But even before that, he garnered attention for the elegant dance he was doing on the international stage, juggling between Iran, Russia, and the West with regard to Israel, Syria, and Ukraine. He actually seemed to be pulling off a delicate balance which is pretty impressive given the players and the multidynamic situations Turkey faces.
Of course, Turkey/Ottoman Empire has had long experience in being at the crux of regional imbroglios, with feet in many camps. For hundreds of years, still run by the Byzantine Empire left over from the glory days of Rome, it was the juncture between a still-slow/sleepy/medieval Europe and the “mysterious Orient.” (Oh, the empire was the site of the Crusades, too! “It’s always good to beat up on a Saracen!”) When the Ottomans swept in during the 15C, their new blocking position put pressure on Spain and Portugal to seek new trading connections to Cathay and Cipongu (Japan), thus launching the globalization of European empires which culminated in the 19C. Meanwhile, the Ottomans stretched their own empire directly into Europe, famously laying siege to Vienna in both the 16C and 17C and occupying diminishing chunks of SE Europe into the 20C.
When added to their formidable presence in the Mediterranean during this time, “the Turk” (as the Sultan was called by (resentful/envious/fearful and generally ignorant) Europeans) was a major player in regional geopolitics, butting heads with Russia, Poland, France, Spain, various Habsburgs and a gaggle of others. Indeed, no small part of the coherence of “Christian Europe” emerged out of the differentiation/hatred/fear of the Muslims of which the Ottoman Empire was the largest manifestation. By the 19C, even though the Ottoman Empire was overstretched from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Still, it had to be taken seriously geopolitically and, as “Europe” was taking shape diplomatically in the aftermath of Napoleon, the Ottomans were included in the club of major (European) states even if they were considerably different from a cultural/ethnic perspective. This tension was exacerbated by the economic/technological progress of the industrial revolution which accelerated the development of global power by Western European countries and left the Ottomans—with little by way of resources or cultural tools—trailing (…badly). In addition, by this time, the Ottoman Empire, like those of the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians, faced the centrifugal forces of nationalism. It was not for nothing that by the middle of the 19C, Turkey was often referred to as the “sick man” of Europe. By late in the century, the principal (European) powers were engaged in long-term jockeying over picking off pieces of the declining behemoth.
Despite efforts at reform, Turkey was unable to keep up. This led (similar to Russia) to a combination of resentment vis-à-vis the Western Powers and an urgent desire to emulate them. Even the “Young Turk” revolt of 1908 which sought to modernize the (now clearly diminished) country couldn’t figure out how to mobilize nationalistic energy across a disparate empire which, on top of Western interventions, contributed to the bloody efforts to rid themselves of Armenians and Greeks in an attempt at some sort of religious and ethnic coherence (which echoes today in its relationship with the Kurds).
A bad choice in WWI (siding with Germany and Austria-Hungary against Russia and Britain and France) didn’t help. Still, by the post-WWII era, geopolitics trumped religious differences and a cultural/economic mismatch. In order to flank the Soviet Union, Turkey was brought into NATO and, eventually, even had the prospect of joining the EU dangled in front of it (never to be fulfilled).
So, now, in the 21C, it remains caught betwixt and between. A bit modern and a bit traditional/underdeveloped. A bit secular and a bit Muslim. A big regional country, but caught between Russia and the West, between the West and Iran (and other Muslim countries). Too big to ignore (84M people, slightly bigger than Germany), but not big enough to throw its weight around more than a couple of hundred kilometers from its borders.
There is no easy path here, even if some stability (post-Erdogan) emerges. And, as much as I dislike his autocratism, his disrespect for human rights, and his terrible grasp of economics, Erdogan has managed to keep Turkey in the thick of the global mix. I hope he loses, but his successor will have serious challenges in repairing the domestic economy and society and in maintaining his balance on the world stage.
I’ve been to Turkey three times over the past forty years. I’d be happy to go again. The people are immensely friendly, the food is delicious, the cultures are rich, the history is deep (9,000-year-old cities, Greece, Rome, Byzantium…). It’s a great place to see the diversity of paths in the world all in one place. The Hagia Sophia was a cathedral in Constantinople, a grand mosque under the Ottomans, a museum in modern Istanbul (and, apparently, just reconverted into a mosque). It was the largest building in the world for a thousand years (our Pentagon has only been around for 75). The Turks will get past the earthquake, they will get past Erdogan and will be richly redolent for some time to come.