It happened at a waterfront restaurant at a hotel in the seaside resort of Cesme, Turkey. I sat dumbstruck. My hosts, Zafer Erdogmus and his wife, Nurhan, looked at me as one might look at a two-headed beetle.
“I’m not aware that there are any states on the five-dollar bill.” I said, responding to his question.
“That!” thundered Zafer, a retired Turkish bank executive, “is what is so frustrating about Americans. You have no idea how much influence you have in other parts of the world and you have very little knowledge of even your own country.” He went on to voice a cliché I’d heard before, “What you do not realize is that America still has so much influence, that when America sneezes, the rest of the world has to reach for a handkerchief.” Zafer, who was observing Ramadan, was getting cranky, I suspected, because he had had no food or water since sunrise. Nurhan, not wanting her American guest to feel uncomfortable, had broken her fast and simply smiled at me over her tea cup. No, Zafer was quite serious.
It wasn’t the question that floored me. “How many U. S. States are on the five-dollar bill?” is something that could win a drink bet in a bar. The answer, by the way, is 27. It was the realization that everywhere I had traveled in this region that was once called Asia Minor, all eyes were on my home country. Nearly every conversation eventually turned to U.S. foreign policy or U.S. economic policy. What did I think about U.S. policy toward the situation in Georgia, U.S. policy toward the Kurdish question or the Armenian genocide question, thoughts on the pipeline so vital to U.S. strategic interests, and, of course, the upcoming U.S. Presidential election? For an international business professor who cautions students traveling abroad to keep politics and religion out of their conversations, it was disconcerting to find that these are the very topics that my Turkish hosts most wanted to talk about.
Once referred to as “the sick man of Europe,” Turkey sees itself as a regional power with widening diplomatic influence on questions of global importance. In both print and broadcast media, it was clear that the governing Justice and Development party — the AKP — had chosen to pursue a path of engagement in foreign policy and economic questions. Almost everyone I spoke to stressed the centrality of Turkey to just about everything of importance to the United States and the world: The Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. Professor and Doctor Taner Berksoy, Dean of Business Administration at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, put it to me this way. “Turkey’s aim today is to reintegrate with its neighbors. We are no longer an isolated Cold War outpost, but a country with global strategic value.”
As I leaned forward for another sip of the Turkish tea that accompanies every get together, Zafer offered one more suggestion. America, he said, needs to acknowledge its tremendous influence, step up to its responsibilities as a world leader, and engage thoughtfully and openly with its strategic partners.