the current President Erdogan in recent decades that they’ve started to emerge and they’re kind of relearning the world around them and discovering is a lot messier than they remember. Most of the problems that you see in the Southern Balkans or the Levant in Mesopotamia can in some way be linked back to the disintegration of the sublime port in Istanbul from a century ago.
It wasn’t a pretty imperial collapse, and the region still shows the scars. Anyway, the Turks have been coming back into their own and they’re finding out that they have to make a lot of decisions. So one of the many, many, many, many, many reasons why the Turks are so important is the land that they occupy. Istanbul sits on the Golden Horn and it sits on the Turkish straits, which are the only source of water access between the Mediterranean.
Beyond that, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. And on the other side, the Black Sea. And through a series of navigable rivers that include the Dawn, the Dnieper in the eastern deep into the Ukraine and even into the the Russian interior, There’s a there’s a canal now that links the dawn to the Volga. So that goes all the way to Moscow.
And that means that by water, the Istanbul area has always been a linkage point. Then there’s, of course, by land, because if you go east into Anatolia, you’ll eventually hit Persia and beyond that, India and China. Or you can go to the Northwest through the Balkans and you get right up into Europe. Danube goes that way, too. So in any world where global trade is not a thing for whatever reason.
Istanbul is arguably the richest and most important city, economically, strategically on the planet. But that’s not where we’ve been living for the last 70 years when the Americans created the global order. The Turks had this great geography, but all of a sudden the Americans made it not matter because we made the global seas safe for everyone. And so all you had to do was get to a body of water and go anywhere, which is something that you could not do in the pre globalized era, because anyone who had a Navy would basically jealously guard their own commerce and shoot at everybody else’s.
So we had this flip in how commerce works, and the Turks went from having the best geography in the world to arguably among the worst. And so they disappeared. Well, that’s ending. The Americans are bit by bit removing their guardianship from the waterways, and the Turks are discovering that they’re becoming incrementally more important. They’re also discovering, as they re expand their influence back into all their old imperial territories, that a lot of these zones have developed opinions of their own about how things should run, but with very, very few exceptions.
The people who are developing those opinions aren’t particularly competent, and they’re certainly not very powerful. There is there’s not a country that is within arm’s reach of Turkey, with the possible exception of Iran, where they could stand up to the Iranians in any sort of meaningful fight economically, politically or militarily. And as long as that is the case, the Turks have this wonderful buffet of options in front of them.
But while the Turks here can go in any direction, they lack the power to go in, all of them at the same time. They’re going to have to do something that no one likes to do. They’re going to have to make some choices. So they just kind to go around the clock here and give you an idea of what’s in front of them.
In no particular order here, I’m just kind of picking a direction, going north into Ukraine. They’ve been there before. And by controlling the miles of the Dnieper in the East River, they were able to keep the Russian Empire at bay for a good century. They were also able to use their naval forces back in Istanbul. And any time the rivers would thaw, they’d sail up, they’d smash anything the Russians tried to build, and then they’d come back and, you know, be fine for the winter.
The Russians have a naval problem that they can’t really focus on any one particular direction. And so the Turks were kind enough to hit him with a hammer every time. So with the Ukraine, we’re going the Turks, while they’ve been politically on the fence and economically on the fence, strategically, they are cheering on the Ukrainians day by day and providing them with all the drones they can possibly use in order to fight the Russians.
Because the Turks know that with the exception of Ukraine, obviously, that if Ukraine wins this war, the Turks are the natural and largest beneficiary of a Russian defeat and disintegration. Working from that same theory. You go to the northeast, you hit the Caucasus, which is a place where empires often go to die. The Turks know this. Their empire kind of died there, too.
But that doesn’t mean the urge on opportunities, especially in the industrial age. You’ve got Azerbaijan, which is one of the world’s oil producers, kicks out about a million barrels a day, which flows through the Caucasus region and ultimately ends up in Turkey one way or another. There’s either a pipeline that crosses the land into Turkey to the super port of Jihan in the Mediterranean, or there is naval stuff that comes out of the Black Sea, which ultimately has to flow through Istanbul.
So no matter who wins in this area, it’s riches are going to be tapped. Turkey has to be a part of that conversation, which of course, begs the question whether the Turks will expand in this direction. There is one of the three Caucasus nations, Azerbaijan, who are ethnically Turkic and have as a rule, been allied with the Turks on and off for all of their independent period.
Since they emerged from the detritus of the Soviet Union. All of late in 2023. The Armenian military was basically destroyed. The Azerbaijanis conquered some territory that they lost to the Armenians 20, 25 years earlier and are now on the warpath. And the very future of the Armenian state is in question. And there’s really no one who could step in to broker a deal except Turkey.
So this is, again, a very viable option. But let’s say you think that the Turks should take a little bit more bare knuckled approach. Well, I probably won’t be in the Caucasus. That would be in Iran. Go straight east. You hit what the Iranians call Iranian Azerbaijan, similar ethnic group to what is in Azerbaijan itself. The Iranians have always been nervous about an independent Azerbaijan on their doorstep because they’re actually more Azeris in Iran proper.
Well, they are again ethnic kin to Turkey. And if Turkey wanted to I’m not saying they’re going to, but if they wanted to, you could have a serious slam dunk fest where we would put the Turkish military, which is one of the best in the world, against the Iranian military, which is really just a bunch of barely trained infantry.
I have no doubt who would win that conflict in the long run. But the key word there is long run because this is a mountainous zone and every mountain crust is a new battlement. And so for the Turks to do that would be a serious commitment. They could probably do very little else. You go to the southeast, you’re hitting Mesopotamia and where the Kurds live, which are a minority that exists on both sides of the border.
Again, in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria could soon meet those anymore. And again, oil and gas. Oil and gas. Oil and gas, a little bit of wheat, also access to the Persian Gulf, which would make the Turks a player in the world’s largest free energy market. In a time when global energy is no longer being protected by the Americans.
That would allow them to become a broker in any number of ways. They go straight south. They hit the Levant, which is where the Israelis are now, the Israelis and the Turks. During the first half of the Cold War going up to about 1979, were tight allies with the Iranians. And then when Iran, when its own way, they remained allies until Erdogan came on the scene.
And Erdogan doesn’t much care for the Israelis. It’s a very mutual feeling because everyone is drawing a page from Turkish history, not only who the Ottoman Turks, the economic and political military superpower of the region. They were also the religious leaders. And Islam itself was based in Istanbul for a while. Well, they see the idea of Jews primarily of Western European descent from their point of view, oppressing Palestinians who are Arabs and Muslim as a bit of a problem.
And so there is a possibility here of a fight. But to have a fight, the Turks would have to invade all of Syria, Lebanon first. God knows nobody wants that mess. So I think it’s more likely they’re going to glare each other, even though the smarter play would be to cooperate. Because if you can have the Turks and the Israelis more or less on the same page, they can easily keep other powers out of the region while at the same time projecting power themselves into Egypt to control the Suez Canal, which is, you know, many money, money, money, money.
All right. Continuing on clockwise now, looking to the southwest, the eastern Mediterranean, specifically Cyprus in Greece. Now, the economist in me is like there’s nothing there to be had. Don’t go that way. But unfortunately, the Aegean Sea is the first stop past Istanbul to the wider world if you’re using that vector. And so there needs to be some sort of rapprochement or understanding or occupation of these lands by the Turks in order to have access to the wider world.
Unfortunately, the Greeks and the Turks do not get along, and the Turks and the Cypriots hate each other so much. Also getting involved in these places means dealing with a mountainous country with a lot of naval frontage and a sea environment where the Turks are always going to be involved somewhere else. So it would make it easier for another naval power of the French to come in and muck things up seriously.
And then finally, the last direction is to the northwest, into the Southern Balkans, specifically the southeastern Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria, because here you’ve got the lowlands of the Danube system which punch up into northern Europe and you’ve got two of the more sophisticated ethnicities of all the countries that border Turkey. And so if you’re looking for general economic activity, energy reserves, food supplies, some solid choices.
In addition, those two countries are blocked off from the rest of the Europe by the Carpathian of the Balkan Mountains, making it a little easier to defend and a little bit more naturally in the Turkish sphere of influence. So those are the options. Turks can’t can’t even pretend to do them all, maybe two. Now, the the strategic genius in me would say that the two to choose are pretty straightforward.
You would, number one, want to go for the Balkan vector because the Bulgarians and the Romanians have warm to cool relationships with the Turks already, and all three of them see each other as relatively reliable economic and security partners. The bad blood that dates back to the late Ottoman period is for the most part behind them, and especially when it comes to the Romanians and the Bulgarians, they realize that there aren’t a lot of other options.
If the United States loses interest in this part of the world writ large, all they’ve got left are the Russians and that experience was as pleasant for the Romanians and the Bulgarians as the Cold War as it was for everybody else. The second route that I would go to is I’d find the deal a way to make a deal with the Israelis, because that allows you to do an end run to a certain degree around Greece, allows you block off Suez into your sphere, makes it more difficult for anyone else, whether it’s Britain, France or whoever else, to punch through from the western Mediterranean into the eastern.
But history has a way of doing things that don’t sound particularly wise from an economic point of view. And we’ve all played risk and we all know it can go any number of directions. So this is the challenge in front of them. It’s an embarrassing bit of opportunities and a lot of strength, but not enough strength to seize the day on every single possibility.
History can be hard and history forces us to be choosy, and in that the Turks are no exception whatsoever.