Turkey joined a unique club of leaders this week, one that a weary America has long nurtured.
It decided to become the kind of regional power – one with a strong economy and an advancing democracy – that seeks to be a force for freedom and human rights among its neighbors.
The turnaround came after the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won its third election in a row. In his victory speech, Mr. Erdogan reversed a longstanding policy of simply seeking “zero problems” on Turkey’s borders. He announced: “We will become much more active in regional and global affairs.”
More specifically, he added that he will call “for rights in our region, for justice, for the rule of law, for freedom and democracy.”
Turkey – if it follows its words with consistent action – now joins Indonesia, Brazil, Nigeria, and to some degree, India as large democracies that have slowly realized that they can be responsible stakeholders in the global order, especially in influencing their neighbors by promoting democracy.
For Turkey, the turning point may have been the latest events of the Arab Spring, especially the way that Syria has crushed protests there. Last week, Erdogan turned on his budding ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He described the regime’s military offensive against civilians in a northwest province as “savagery.” Thousands of Syrian refugees have been welcomed into Turkey. And Erdogan could possibly support a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria.
Turkey’s credibility is high among the Arab people because of its democracy and economy, as well as its struggling effort to blend Islamic values with basic freedoms. Even before Sunday’s election, it invited young people from the Middle East to watch the election process and even hosted a meeting of the Syrian opposition.
Turkey’s role in reaching out to those young masses – rather than the region’s dictators– could be far more effective than efforts by Europe or the United States. If Iran erupts again in protests, for example, Turkey’s stance could greatly add to international pressure on that regime.
Brazil is another example of a regional power that has struggled to cement its democracy and build up its market economy, and now exhibits a progressive leadership in Latin America and beyond.
Brazilian troops have been active in stabilizing Haiti. It supports the region’s antidrug efforts and free-trade alliances, as well as the global push on climate change. While it is too cozy with Cuba and Venezuela, it nonetheless has built up its democracy as a model for others.
Indonesia, too, after securing its democracy in 1999, has tried to influence Burma’s dictators and to quell disputes within Southeast Asia, such as a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia. In 2008, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono set up a regional group called the Bali Democracy Forum to help build democratic institutions in Asia.
Nigeria continues to improve its large democracy with each election while using its military and strong oil-based economy to promote stability in Africa, especially West Africa. It is the backbone of the Economic Community of West African States, and was influential in resolving a recent postelection crisis in Ivory Coast. Nigeria’s leadership stands in contrast to the continent’s other democratic power, South Africa, which has largely avoided confronting authoritarian rulers.
For decades, the US has tried to find regional, democratic powers that can take over the burden of standing up to autocrats and aggression. As democracy has swept Latin America and parts of Asia and Africa since the 1980s, a few large countries, like Brazil and Indonesia, have emerged as key partners – although not always reliable allies.
With the Middle East making its own erratic transition to democracy, Turkey’s apparent turnaround on its foreign policy will provide a welcomed contribution to helping the region’s people finally find the freedoms they have long sought.