Erdogan’s Turkey in danger of imperial overstretch


by Dr. John C Hulsman

Erdogan has bitten off more empire than Turkey can chew…

Since 2003, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has towered over his country like a colossus, dominating its political discourse in every respect. To survive and thrive in this cut-and-thrust political culture takes skill, brains and, above all, cunning ruthlessness. But, along with success, as the ancients tell us, so often comes hubris — excessive self-confidence, potentially leading to ruin. And, in pushing his signature, expansionist neo-Ottoman foreign policy beyond its limit, Erdogan has bitten off more empire than Turkey can chew.

On its surface, Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism perfectly fits the tenor of the times. The desire for the emboldened Turkish Republic to more greatly influence the former regions of its predecessor state — the sultanate centered for centuries in Istanbul — coincides with our new era of loose bipolarity, wherein the two superpowers, the US and China, have far less control over other great powers just beneath them, such as India, Russia, Europe, Japan and the Anglosphere, in terms of power.

Erdogan, viewing a revived Turkey as a prospective great power in its own right alongside these others, sees the chance to set a largely independent Turkish foreign policy for the first time in such a favorable global system.

Reflexively, Erdogan has resolved the age-old question of Turkey’s basic cultural orientation by harkening back to the days of Ottoman power, when the answer was “both” and “neither.” Like the Ottomans, Erdogan sees his country as both Western and Middle Eastern-oriented, and also as entirely distinct from both regions because of its unique dual historical and cultural circumstances.

Given this common view of identity, Erdogan’s Turkey, while still wishing to play a role in European politics, has shifted its emphasis to the Middle East, particularly to the Ottoman Empire’s former possessions in Greece, Syria, Iraq and North Africa, hoping to expand its power and influence in this traditional bastion.

But, as has happened literally dozens of times in history, in practice Erdogan has engaged in imperial overstretch, taking on more commitments than he can sustain. Presently, Turkey is directly involved in the civil war in Libya, supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) faction in Tripoli against the forces ranged around Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who is backed in turn by Russia, France and Egypt.

In June, Turkey at least temporarily bolstered the then-flailing GNA, supplying it with arms, drone technology and mercenaries. However, getting out of failed states is often far harder than getting in. At present, Ankara has no visible strategy to accomplish the tall task of winning the war, helping to establish a stable, pro-Turkish government, and then withdrawing any time in the near future.

At the same time, Ankara has also retained a significant military and geographical foothold in the north of neighboring Syria, occupying swaths of land with the aim of both halting the influx of refugees and stopping Syrian Kurdish forces from effortlessly crossing the border to aid the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the indigenous Turkish Kurdish grouping that has been the mortal enemy of Ankara for decades.

If this were not enough, Erdogan also continues the traditional Turkish practice of propping up a government in the north of the divided island of Cyprus. In fact, he has also moved to a far more aggressive posture in the eastern Mediterranean, with the Turkish Navy actively challenging ships in waters recognized by the international community as belonging to Greece — a ruling Ankara defiantly refuses to countenance. At stake here are potentially large natural gas deposits, of great value to a perpetually thirsty Turkey.

To facilitate this far more expansionistic regional strategy, Erdogan has also built bases in both Qatar (completed in 2019) and Bashiqa in Iraq. All these moves must be seen as part of a strategic whole, the basis of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman efforts to decisively expand Turkey’s power in the region.

But you cannot run an empire on the cheap. The fatal flaw in Erdogan’s fevered neo-Ottoman dream is that Turkey is simply not the great power he imagines that it is. In Ankara’s case, the endemic structural problems with its economy make such an expansionistic foreign policy utterly unsustainable in the long run.

The devastating effects of the pandemic on Turkey’s economy are clear. In September, the Turkish lira slid to an all-time low. In a desperate effort to keep the currency from plunging further, the government has blown almost half the foreign reserves of $65 billion it had at the beginning of this year. Inflation remains stubbornly high, reaching nearly 12 percent in August. Finally, Turkey’s gross domestic product was pulverized in the second quarter of 2020, almost entirely due to the coronavirus disease lockdown. It tumbled a hair-raising 9.9 percent year-on-year, the worst such figure in more than a decade. To put it mildly, such devastating statistics do not make running a neo-Ottoman foreign policy easy.

Instead, these numbers amount to facts on the ground that simply cannot be gotten around in the long term. Erdogan’s grandiose neo-Ottoman dream is destined to fail for the most pedestrian, and historically common, of reasons — his expansionistic dreams have far outpaced Turkey’s economic realities.

Piece first published on Arab News.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via

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