By Walter Russell Mead | 05 June 2010
These days, there’s an unusual spectacle in world affairs. The United States has relatively good relations with the major powers: China, the EU states, India and even Russia are all more or less working together. But two middle powers, Turkey and Brazil, are not only asserting themselves more effectively than in the past; they have chosen to do this is ways that run counter to US policies. In particular their united and coordinated opposition to US policy on Iran has raised eyebrows and significantly complicated what was already a very difficult situation for American diplomacy. More recently, the strong reaction in Turkey to the Israeli interception of a convoy organized by Turkish groups with aid for Gaza underlines the possibility that Turkey is moving decisively away from its longtime partnership with the United States.
The new bout of activism by these middle powers is a harbinger of things to come, not only in Turkish and Brazilian foreign policy but it the policies of a number of other middle powers that can be expected to become more assertive going forward. They are going to enjoy tacit and sometimes overt support from some of the great powers who would also like to see us taken down a peg or two. The American establishment by and large was taken by surprise by the new and more difficult Brazilian and Turkish foreign policies; it’s worth looking a little deeper to see what is behind this and see what lessons if any there are for the future.
Turkey and Brazil are very different places, but in some key ways their situation is very similar. First, they are ambitious powers who live in what, during the Cold War, was an American sphere of interest where the options of smaller powers were limited. In both cases, the post Cold War world has gradually opened up fresh avenues for foreign policy. For both Turkey and Brazil, the first step to recovering more independence and playing a wider role is to complete the liquidation of the Cold War order, which they both interpret as freeing themselves of their foreign policy dependence on Washington. For Turkey and Brazil to become the kind of powers they want to be, American power must be reduced.
Second, in both countries new forces are rising to political power. Formerly both Turkey and Brazil were formally democratic but in practice power was held by a relatively small and well connected elite: international businessmen, elite opinion leaders and a small military and civilian foreign policy elite. In both countries, that is changing. Brazil’s Lula was long a radical and unacceptable figure to the Brazilian establishment; his entry into power meant that a new kind of Brazilian (poorer, less well educated, more internally focused, often darker skinned and left leaning) was coming on scene. In Turkey, the victory of the AK Party was also a kind of domestic revolution, overturning the old west-leaning, cosmopolitan and secular Kemalist establishment that had ruled the country ever since the 1920s. The new powers in Turkey are more religious, more inward-looking, more based in Anatolia than in cosmopolitan central Istanbul.