Turkey's new empire | What even is volatility?

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You know how we promised we wouldn't talk about sport again until the Olympics? Yeahhhh, well we just can't help ourselves... a celebration of humanity and all that.

But really we just want an excuse to award the International Intrigue medals for Excellence in Content:

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Worthy winners we're sure you'll agree.

This week:

  1. 🦃 Turkey's new empire: is Erdoğan overreaching?

  2. 🌪 Is the world getting more volatile? John answers a sceptical friend's questions.

🦃 Turkey's new empire: is Erdoğan overreaching?

By Helen

Turkey has featured in the news lately, but not exactly for good reasons. Between the epic wildfires sweeping the countryside 🥲 , and a sludge of ‘sea snot(yes, that’s legit what it’s called) blanketing the Sea of Marmara, the religious among us might be convinced that Turkey is in the middle of a biblical plague.

Two small boats are piloted through a slimy patch of mucilage on the surface of a harbor.
Boats struggle to move through the sea snot in Turkey’s Sea of Marmara. The mucus-producing phytoplankton disaster is the result of heavy pollution, warmer water temperatures, and other environmental factors.

Environmental calamities aside, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who’s been dubbed the ‘Sultan of 21st century Turkey’, has brought further global attention to Turkey via his hardline views on foreign policy.

For at least the last decade, the pugnacious President Erdoğan has acted so boldly militarily and politically that many believe he’s hellbent on restoring the country to its former Ottoman glory. 

⚔️ The Ottomans, Atatürk, and Erdoğan

But first, some context. 

Unfortunately, we simply don’t have enough words to delve into the fascinating history of modern Turkey. But a snapshot looks something like this:

  • 1500s - 1918: The Ottoman Empire ruled the region under Sultanates but came a cropper when they sided with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in WW1. At its height, the Ottomans controlled vast swathes of North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

  • 1923: Turkey became a republic with Kemal Atatürk as its first President. Under ‘Founding Father’ Atatürk, Turkey became a secular country, and underwent huge political, social, and economic reforms to ‘modernise’ alongside its new Western allies.

  • 1945 - 2003: Turkey developed into a western-oriented regional power. It joined the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) in 1952, and is part of the WTO, G20, and OECD. 

  • 2003 - now: a.k.a the Erdoğan years. Turkey has been in long-running talks to join the EU, but the EU says Turkey’s chances of inclusion are  ‘evaporating’ due to the country’s growing ‘illiberalism’.

The tea: Dominic Cummings recently implied that the Brexit leave campaign (which he directed) intentionally exaggerated Turkey’s chances of joining the EU in 2016 to win votes.

👑 A Return to the Ottoman Empire?

Military spending under President Erdoğan as a percentage of GDP rose to ~3%, up ~50% over the last couple of years. Turkey’s military presence outside the country’s borders is now the largest it’s been since the heady days of the Ottoman Empire:

  • Syria: Turkey sent troops to fight in bordering Syria in 2016, one of its largest foreign operations since WW1. Why? First, to fight against ISIS (including in Iraq). Second, to fight against US-backed Kurdish forces, who are linked to Kurdish militants fighting for an autonomous Kurdish region inside Turkey.

  • Azerbaijan: Turkey has supported Azerbaijan in its stoush against Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This is hardly surprising, given Turkey’s err... troubled history with the Armenians. Nominally only there to monitor a ceasefire, Turkey’s also been providing military training and reportedly sending sophisticated defense weapons to help Azerbaijan.

  • Greece and Cyprus: A grudge as long as time. Turkish warships have been dispatched to escort the country’s exploration and drilling vessels hunting for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Taking a leaf out of China’s book, Turkey’s been doing this to assert its claim over disputed energy rights over offshore gas reserves.

So what does all this mean for the geopolitics of the already-combustible region?

🕊 “Peace at home, peace in the world”

This Ataturk-coined phrase 👆🏼 had been Turkey’s foreign policy mantra for most of its modern history. Even President Erdoğan bought into it during his early days, striving for a policy of ‘zero problems’ with neighbours through sound trade and diplomatic ties.

But over the past decade, Turkey has played a more assertive role in filling the region’s power vacuum - a power vacuum that exists thanks to the EU's weak policy on Turkey, and the US withdrawal from the nearby Middle East.

And fill that vacuum they have - Turkey is seemingly everywhere and involved in everything at once, all while effectively playing Russia, the US, and the EU against each other (like the Ottomans did to the great powers of their day).

Here’s a snapshot of where they’re at:

Zoom out

President Erdoğan’s military adventurism abroad has positioned Turkey to once again become a regional hegemon, which is a $10 word for ‘Turkey’s neighbours have to do what they say’.

But unfortunately for E̶r̶d̶o̶ğ̶a̶n̶ the Turkish people, things at home aren’t exactly rosy:

  • The Turkish economy is in trouble. Inflation has swollen to 17.5% in June 2021 (with some reports that the true inflation rate is actually closer to 40%). That’s almost 3x more than the Turkish central bank’s inflation target of 5%.

  • President Erdoğan’s political party is unpopular. There are reports that domestic political support for the President and his party is down to ~26%, the lowest rate in years. Political opponents are seizing the opportunity to unseat the sultan.

President Erdoğan would be wise to re-examine Ataturk’s motto, and focus on ‘peace at home’. Military overreach arguably claimed the last Turkish empire, and might yet claim his too.

Welcome back to our old friends at The Factual who are this week’s sponsor:

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🌪 Is the world really getting more volatile?

By John

Everyone knows someone who is totally unafraid to ask the question no one else will. The person who cuts in halfway through their manager's meandering speech to ask, 'sorry, what does leveraging synergistic advantages mean?'.

At best, people like that unmask more charlatans before lunch than the rest of us do in a lifetime; at worst, their lack of f***s given in social situations is hilarious:

Recently, a close friend who fits that description asked why Helen and I started International Intrigue. I answered with my standard (but very genuine) pitch:

The world is getting more volatile before our very eyes.  And because we are more connected than ever before, everyone - not just diplomats or foreign affairs wonks - needs to understand what's going on, how it affects them, and what to do about it.

John, last week, earnestly.

He responded with two questions…

Q1. "Yeah okay, but what does 'more volatile' actually mean?"

The Oxford English Dictionary defines.... just kidding, this isn't a high school debate. Even if it was, volatility has so many different technical definitions, I'd put myself to sleep writing them long before they put you to sleep.

Whichever technical definition you adopt, the high-level concept of volatility remains the same: how much something is changing and how quickly. 

Unfortunately, as with most things in foreign affairs, the term volatility is used imprecisely. In fact, people use volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and many other terms interchangeably. The problem is, the more interchangeable and general those terms become, the less useful they are.

A tool for analysing geopolitical change

In the early 1990s, the US Army War College developed VUCA, a mental model for analysing the fast changing post-Cold War military landscape. Since then, it's become very trendy among management consultants and executives too.

VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, but instead of those words having general and often interchangeable meanings, VUCA is specific:

  • 🌪 Volatility: in a volatile world, unexpected events occur irregularly but often over unknown time periods. However, once the event has happened, its causes are easily understood.

  • ❓ Uncertainty: in an uncertain world, there is some but not full information about cause and effect of events. Predictions are possible, but given the lack of certainty, aren't very useful.

  • 🕸 Complexity: a complex world has many variables, decision makers, inputs, and outputs. Events can be predicted, but the volume and detail of information is so large that it can't be processed and therefore predictions are of limited value.

  • 🤷‍♂️ Ambiguity: in an ambiguous world, not much is known about anything. It's difficult to say why anything happens in this situation. These are the Rumsfeldian 'unknown unknowns'.

The VUCA framework is useful because it shows that when most people use the word 'volatility', what they really mean is 'unexpected change'. VUCA helps us separate the different sources of geopolitical change in our mind.

That's important because the best course of action in a volatile environment (eg. heightened preparedness) might not be the best course of action in a complex one (where preparing wouldn't help much).

Q2. "So we're really talking about unexpected change, but how do you know that rate of change is increasing?"

tl;dr: we don't know that the world is changing faster than before. There are technologists who argue either side.

My hypothesis is that the last five or so years has seen the most unexpected change since the end of the Cold War. Let's look at a few examples:

Sources of volatility:

  • 2016 US Presidential election, and the Brexit vote.

  • Extreme climate events like bushfires and floods.

  • Covid-19.

Sources of uncertainty:

  • The rise of Xi Jinping's China and how it will act.

  • Supply chain re-shoring, and ageing populations.

  • Macroeconomics, particularly growth rates, debt, and inflation.

Sources of complexity:

  • The rise of AI and machine learning.

  • Internet-enabled commerce and communications.

  • Embedded globalisation.

Sources of ambiguity

  • ???

Yes, yes I hear you - cherry picking a few examples that prove my point does not a rigorous analysis make, but word counts are word counts, and I think you get my drift.

My take

I think:

  • Volatility is increasing. Unforeseen, irregular, and important geopolitical events are happening more frequently now than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

  • Complexity is also increasing. The internet has connected most humans on Earth in real time. In terms of the graphic above, that means exponentially more nodes and connections between them. At the same time, the sheer amount of information available to almost anyone about almost anything has also increased complexity.

  • Uncertainty and ambiguity are probably not increasing. I have no reason to think that 2021 is more uncertain, or more ambiguous than, say, the period after 9/11, or during the global financial crisis in 2007.

You may well disagree. After all, mental models inherently reflect the biases of the analyst and maybe I'm so biased towards my view that I'm missing some obvious counterpoints. 

There is no 'right' answer.

So what’s the point?

If you work in finance, law, consulting, tech, consumer goods, energy, or any number of other globalised industries, you don't need me to tell you that understanding how the world works is vital.

But I'll bet that at least some of you don't know where to start. So you read the mainstream media, you listen to geopolitical experts, maybe you even read a newsletter from a couple'o'plucky Aussies. 

But the biggest risk with that approach is that you end up subconsciously parroting someone else's viewpoint. 

And that's the point: mental models like VUCA (there are many, many others) make it much harder to accidentally adopt someone else's opinions as your own. They can’t replace the media, or experts, or this newsletter (I hope!), but they can help you organise your thoughts, and come to your own conclusions.

Anyway, I got sidetracked… does that answer the question?

➕ Extra intrigue

  • The EU hit Amazon with a record $887 million fine for allegedly violating the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by misusing personal data of sellers. You probably know GDPR best as the reason you can’t visit a website without a popup asking for consent, but we bet Jeff Bezos now finds it even more annoying than we do. Here’s to equal opportunity irritation.🍾

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