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Turkey: A Middle Power Pioneer

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Middle powers are becoming more prominent in a world that lacks a global hegemon. In the new era that is to define the rest of this century, multipolarity provides as many, if not more, opportunities for countries whose ambitions are regional and do not inspire the kind of global balancing coalitions that are usually formed in response to conventional great powers such as the United States, China, and Russia. Far from a “New Cold War”, a multipolar age is, in fact, a time of geopolitical diversification around world regions and a global pivot away from ideological universalism or Manichean binaries. The age of the meta-narrative and ideology has ended; history and reality are back in focus. The new era is marked by the return to traditional and regionally-focused competition between a medley of actors, driven primarily by their immediate, interest-based, and physical security needs.

So far we have seen India chart out a strongly independent course in its foreign policy as a reaction to the Ukraine War and its own growing power. Meanwhile, Japan has begun to take charge of its security, initiating the largest defense budget increases in its postwar history. But the middle power state most ahead of the curve in embracing this new reality and its geopolitical “actorness” is Turkey. It therefore serves as an interesting bellwether for what might be to come.

Turkey's recognition of the new structural conditions and its embrace of its middle power status was not immediate, nor did it arise without initial difficulty. Ankara began the multipolar era that arose in the aftermath of the Great Recession by inserting itself into the minefield of the Syrian Civil War.

Turkey’s recognition of the new structural conditions and its embrace of its middle power status was not immediate, nor did it arise without initial difficulty. Ankara began the multipolar era that arose in the aftermath of the Great Recession by inserting itself into the minefield of the Syrian Civil War. It remains embedded in that quagmire to this day, having made dangerous alliances with unreliable and fanatical non-state actors. The costs of this new and assertive policy towards the Middle East initially outweighed the benefits. Nevertheless, even in this early stage of increasing the country’s role in its near-abroad, Turkey showed a remarkable pragmatism in its ability to both be a strategic rival to Russia (in a country of contention between the two) while also retaining its ability to keep open channels with Moscow for de-escalation and partnership on other issues where rivalry was less acute. In effect, Turkey began to engage in diplomatic compartmentalization, wherein it could negotiate based on specific issues of import, even as it competes with the same rival power in other areas.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February of 2022, that initially shaky trial run at a compartmentalized foreign policy has come to achieve its full potential. Turkey’s existing diplomatic commitments to NATO—and growing defense ties with Ukraine—would suggest that it is firmly in the anti-Russia bloc. However, Ankara did not adhere to NATO’s standard sanctions policy against Moscow, nor did it discard its previously constructed platform of de-escalatory bilateral relations with that country. This has enabled Turkey to position itself as the central pivot and go-between for any negotiations related to the Black Sea region, while also allowing its private sector to do business with both parties. The first sign of this was the Istanbul conference shortly after the outbreak of the war, which may have played a role in Russian withdrawal from the outskirts of Kyiv, before being effectively sabotaged by the former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Ankara did not adhere to NATO’s standard sanctions policy against Moscow, nor did it discard its previously constructed platform of de-escalatory bilateral relations with that country. This has enabled Turkey to position itself as the central pivot and go-between for any negotiations related to the Black Sea region

Despite this apparent failure, Turkey’s position as a Black Sea power broker has only grown since 2022. This was especially apparent during the temporarily successful negotiations to allow the export of Ukrainian grain out of the Black Sea without fear of military interception by Russia. Ankara will likely continue, if not expand, its role as the most important non-combatant in the Ukraine war. Ankara seems to have found its diplomatic niche, which it will continue to leverage the longer other NATO countries refuse to adopt a diplomatic approach to the crisis. Early in March, Ankara once again offered to host a peace summit between Ukraine and Russia. If present trends continue this may well become a reality.

Turkey’s unique geographic location astride the Straits of Marmara has always been an asset. De facto control over the entrance and exit from the Black Sea has made the country a desirable partner and an undesirable rival. This position has been successfully leveraged throughout the republic’s 100-year history as well as in the prior Ottoman periods and before. In World War I, the Ottoman ability to deny Entente aid from Britain and France to Imperial Russia played a role in the collapse of the Russian Front, resulting in the Battles of Gallipoli where the Entente powers failed to break through. After the Ottoman defeat in the war, Britain and France attempted to internationalize the Straits, but the more neutral new Republic that arose in Ankara was able to diplomatically leverage the crucial location of the Straits to keep it in Turkish control. For instance, the early republic was able to get critical Soviet support in its War of Independence (1919–1923) by positioning itself as the Black Sea’s defender from the imperial designs of Britain and France. In the Second World War, Turkey used its neutrality, for most of the conflict, to shield itself from being consumed in the fires that swept all nations in its neighborhood. This propensity to act as a regional anchor, bridging the East Mediterranean and the Black Sea, is highlighted once more by the current trends of Turkish foreign policy.

Ankara’s policies underscore the pragmatic and reasonable alternatives that are now available to those middle powers willing to break with the ideological orthodoxies of the past.

Sometimes categorized as subversive by other NATO countries, Ankara’s policies underscore the pragmatic and reasonable alternatives that are now available to those middle powers willing to break with the ideological orthodoxies of the past. By successfully leveraging its geographical location, relative wealth and political stability, and desire to resist outside power dominance in its region, Turkey’s recent foreign policy positions indicate the likely future course of other middle-power states that occupy similarly critical spatial positions in an ever more regionally-based and multipolar world.

Around the world, several other countries also occupy such a high-value strategic property and their growing regional power similarly escapes the attention of great powers who see these nations simply as useful levers in their blocization schemes, to be marshaled to advance their global interests without any real autonomy of their own. This fixation on binary thinking blinds many to the intermediate space occupied by countries that can project significant power (rivaling a great power) but only in very specific regional contexts.

While Turkey has not entirely shed the cloak of old ideologies such as pan-Turkism that could distort their real interests with romantic and globalist dreams, Ankara’s real power capability has so far limited their ambitions to the East Mediterranean. Nevertheless, over-extension remains a real possibility that could squander the natural geographic and logistical advantages held by regionally rooted middle powers: the temptation to act like a “mini-empire” can be powerful, but the imperial drive is also corrosive as evident in the downfall of the Ottoman state.

Although, structurally and materially, Turkey cannot project power globally in the foreseeable future, a middle power’s regional sources of power and its constrained global capacity should not blind us to the critical role it plays in the power struggles in its particular region. If anything, the strong showing of Turkey’s opposition in the recent municipal elections shows that the desire for Turkey’s strategic assertiveness is not dictated from the top down but embraced by much of the general public, who demand their leaders prioritize their near-abroad like Palestine rather than focus on the more distant ambitions (such as in Central Asia) as Erdogan did before the Ukraine War. A more independent line from Ankara on the Gaza war is an important example of this trend, which will likely intensify if the opposition gains power. Notably, the most important and decisive of these electoral turnarounds was that of the strategically critical city of Istanbul itself, with the electorate seemingly rejecting the fact that Erdogan’s rhetoric on Israel has not impacted bilateral relations or produced effective action by the government to bring an end to the hostilities in Gaza. Regardless of the changing vagaries of domestic politics, Turkey as a middle power will continue to insist on its strategic actorness in the East Mediterranean, to the point that any impression of appeasement by its political elites could incite a populist reaction.

It is rather the return of regionalism and locality that is of greatest import, heralding a polycentric order based around multiple regional systems that would reverse or supplant “globalization” itself.

Given the rise of civilizational powers that are anchored to a specific region as middle powers in a changing international system, the intriguing thing about multipolarity is not the so-called “great power competition” that pits the two or three states capable of global power projection against each other. It is rather the return of regionalism and locality that is of greatest import, heralding a polycentric order based around multiple regional systems that would reverse or supplant “globalization” itself—a phenomenon whose impact had always been vastly exaggerated.

headshot chris mott
Christopher Mott
Dr. Christopher Mott is a Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a former researcher and desk officer at the U.S. Department of State.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor