By Joshua Walker

Today the Eurozone crisis continues to threaten the concept of the “West” as people all around the world watch European economies pass the bottleneck. Crisis in Europe reinforces the idea of the “Fall of the West”– yet Turkey, a historic member of the West, is included in the discussions about the “Rise of the Rest.” Turkey’s strategic location is one explanation for why Turkey is seen as a part of “the Rest” as well as the “West,” yet the paradoxes inherent in this Muslim-majority, capitalist, secular democracy are precisely why Turkey is critical beyond its geography at the crossroads of civilization.

A key ally of the United States, long-standing member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a candidate for membership in the European Union (EU), Turkey has strong ties to the West and to the East in a volatile but strategic region of the world. Ironically, only in the last decade has modern Turkey assumed the confidence and trappings of a geopolitically pivotal player. At no time since their days at the helm of the Ottoman Empire have the Turks been as actively involved as they are in the Middle East today. In return, the Middle East seems receptive to Turkish activism in the region. As a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council from 2008-2010, a G-20 founding member since 2008, and holder of the post of Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) since 2005, Turkey’s global rise is unprecedented. Turkey’s newly discovered role in global politics and its subsequent foreign policy has its benefits, but also challenges that need to be assessed.

No longer confined to being simply an American geostrategic “barrier,” “bridge,” or “bulwark,” Turkey represents an exemplary model of a Muslim-majority, secular, and democratic nation within its dynamic geopolitical neighborhood. The nation’s broadened awareness and appreciation for the positive role that it can play in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia, and beyond has caused Turkish leaders to realize the country’s full potential as a versatile and increasingly powerful international actor. This newfound activism and confidence in Turkey’s own regional policies has directly impacted Turkey’s relationship with its traditional allies in the West and has significant implications for policymakers.

The “new” Turkey of the 21st century has far more tools at its disposal to push its agenda as a leading regional power. The tremendous success of Turkey’s private sector has opened a world of possibility not known to any previous generation of Turks. The spread of Turkish businesses, construction, hospitals, hotels, and schools throughout its neighborhood is part and parcel of its regional leverage. Having sought the role of regional mediator over the last decade, Turkey’s litmus test of leadership comes in its own neighborhood — beginning with how Ankara deals with authoritarian regimes like Assad’s in Syria, which still enjoys support from Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran. Ankara is not alone, however, since Washington shares almost all of Turkey’s long-term strategic interests when it comes to its immediate neighborhood.

Particularly in light of the events in the Middle East, where both Turkey and the West want to see stability, there are a host of possible areas for cooperation. Ankara’s emphasis on the importance of economic interdependency in the globalizing world, and the need to build strong linkages with all regional states regardless of former Cold War mentalities or hostile Western policies towards these neighbors, can be a guiding principle if taken as complimentary with and not competitive with the West. Ankara’s new foreign policy envisions a Turkey that would transform itself into a global actor — rather than a regional or junior partner to the West.

Turkey’s emergence in the 21st century has been in the making for the last century, but most significantly the last decade. Balancing Ankara’s historically close relationships with the West, both in its “strategic alliance” with Washington and its ongoing process with Brussels, amidst the realities of its neighborhood is no simple task.  Key to this is managing the interdependency between a democratizing and often polarized domestic political scene and Ankara’s ambitious foreign policy vision.

The changes in Turkish foreign policy cannot be attributed to a single factor; rather, a number of domestic and international considerations have propelled this phenomenon. Turkey has the economic and political potential to be a trans-regional actor that promotes peace, prosperity, and stability — or an inwardly focused state whose domestic turbulence inflames problems abroad. Therefore, understanding Turkey on its own terms, and assessing its potential impact globally and regionally as it determines its own future between the “rest” and the West, is of critical importance.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.