When I was in college, I had the distinct pleasure of taking Western Civilization I and II with Dr. David Harnett.
I idolized the man.
It was not just his expansive knowledge of Western History, but his style… and style he had in spades.
His suits were perfect, his cufflinks gleamed, and each time he walked into the packed lecture hall holding his maps, you leaned forward knowing you were about to not just be educated, but entertained.
His instruction, and his way of instructing, were a large influence on not just my educational trajectory, but on my presentation skills as well. If you have ever suffered through one of my lectures here at Artemis, or in one of my public speaking engagements, the parts that you hopefully liked… well… that was me channeling Dr. Harnett.
It was during Western Civilization II that I became particularly fascinated with the Ottoman Empire, more specifically the end of the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Harnett wove a fascinating tale, and I was intrigued at how this empire came to an end. At least “coming to an end” is how I perceived it then. Looking at our current state of affairs, it is entirely plausible that the death of the empire may have been a bit premature.
First, a bit of a history lesson…
The nation-state system we currently think of when we imagine the globe and, by extension global conflict, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and began the process of creating the nation-state system we now know. For a bit of perspective, that is 375 years of this gig taking place. It has been over 2,000 years since the Common Era began, and multiple millennia existed before that. So… what we have come to know in our little personal era of history is completely different from what most humans have experienced since we first crawled out of the ooze.
What I believe we are now watching is an attempt to reestablish long-forgotten empires.
Yes. Hitler had this vision, but it has morphed beyond that, and continues to morph. Now, Les Ancien Regimes seem to be coming back into style. I referenced the Ottoman Empire and, yes, we will be talking about that in a bit… but it is not just there. We have seen it in the feeble attempt by Vlad the Putin to reconstitute the Soviet Union. There is some scholarship (nothing I particularly agree with) that would attempt to equate NATO with the Holy Roman Empire.
China is trying to go full Kublai Khan… this time in a version that extends massively beyond the original empire.
Then, of course, there is the Middle East.
The Middle East has always had indigenous peoples who, from an ethnographic standpoint, have not really gone beyond their traditional stomping grounds. The definition of what constitutes the “Middle East” has varied significantly, and the empires that have controlled the middle east have been vast and varied… from Alexander the Great, to the Roman Empire, to the Ottoman Empire, to the French and British Empires. Yes… it has all been great fun.
The Ottomans are a fascinating aspect of this though.
Let’s cut right to the chase at the beginning: These guys were monsters. Literally. Their entire governmental structure was based on an imposition of force through extreme cruelty. They also were extreme realists. Rather than control the culture of a conquered territory, they simply taxed it. Why force a square peg into a round hole when you own both the board and the peg?
It was monarchical through a potentate. The Empire began with Osman I in what is now Turkey. He was a tribal leader who had a decent amount of charisma. It went all the way to the end of WWI with the death of Mehmed VI, a Sultan who didn’t.
Worse for the Ottomans… they decided to go all “power to the people”. The Committee of Union and Progress (which sounds like a Soviet-inspired propaganda group) took over the governing of the Empire and decided to cast their lot with Germany during WWI.
Not the brightest move.
The tribal groups… the nomads and bedouins of the Levant had been ignoring their Ottoman masters for centuries, and now, with British and French help, they decided to make war on them, as well as the Germans. This led to the British and French handing over real estate in the middle east as a kind of “thank you” to their wartime allies. Thus, the modern Middle East was born.
Kemal Attaturk in Istanbul saw an opportunity himself. He rejected the Ottomans; he also rejected the Allies, and pushed for an independent statehood, which he unashamedly called “Turkey”.
Thus, the Empire was dead… supplanted by independent nation-states given capital and care by their British, French, and, yes, American allies.
Now a war is upon them, a war all of you have been watching since October 7th, when irregular Hamas terrorists decided to kill Israelis. Israel, in response, has vowed to wipe out Hamas.
Suddenly, Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, has not just taken the Palestinian side, he has all but declared war on Israel. Now Erdogan is a hardliner’s hardliner. He has vacillated between accepting Western values and totally dismissing them throughout his career. He inherited a country that was a NATO member, and now seems to be wiling to throw all of that to the wind.
National leaders are not mad. They may act mad… but they operate in a sphere of realism. They make rational choices for rational reasons. We may not agree with those reasons… We may not understand the value of those reasons… but they have rational reasons nonetheless.
So what is Erdogan’s rational reason?
The reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire with him, of course, as the Sultan.
Rational or not… sometimes these gambits end up in abysmal failure. Adolf Hitler learned that firsthand.