Walter Russell Mead has written an essay on Erdogan’s “big idea,” which forces him into a strained comparison with the Megali Idea. He then writes:
This is not about conquest or the restoration of an actual empire — the Turks are subtler than were the Greeks.
So the “big idea” that Turkey has doesn’t really resemble the Megali Idea at all. The latter is often described as the goal of restoring the Byzantine empire, and Mead describes it this way, but it is better understood as the modern nationalist appropriation of a medieval precedent to justify irredentist policies. These policies were first and foremost concerned with the acquisition of territory and the integration of Greek-speaking and Orthodox communities into the Greek nation-state. This is not a question of whether “Turks are subtler” or not. Modern Turkey is doing something fundamentally different from what Venizelos was trying to do. Unlike Venizelos, Erdogan is doing this mostly against the wishes of major Western powers.
One of the many things that distinguished Atatürk from Enver Pasha was his rejection of wasteful, exhausting campaigns fought in the name of pan-Turkish nationalism. In that way, he was the opposite of Venizelos. If Erdogan is not interested in “conquest or the restoration of an actual empire,” and he isn’t, that puts him squarely in Atatürk’s tradition of Anatolian Turkish nationalism. The opposition between Erdogan’s “eastern” orientation and Atatürk’s “western” one is misleading in some important respects. Especially in the early days of the republic, Atatürk may have been a Westernizer at home, but he was more inclined to have good relations with Turkey’s eastern and northern neighbors than he was with the Western powers that had just tried to dismember Turkey. The pro-Western geopolitical orientation of Turkey that so many associate with Atatürk was the product of the Cold War, and it came into existence over a decade after Atatürk’s death. The reality is that Erdogan’s Turkey is still far more oriented towards the West, and vastly more economically integrated into Europe, than it ever was under Atatürk. Turkey is trying to wield greater influence in its immediate neighborhood as regional powers do.
Mead envisions a future rivalry between Turkey and Iran. Certainly, there is sharp disagreement between the two over the Syrian crackdown right now, and that could lead to an unraveling of the relationship the two have been building, but Turkey has many economic and political incentives to avoid “taking on” Iran. “Taking on” Iran is something that anti-AKP Westerners want Turkey to do. It does not appear to be something that the AKP or most Turks want to do.