“Turkey needs an intelligent combination of secularism and religious identity”

Robert D. Kaplan, who used to work as the chief geopolitical analyst at Stratfor, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. He is also known for his bestselling books on foreign affairs, which have been translated into many languages. On his way to speak at the latest panel of the Brussels Forum last week, Mr. Kaplan kindly agreed to answer our questions. Here are the highlights from our interview.

“Turkey needs an intelligent combination of secularism and religious identity”

Mr. Kaplan, you are one of the world’s leading analysts. What makes your assessments valuable for your readers is not only that most of your predictions about world politics come true, but that you forecast major trends such as “the coming anarchy” in which you warned about the overpopulation, ethnic and sectarian strife and diseases that were likely to undermine global order – even in the heyday of liberalism when the Western world was blind with the ecstasy of globalism. So today, when you look at world politics, what kind of world order do you foresee?

I see that we have become accustomed to the collapse of small- and medium-sized states in Africa and the Middle East. The next step is not the collapse but the internal weakening of bigger states like Russia, China and maybe Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and China, because they’re weakening internally, are going to be more aggressive externally. Their regimes will use nationalism as a means to keep the country united inside.

Russia’s economy is collapsing, while China’s economy is more subtle than that; it is not collapsing at all. But growth is slower and social tensions are building up. It is becoming harder to rule China. And it’s been like this for quite a while. China’s leaders will use nationalism as a unifying mechanism. And that means more aggression in the South East China Sea.

Russia, which has a far more severe economic crisis, could at some point in the future be like a low-calorie version of Yugoslavia, with parts of it breaking off. Don’t assume that a leader after [present President Vladimir] Putin will be better; it could be worse.


So you see it as a structural problem…

Yes, I see it as a structural problem. I [can’t] see how Nigeria will hold onto power with an absolute growth in population power. Professor Samuel Huntington published a book in 1968, “Political Order and Change in Society,” in which he said corruption could be a good thing. What is corruption? Corruption is the establishment of alternative networks when the networks of the state do not work well or are too weak. It is precisely because of corruption that Nigeria has not fallen apart. Because everyone can get some money out of the system, no one has the incentive to destroy the system.


But in the end, aren’t they destined to fall apart?

In the end, I don’t think it will hold together.


Do you think global terrorism is a product of a clash of identities or is it a matter of failed states?

Boko Haram, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda – in Africa, I’m talking about – are just the latest phase of African anarchy. It is because of the digital revolution and digital communication; we can now have a standard radical Islam that is global, and a fertile ground for it are the failing states of Africa because if you are a young man, you have two options. One is to join a movement that promises to return to a lost golden age, a utopia, or you can vote once every four years for a government that is not going to improve anything. When nothing is going to change, what would you do? So, I think we don’t understand the incentives.


You always argue that geography determines the destiny of states. How would you apply that principle to Turkey, whose geopolitical position has always been both an asset and a burden?

What I’ve said is that geography is a challenge – it is not fate. But it is a challenge that global elites have totally discounted. They don’t take it seriously enough. I put more emphasis on that. Precisely because the United States has a favorable geography, Americans take geography for granted and don’t consider it important. But in Europe, Poland and Romania or in some place next to Russia in which you’ve been invaded ten times, geography is a very tragic thing.

In terms of Turkey, what is Turkey? It is the mountainous land bridge that spans the Black Sea. It is sort of a half-island, connecting Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, so it is partly European, but it is also partly Middle Eastern and Asian. I think that [Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk did not respect this geography enough. He took the country too far in a secular European manner. [Current President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is pulling it in the complete other direction. So what Turkey needs is a balance. Geography shows that Turkey needs a balance. It has to be Islamic but it has to be Western as well, as an intelligent combination of secularism and religious identity.


I’d like you to touch upon the Obama administration’s policies, especially in terms of the U.S. pullout from the Middle East and the pivot to the Far East. What would you advise the next U.S. president to do?

I think the Persian Gulf is still important for the U.S., but it is less important as the years go on as the U.S. discovers vast amounts of shale gas and other resources [at home]. But America has responsibilities in the Middle East. Not just to its allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is also trying to maintain some sort of a balance of power to protect access to the Persian Gulf. And also for the sake of its own legitimacy, because we live in an interconnected world, if you lose a reputation for power in one region, you will lose it in another region. So America can never completely abandon the Middle East. But I think America has to continue to seek better relations with Iran and has to keep talking to Iran. Why should America have such close relations with Sunni cartels and not have close relations with a major Shia power at the same time? I think Obama’s negotiations were right. On the other hand, getting involved in Syria is a very hard question; we could talk about it for hours. That’s one of the great unknowables: would it have been better if we had invaded in 2011?


What is your opinion about President Obama’s statements that the U.S. should no longer be the world’s policeman?

That may be a good operating principle privately, as something that the president shares inside the White House during meetings, but it is wrong to state that publicly. It is an invitation to adversaries that they can push and push…


You lose your power of deterrence…

Exactly. You shouldn’t say things like that publicly, even though that may be your operating principle behind the scenes.


One last question about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; do you think the peace process can be reinvigorated?

Here is the problem. Neither side really has an incentive or a capacity to reinvigorate it. The Israelis are actually in a favorable geopolitical situation. The way they would put it, “Our old enemy and worst enemy, Syria, is now fighting amongst itself. We have the best relations with Egypt that we’ve had in decades. We have, in a de facto sense, a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.” Who could have expected that of Israel 20 years ago? So there is much less of an incentive to make peace with the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, they are much divided and [President Mahmoud] Abbas is very weak. So there is no strong ruler to negotiate with. Remember that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace agreements with Israel, were strong dictators; you don’t make peace with weak democracies.

Also the Israelis fear – and I don’t think their fears are well-founded, but it is a fear – if they allow the West Bank to come under Palestinian rule as part of a complete sovereign nation with its own military, ISIS will eventually control the territory.

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