Opinion |

Turkey Doesn't Have the Economic Bite to Back Up Erdogan's Bark

It’s one thing for Erdogan to make threats and dispatch troops, it’s another to pay for it and provide them with advanced weaponry. Turkey doesn’t have the latter

David Rosenberg
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Unmanned combat aerial vehicle Akıncı of Bayraktar at Teknofest 2019
Unmanned combat UAV Akıncı presented at Teknofest 2019Credit: CeeGee
David Rosenberg

In the midst of one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's frequent diplomatic dustups, the social theorist Jacques Attali last month warned that Europe faced a threat akin to Hitler.

“If our predecessors had taken the Fuhrer's speeches seriously from 1933 to 1936, they could have prevented this monster from accumulating the ways and means to do what he had announced,” Attali tweeted.

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Although one of the world’s leading political thinkers as well as a paragon of the European establishment, Attali picked the wrong ‘30s-era dictator to serve as an Erdogan prototype. A more apt one would have been Benito Mussolini, who proved to be nothing more than a tin-pot imperialist, rather than the monster who almost ate Europe.

The difference between Hitler and Mussolini wasn’t ambition or a willingness to dispatch troops in the name of imperial glory. The key difference was that Hitler had the economic and technological resources of Germany to conquer nearly all of Europe. Without comparable industrial might, Mussolini could invade Ethiopia and Albania but by the time his armies reached Greece, they had met their match.

In the East Mediterranean and much of the Middle East and North Africa, Erdogan seems to be going down the same route as the two dictators, employing angry, aggressive rhetoric with boots on the ground. Turkey right now has troops in no fewer than 13 countries, is routinely sending drill ships and naval vessels into economic waters claimed by its neighbors and is meddling diplomatically everywhere from Palestine to Azerbaijan.

Erdogan doesn’t conceal his great power ambitions, which makes Turkey appear even more threatening to the countries it regards as part of its ambit, namely those that were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

But the threat is illusory. In the first half of the Erdogan era, Turkey looked like it was on its way to becoming an Asian (Minor) Tiger. Its economy was growing 7% annually, and Turkish industry was emerging as a global player and export powerhouse. In the second half of the Erdogan era, GDP continued to grow but fueled mainly by the short-term fix of showering cheap credit on the construction industry.

Now the coronavirus is riding roughshod over Turkey, just as it is everywhere else. But Turkey’s problems run deeper than the pandemic, as evidenced by the steady depreciation of the lira (which on Monday crashed through the 8-to-the-dollar mark).

Far from being a rising economic power, Turkey is in serious enough trouble that it should be seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. It probably won’t only because great powers don’t beg and, in any case, the IMF would impose conditions that strike at the heart of the president’s crony-capitalist economy and bizarro economic theories – the ones that have gotten Turkey into such hot water to begin with.

Wars cost money

The economy is important because armies and even more so, wars, cost money. The pressure arising from Erdogan’s foreign adventures is already straining the country’s budget as the military by one estimate is eating up a quarter of government spending this year.

A lot of that spending is going to Turkey’s defense industry, which Erdogan correctly sees it as the linchpin of Turkey’s rise to great power status. No country can seriously aspire to push around its neighbors and issue threats if it doesn’t have the tanks and planes to back it up. And, it's no good to rely on imported tanks and planes both for reasons of prestige and to protect itself from an arms embargo.

Battle tank Altay of Otokar at the IDEF 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey
Battle tank Altay of Otokar at the IDEF 2019 in Istanbul, TurkeyCredit: CeeGee

Erdogan has spent heavily developing the Turkish military industry, whose turnover increased more than tenfold in less than two decades to $11 billion last year. It’s now the 14th-largest in the world. But it still doesn’t have the technological depth to make Turkey militarily independent. It still relies on imported components, most notably the engines needed to power its biggest platforms.

As a recent Carnegie Endowment report documented, showcase projects such as the Altay main battle tank, amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu, the Akinci armed drone and a jet fighter project –  all of which have run into problems completing development or filling export orders because the other countries involved won’t give Turkey permission to use their technology.

And that segues into Erdogan’s other big problem: In the 21st century, a truly great military power has to be a great technology power. But on that account, Turkey if anything is heading backwards. Never a great tech power to begin with –  it ranks 35th among 60 countries in the Bloomberg Innovation Index, behind Portugal, Greece (its arch enemy) and Romania –  Erdogan’s repressive policies and cronyism have sparked a brain-drain, especially since the crackdown following the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Erdogan’s vision of Turkish greatness, which is inseparable from a society that distrusts and discourages independent thinking, is antithetical to the kind of tech culture that might make Turkey at least a contender for great power-dom.

A more contemporary analogy than Mussolini might be Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia may be a second-rater industrially and is only a few notches higher in innovative prowess than Turkey (No. 26 in the world, according to Bloomberg), but at it does have a real defense industry and vast natural resources. Even so, Putin can’t begin to compete with the U.S. or China. He fights his wars on the cheap. And, Turkey isn’t even in Putin’s league.

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