Long Anchored in the West, Turkey Looks East

Posted January 3, 2007

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Although only 4 percent of its territory lies in Europe, Turkey has long been anchored in the West. It is a major U.S. military ally and pivotal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It has been a full member of the Council of Europe since 1949 and an associate member of the European Union (EU) for over 40 years. But with full EU membership on hold, the Middle East the focus of global attention, and both China and India on the rise, Turkey has begun to turn to the East. Part of this reorientation is commercial and geopolitical. The deeper rationale involves Turkey’s changing national and religious identity.


During the Cold War, Turkey had a stable, fixed position. In those years, explains Suat Kiniklioglu, “Turkey was seen as a flank country, defending the southeast corner of the NATO alliance and its longest border with the Soviet Union.” Kiniklioglu, the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, was speaking at a Sasakawa Peace Foundation event in Washington, DC on March 29. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he continued, Turkey began to rethink its foreign policy assumptions.


Key to this rethinking has been Ahmet Davutoglu, a professor and principal foreign policy advisor to the moderate Islamist government formed in 2002 by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Davutoglu’s book Strategic Depth charted a foreign policy that looked backward in history to Turkey’s Ottoman past as well as eastward in geography toward realms that had once been part of the empire.


“He argued that Turkey could no longer have a one-dimensional foreign policy, that it had to reintegrate with the region,” explained Kiniklioglu. “Turkey’s foreign policy is simply diversifying. It’s not an either-or problem. It doesn’t mean that Turkey is sacrificing its relationship with Europe or the United States. Our geography has required us to engage and be part of those regions that we have neglected for decades.”


This turn to the East — involving strengthened relations with Russia, Iran, Central Asia, and Syria – has partly hinged on commerce.  Trade between Turkey and both Iran and Syria surged from 2005 to 2006, Kiniklioglu noted. On the strength of natural gas and oil imports, Russia has become Turkey’s second largest trade partner after Germany. At the people-to-people level, two million Russians visit Turkey as tourists every year.


Turkey has worked more closely with its Islamic allies, such as the Economic Cooperation Organization, which Turkey started in 1985 with Pakistan and Iran and which now includes Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. For the first time, the Organization of the Islamic Conference elected a Turkish secretary general. The Iraq War, which Turkey did not support militarily, raised its profile in the Arab world.


Turkey is certainly being pulled East, by Russian energy, Middle East turmoil, and Islamic sympathies. Unclear, however, is how much Turkey is being pushed in that direction by an uncomprehending or indifferent West.


While Turkey’s membership in the European Union, for example, has run up against Ankara’s reluctance to meet the requirements of EU accession, more irritating for Turkey have been European perceptions of its credentials. “It’s about identity,” Kiniklioglu explained. “Croats are not being asked whether they are Europeans. There’s no doubt that Turkey and the Ottoman empire have been part of European history. We feel very injured when [French politician Nicolas] Sarkozy says that Turks are not Europeans and have no place in Europe. This is very different from completing the environmental chapter.”


The other complication with the West is the United States. In 2003, the Turkish parliament voted against the U.S. request to use military bases in Turkey to open a second front in the war against Iraq. “A lot of us were very surprised at the vote,” recalled Pinar Bilgin, a professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara. “Many of us didn’t want Turkish bases to be used but we more or less took it for granted that it was going to happen.”


“The Turkish establishment is still bitter and angry that the advice given in 2002-3 wasn’t listened to by American colleagues,” said Kiniklioglu. “But there is a growing recognition that we need to look forward to how to stabilize that part of the world.  Turkey is opposed to the speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This view is colored by the ethnic component of the Kurds in northern Iraq. Turkey doesn’t want an independent Kurdistan and believes that speedy withdrawal would create chaos in the region for decades to come.”


Ian Lesser, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, viewed Turkish involvement in Iraq as much greater than conventionally portrayed. “Many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment were disappointed with Turkey for not opening up a second front,” he said. “Turkey hasn’t talked about it much but despite the disagreements, 70 percent of all material to Iraq goes through Turkey, including much of the aid for reconstruction. Turkey is more engaged in this than even a lot of Turks realize.”  Moreover, Lesser argued, any U.S. military disengagement from Iraq will require the active cooperation of Turkey.


History promises to repeat itself over a looming disagreement over Iran policy. “Turkey is increasingly concerned about Iran, its nuclear program and ballistic missiles,” Kiniklioglu argued. “But Turkey doesn’t prefer military operations. It has a lot of economic stakes in Iran so doesn’t even want to see further sanctions.” Also, according to a 2006 Transatlantic Trends survey, Turks feel twice as warmly toward Iran as they do toward the United States.


A third push factor is the economic stabilization that Turkey implemented, on recommendations of the International Monetary Fund, after its 2000-1 financial crisis. “No country under strict IMF regulations has very good reactions to the West,” commented Pinar Bilgin.


The search for alternatives – to EU integration, U.S. militarism, or IMF-style economic reform – has led some in the Turkish elite to believe in ex oriente lux, the light coming from the East.  “We still have a component among the elite who views the EU and the United States suspiciously and is in search of alternatives,” Kiniklioglu said in reference to the appeal of China. “Sometimes I read astounding pieces and op-eds that put China in a romanticized position that doesn’t correspond to the conventional view of the country.”


But the Far East remains a distant point on the horizon compared to Turkey’s more immediate neighbors, particularly the Middle East. Ankara deployed 1,000 troops as part of the UN peacekeeping force in the aftermath of the 2006 war in Lebanon – to emphasize its links to the Middle East. More controversially, the Turkish government invited Khalid Mishal, a leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, to Ankara in early 2006.


The renewed ties with the Arab world have coincided with the AKP’s own moderate Islamic revival within Turkey. The AKP’s reorientation “not only indicated a desire to remedy some of the excesses of the secular system but also signaled that a younger, more provincial, more devout elite was coming into government, media and business,” Kiniklioglu pointed out. “The older English-speaking, polished elite is on its way out.”


It is this newly emerging cadre that is pulled East. “Those who are more devout, more in tune with the East and with the Ottoman past, tend to have fewer networks in Washington and the European capitals,” Kiniklioglu continued.  “They are more inward-looking, more paranoid, more infuriated by the EU rejection. Our American and English colleagues have to brace themselves to deal with different people.”


Pinar Bilgin disagreed. The members of the new elite, she said, are not so inward looking.  They, too, speak English. “They are trying to introduce things in Turkey that they picked up in the United States.  Many have degrees from U.S. universities.  When they look abroad, however, they see other things.”


Whatever their sympathies, this new elite is drawn by dollars, faith, and national interest to cover its bets – or simply gain more leverage with the West – by solidifying its non-Western friendships. Still, a full-scale shift eastward does not appear in the offing. Neither Europe nor the United States, the panelists agreed, need ask itself “Who Lost Turkey?”


“Despite the fact that Turks originated in Mongolia, our instinctual direction is still toward the West,” Kiniklioglu said. “The nation-building attempt, crowned by full membership in the EU, would confirm finally the republican vision of Ataturk,” modern Turkey’s founder.


“No one is losing Turkey,” he concluded. “It’s just that a different Turkey is emerging, no longer the flank country of the Cold War years. It is becoming an independent actor.”

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