Turkey’s Year of Living Dangerously

Turkey’s Year of Living Dangerously

Turkey took its expansionist vision to new heights in 2020—but with a battered economy, growing opposition, and now U.S. sanctions, it’s not clear how long that can continue.

Though it now seems tragically comic, many of us spent the waning days of 2019 believing we would—and could—absolutely conquer 2020. All our resolutions were walloped by mid-March, and 2020 instead became the year that conquered us.

But if there’s one man who didn’t let a pandemic stifle his quest for glory, it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not that his year went swimmingly. Erdogan’s crowning infrastructure project, Istanbul Airport—set to be the world’s largest—hardly boasts many visitors with global travel in the doldrums. And the Turkish economy, once a poster child of GDP growth, is wheezing.

Still, in 2020, Erdogan took the wrecking ball he’d previously slammed into Turkey’s domestic politics and turned it on the region. This year, Turkey’s military was more active around the world than it has been in decades, or perhaps ever. From Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turkish leader has used armed force to advance Turkey’s objectives. He’s turned natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean into a contact sport.

But Erdogan’s real impact on geopolitics won’t roll in on a tank; it will come in the form of the 21st-century pan-Islamism that he has finessed through soft power. The religious revivalism that is so controversial within Turkey has filled a void in the larger Muslim world—one on display in Erdogan’s recent war of words with French President Emmanuel Macron.