Former empires looking for more on a world stage

A look at Turkey, Iran, and China.

Most Americans are simultaneously focused on COVID-19, the start of a new school year, the November elections, the economy and demonstrations and protests over supporting the police or ending racism. It’s a lot for any of us to think about, but we are missing one thing: a focus on international issues.

There’s a great deal going on right now overseas that demands our attention. Since we are the world’s sole superpower, we can’t afford to become myopic about nations that were once great empires and that are now attempting to resurrect their past glories. Three nations come to mind, although there are others: Turkey, Iran and China.

Let’s start with Turkey. The Muslim Ottomans conquered the Christian Byzantine Empire by defeating the capital city of Constantinople in 1453. The name was changed to Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922 after the end of World War I. Today, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Erdowan) leads the conservative Muslim party called Justice and Development. Some consider it Islamist, a charge the party vehemently denies. Islamist or not, Erdogan wants to expand Turkish influence in the eastern Mediterranean.

Currently, Erdogan has riled Greece and France with Turkey’s territorial and energy claims to a Greek island off the Turkish coast and its desire to expand the Exclusive Economic Zone around its portion of Cyprus. France’s president Emmanuel Macron sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean, telling Erdogan to back off. The United Arab Emirates sent F-16s to aid the Greeks.

Turkey has allied with one of the combatants in the Libyan civil war, hoping to gain access to natural gas and oil resources in that divided nation. At one time, the Ottoman Empire controlled the north coast of Africa. Erdogan is involved in the Syrian civil war to Turkey’s south where he comes in contact with Iranians, Russians, Americans and Kurds as well as the Syrian government, increasing tensions for all. He has also taken sides with Muslim Azerbaijan over territorial claims against Christian Armenia which is supported by Russia.

Iran is Turkey’s neighbor. It has dreams of expanding to the borders of the ancient Persian Empire that ruled from what is now Pakistan to parts of Egypt and Libya, through what is now Turkey to a part of eastern Europe in the 400 and 500s BCE. Under the current Shia Islamist government, Iran has interests, soldiers and advisers in Iraq and Syria, and is allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In spite of severe economic sanctions by the United States, the Iranian government continues to try to expand its interests in the region.

China is near to signing a $400 billion deal with Iran. The deal means greater defensive coordination and intelligence sharing. In return, Iran gives China discounts on Iranian petroleum products. China’s Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative seeks to re-create the Silk Road that once existed between China and Europe. With its financial largess China is hoping to find and develop alternate routes to needed resources in the rest of the world. China used to be a great power before the emergence of European powers beginning in the 1500s. It considered itself “The Middle Kingdom” or the mediator between heaven and earth. As part of that past vision, Xi Jinping is pushing China’s economic and military might against its neighbors. India is feeling the heat in the high frigid reaches of the Himalayas where deadly violence recently broke out between Indian and Chinese forces.

The U.S. State Department is in the process of creating a “NATO in Asia” with four countries that feel threatened by China’s expansionism: Australia, New Zealand, India and the U.S., known as the “Quad.” China has pushed Japan over claims to rocky outcrops claimed by both countries, harassed Vietnamese fishing vessels and resource exploration off the Vietnamese coast, set up military bases on coral reefs in the South China Sea, and generally pushed its weight around in the Pacific. Xi is expanding the Chinese navy, trying to intimidate Taiwan with threats of invasion, and is developing hypersonic weapons and ballistic missiles that pose a major threat to the U.S. Navy. The list goes on.

While Americans are preoccupied with November elections, racial demonstrations, police shootings, COVID-19, reopening of schools and hopes for the resurgence of the economy, these former great powers are planning future glories as empires. Turkey, Iran and China have dreams of empires past dancing in their heads. Being myopic at a time like this is not healthy. We need to have a competent president and a fully functioning Congress. At this point, we have neither.

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