There are two major geopolitical events going on at the moment that deserve attention: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a vote Sunday to eliminate the role of Prime Minister and give himself powernot seen since the Sultans of the Ottoman empire, and North Korea is back to acting like, well, North Korea.
So why does Turkey matter and why isn’t North Korea a radioactive parking lot yet? It’s complicated.
A Bridge to the West
Turkey is seen by many as a “bridge to the West” for Islamic countries around the world, and while many westerners couldn’t point Turkey out on a map if given several dozen tries, it is significant for both geopolitical and strategic reasons. Strategically, Turkish air bases are currently being used to launch airstrikes against ISIS and in Syria. My grandfather, having been a spy hunter with the Army Security Service was stationed in Turkey for a few years, and our nations work together on key strategic issues like fighting ISIS.
To get supplies to our troops in Iraq via ground it is required to either pass through Turkey or Russia, as it is literally the bridge from Europe to the Middle East (now can you point it out?).
Politically the populace of Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim, but the current government follows a secular structure not often seen in Muslim countries. They are a member of the UN, with a military that has staged coups any time the rulers have tried moving away from their secular values (in 1960, 1971 and 1980) as the military are “guardians of the nation’s republican values” set in Turkey’s founding constitution.
From President to Sultan
But that may all change very soon. This vote has established new powers for Erdoğan that, while not going into action for a few years would essentially give him the power to do whatever he wants. They will eliminate term limits, give him complete control of the military (so it cannot stage another coup if he gets out of line), gives him complete power to appoint judges and he’s reinstating the death penalty. I’m all for the death penalty, but the EU isn’t, and as their petition for EU membership has been ongoing since 2005 this may kill those efforts.
And as the bridge between Islam and the West, both geographically and politically, their stepping away from western culture, politics and alliances could lead to what we call in Special Forces a “catastrophic loss of rapport.”
North Korea War Games
So now onto the crazy fat kid and his hermit kingdom. For decades North Korea has been playing a game with the US and western nations and it’s worked for him. Some may take offense to my calling it a game, but it is quite literally deterrence theory, which is a branch of game theory developed by Thomas Schelling and John von Neumann (von Neumann is the person after whom Stanley Kubrick developed the “Dr. Strangelove” character in his movie of the same name, for which he consulted Schelling).
Shelling won the 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Robert Aumann) for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis” and it has been used, many believe, to avert more than a few events which could have led to full-scale nuclear war.
North Korea has used it to their advantage, following this basic principle of game theory: without ever actually launching a nuclear weapon, they can hold much of the world hostage by letting it be known they have nukes and making us believe that they are just crazy enough to actually launch them.
Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
This is crazy because it would result in what we call “mutually assured destruction,” as the movie Dr. Strangelove is based upon. But it’s not so crazy because it’s worked out pretty well so far. When they need sanctions relaxed, loans from the West or humanitarian aid, they rattle their sabres and perform a “missile test.” And every time, so far, the West responds by giving this petulant child exactly what they demand.
Fortunately President Trump has taken an approach many would never have imagined in solving this problem. Rather than launching an all-out attack against North Korea for their antics, he’s tapped an unlikely ally to tell them he’s not playing games anymore: China.
China prefers money to military power (although many believe it is their strategy to win both in the long run), and so war between the US and North Korea is not in their best interest (it would likely send millions of North Korean refugees into China). Chinese President Xi Jinping has been acting as an intermediary, telling Trump to hold off any offensive actions and telling North Korea to “chillax.”
Hope to See You Next Week
So all in all this is shaping up to be an interesting week. We have an ally in Turkey which may be moving away from our alliance and a long-time frenemy in China that seems to be getting closer. Hopefully we have an entirely new set of problems for me to write about next week, rather than one of these blowing over to start WWIII!
Robert Patrick Lewis is a Green Beret OIF/OEF combat veteran with 10th SFG(A) and is an award-winning author of “The Pact” and “Love Me When I’m Gone: the true story of life, love and loss for a Green Beret in post-9/11 war.” Follow him @RobertPLewis on Twitter or on his RobertPatrickLewisAuthor Facebook page.