Twenty years ago the democratic revolutions in East and Central Europe prompted the first great-power retreat in the continent since the end of the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops, supported by generous German funding, decamped for home, to be followed by many more after the Soviet Union itself collapsed. And while imperial nostalgia lingers still, the Kremlin has had to accommodate itself to the new reality. The tentative and ragged sphere of influence that remains is a shadow of what once was.
That was one chapter. But are we now, I wonder, watching the second half of the post-war retreat from Europe, that of the other great victor, the United States? Of course, the withdrawal is less military or imperial than Russia’s – the majority of the US troops have been reassigned over the years – nor is it enforced. It seems more to reflect a lack of interest. Barack Obama’s America has other fish to fry. But could it be that Washington’s European age is drawing to a close? And if it is, what might it mean?
I ask these questions after a weekend spent in Istanbul at the annual Bosphorus Conference, organised by the British Council, the European Commission and Turkey’s foreign policy institute, TESEV. For the EU side, this meeting is a chance to gauge the state of our sometimes fractious relations with Turkey. For the Turkish side, it offers a forum to vent frustration with the obstacles Brussels strews in its path.
But there were two conspicuous changes compared with 2007 when I last attended. The first was Turkey’s newly activist interest in the outside world – and not primarily in our, European, direction. The other was the absence of any reference to the United States.
The latter was especially striking, given that there has been a change both of US President and US foreign policy since the Bosphorus Conference last convened. You might argue about how much change Mr Obama has effected, but you cannot contest his intentions or the more positive way in which much of the world now looks at the US. Yet none of this entered the discussion.
The US, where successive presidents have irritated Brussels by pressing the case for Turkey’s speedy EU membership, was simply not being treated as a player any more, not by either side – at least not in this discussion. One explanation offered by a Turkish delegate was that US advocacy had become counterproductive to his country’s cause. If Turkey wanted to join the EU, it had to argue for itself.
But the Europeans – including the “new” Europeans who had been such enthusiastic allies of the US – also left America and its president unmentioned. This suggests that the matter of Turkey’s EU accession is now a matter (as it always should have been) for the two negotiating parties alone. And this is fully in line with the evolving Obama doctrine, which leaves countries to determine their own systems and settle disagreements between themselves.
Which is where Turkey’s seemingly new foreign policy orientation comes into play. Two years ago, the EU was concerned about whether Turkey’s recently-elected AKP Government would divert from secularism. Turkish politicians of all leanings were preoccupied with the Constitution. Now the AKP government has settled in, it has taken a new direction, but not in the way some feared.
It is looking outward, to the immediate region, and building bridges with its neighbours. In just the past month, the Turkish and Armenian prime ministers have sat amicably side by side at a football match in Turkey, and the two countries have signed – after much cajoling – an agreement to open their border. Turkey and Syria are to allow visa-free travel. Talks on Cyprus are reconvening. Meanwhile relations with Israel have taken a sharp turn for the worse, as Turkey lined up with the fiercest critics of the Gaza invasion.
You could see all this as Ankara’s efforts to clear the decks before making a last all-out bid to join the EU. Or you could interpret them as Turkey at least flirting with regional leadership and asking itself whether the national interest is better served by joining the EU as a supplicant or re-casting itself as a regional power. With change afoot in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the playground is certainly big enough.
And there is something familiar about this region. Does it not resemble, in shape and extent, the Ottoman empire in its last throes? As the US leaves Europe to its own devices, could it be that, rather than a new order rising, some older allegiances will reassert themselves?
If so, then the first priority for governments is to recognise the change for what it is. But the second is to vow to handle the difficulties of fluctuating borderlands more sensitively, imaginatively – and peacefully – than last time around.