There is one largely unheralded, and outside its own frontiers probably little mourned, casualty of the European crisis of confidence--Turkey. In its decades-long aspiration to become a member of the European community, this nation on the fringes of the continent's southeastern frontier has played the part of the poor little orphan boy, nose pressed firmly against the glass shop window filled with sweets. Somehow, Turkey, despite its most valiant efforts, has never managed to find a way inside.
This may no longer matter. Turkey appears to have all but given up on its aspirations and is finally prepared to cast its lot with the Middle East--neighboring nations it's traded with, even ruled, for centuries. If there was any more persuasive evidence of this new reality, it was Turkey's sudden and dramatic confrontation over the Gaza blockade with Israel, whose own fate is so closely bound to Europe and America.
The central question facing the European Union as it stares down the barrel of potential fiscal collapse isn't which nation will fail next, but which nations should not have been invited in the first place. Growth in both Portugal and Spain has stagnated, and their debt is nearing junk level. Greece's growth rate shrank by 0.8 percent, and the growth rates in Spain (1 percent), Portugal (0.08 percent), Germany (0.2 percent) and France (0.1 percent) have been anemic. Yet Turkey's GDP is growing at 2.3 percent.
While there are still "candidate members" of the EU, who now seem quite likely to remain in that status for the indefinite future, none outranks Turkey in the metrics that should make its membership so compelling. Indeed, there is a certain irony that Greece, rather than Turkey, was invited into the club that it has now threatened to bring down. The two nearly came to blows repeatedly over the divided island nation of Cyprus--now a member of the very union that Turkey has been so desperate to ioin.
The case of Turkey is compelling because it reflects a larger theme. What makes a bloc like the European Union thrive, or even function effectively? And is the organization of the world by blocs the future, or merely a brief historical hiccup that is now on the verge of unraveling, perhaps catastrophically?
Istanbul or Constantinople
When I landed in Istanbul for the first time, more than 30 years ago, it was quite clear that I was not in Europe anymore. Minarets and domed mosques dominated the skyline. Despite all warnings, I got lost in the Great Bazaar, the Kapali Carsi or Covered Market--a sprawling warren of tiny alleys and more than 4,000 stalls packed with the mysteries of the East, from centuries-old Korans and intricately-woven carpets to huge sacks of exotic spices, glazed tiles and pottery, copper and brassware, leather, cotton and wool clothing, carved meerschaum pipes and alabaster bookends. When the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman sultans ruled half of the known world, this capital city was known as Constantinople, and it held the bulk of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in its sway, its reign stretching into Spain and Portugal, its armies spreading fear from the Balkans to the very gates of Vienna. But the sultan chose the wrong side in the First World War. His empire was already crumbling across Mesopotamia and North Africa, and the Treaty of San Remo, an offshoot of the Paris negotiations that led to the Treaty of Versailles, put a final stake through the heart of the Ottoman Empire. The Allied leaders created several nations carved from its remains: Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, eventually Saudi Arabia, and one core country called Turkey. This territory and its limited resources--vastly reduced from the once grand empire--would, the Allied leaders hoped, be forever weakened.
As it happened, the Allies created a nation more viable, stable and independent than any other in the region. It's a tribute, in part, to Turkish energy and persistence and the vision of one gifted leader, Mustafa Kemal Atattirk, who believed passionately in the virtues of democracy, secularism and the West. As Turkey's first prime minister, then president, Atattirk was determined to eradicate the last vestiges of the sultanate and set Turkey firmly on the path to prosperity and success as a modern, secular democracy. The Arabic alphabet was replaced by a Latinate Turkish version. Islamic and secular law were clearly divorced, succeeded by a penal code modeled on Italian law and a civil code modeled on the Swiss. Women were freed from the veil and given full equality. And the final break with the past? The Hat Law of 1925 introduced the use of the Western-style fedora, banning the ancient fez. Ataturk delighted in parading through the streets in a sparkling straw Panama.
While Ataturk sought to build a secular, westernized state, he by no means intended to disestablish the dominant religion of Islam. Rather, he sought to create a nation where all religions would be tolerated. There's no doubt that this is where Turkey's problems with Europe began. Turkey is the only Islamic nation with European aspirations. In that sense, Europe has always considered the Bosporus--the strait that flows past Istanbul and serves as the entrance to the Black Sea--the end of the continent. Most of Turkey is on the far side, closer in so many ways to the Middle East that it once ruled than the Europe it now...