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January 13, 2014
Summary: Turkey’s burgeoning corruption scandal and the deepening political and legal crises facing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government seem strong evidence of something new on the Turkish scene. There is now a real risk that internal factors will jeopardize Turkey’s prosperity and security, just as the country faces formidable challenges on its borders. As Turkey seeks a new social and political equilibrium, there are some strategic choices to be made in foreign and security policy. Overall, Turkey, the United States, and Europe will need a new narrative to define their cooperation in the face of deepening Middle Eastern chaos, with no end in sight. This analysis suggests a few steps that can be taken to contain the damage to Turkey’s relations with transatlantic partners, and improve the prospects for crisis management on Turkey’s borders.
Turkey Inside-Out: Old Realities, New Risks, and Strategic Implications
by Ian O. Lesser
Introduction On the face of it, Turkey’s burgeoning corruption scandal and the deepening political and legal crises facing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government seem strong evidence of something new on the Turkish scene. It is certainly true that, after over a decade in power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party now face an unprecedented wave of criticism. AKP’s hold on power is now openly questioned in a way that would have been unthinkable just a short while ago. There is now a real risk that internal factors will jeopardize Turkey’s prosperity and security, just as the country faces formidable challenges on its borders. Turkey’s transatlantic partners are likely to have little leverage over the evolution of Turkish politics, and that is appropriate. But as Turkey seeks a new social and political equilibrium, there are some strategic choices to be made in foreign and security policy. Overall, Turkey, the United States, and Europe will need a new narrative to define their cooperation in the face of deepening Middle Eastern chaos, with no end in sight.
Domestic Drivers to the Fore In the past, developments of the kind now unfolding inside Turkey might well have led to a military intervention in politics, if not an outright coup. This is no longer conceivable. By this measure alone, the current political crisis is evidence of fundamental change. In another sense, the news out of Turkey has encouraged a return to a very traditional way of understanding the country and its international role. For Turks and international observers alike, the Turkey debate has long been characterized by the tension between internal and external drivers, or the primacy of domestic versus international issues in shaping the Turkish scene — as a shorthand, Turkey “inside-out” versus Turkey “outsidein.” Since Ottoman times, this tension has been central to the way foreigners perceive Turkey. Over the last decade, Turkey’s extraordinary regional activism and growing international presence have been driven in large measure by internal factors — a stable majority government, social change, and economic dynamism. This post2001 Turkish engagement benefited from a generally permissive regional
Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara Bucharest • Warsaw • Tunis
environment, and the globalization of international finance bringing large-scale flows to Turkey. The last few years have seen a sharp reversal of these permissive conditions. Global capital flows have contracted, and look set to contract further, and the security order in Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighborhood has collapsed with little prospect of a return to stability any time soon. The “pull” of positive external conditions has waned, and once again, internal political and economic troubles are at the forefront in shaping the Turkish scene, Turkish policy, and external perceptions of Turkey. Of course, Ankara is not alone in its exposure to these conditions, including mounting problems of governance and transparency. For a range of reasons, many of Turkey’s partners on both sides of the Atlantic are experiencing an inward-looking moment of their own, a reality that further complicates Turkey’s management of pressing security problems in Syria and elsewhere. No One’s Turkey? Charles Kupchan’s 2012 book on the emerging global order envisioned the rise of “no one’s world” as multiple actors and influences coexist alongside each other in the international system.1 This description could just as easily be applied to the contemporary Turkish scene. Turkish society and politics are often described as polarized, and it is common to hear from Turkish friends that “Turkey has never been more polarized.” This is a long-standing refrain, but does not really capture the complexity of today’s Turkey, which is more accurately described as increasingly multipolar. Secular elites have not been driven from the field, in politics, business, or civil society, even if they are no longer in the ascendancy. At the same time, the current crisis points to fragmentation in more observant circles, as evident in the open conflict between the Gulen or hizmet movement and the AKP leadership. Within the AKP itself, political divisions are increasingly apparent, and could become more pronounced as the country moves toward municipal, presidential, and parliamentary elections. So too, Turkey’s Kurds are hardly a monolithic bloc. Multiple, parallel elites exist in various sectors: in education, state institutions, banking, industry, and civil society. This is not necessarily an unstable situation, but it is easily disturbed by corruption-driven crises that underscore the shifting division of economic and other benefits after more than a decade of AKP governance. Long stays in power seem to breed trouble of this kind. Examples abound, including the experience of the Christian Democrats in Italy, the LDP in Japan, and the PRI in Mexico. We should not forget that the unfinished revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have been spurred, in virtually every case, by grievances related to corruption and economic exclusion. States Under Siege Just as Turkey’s current crisis centers on a struggle for control of key state institutions, notably the police, the judiciary, and the security services, there are also signs that Turkey’s traditionally strong state is fraying at the edges. The Gezi park protests illustrated very clearly the extent of grievances against the Turkish state, often cutting across class, generational, and ideological lines. If Turkey’s EU project is to progress at all, it will require sweeping modernization of Turkish thinking about the role of the state and national sovereignty. This basic challenge has been part of the Turkish debate for years, but the evolution toward a post-modern state has been very slow. Ironically, rising political forces in some of Turkey’s European neighbors now
We should not forget that the unfinished revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have been spurred, in virtually every case, by grievances related to corruption and economic exclusion.
1 See Charles Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Council on Foreign Relations/Oxford University Press, 2012).
favor a retreat to ideas about sovereignty and the state that would be familiar to many Turks. In its neighborhood, Turkey faces a very different kind of challenge to the role and power of the state. Across the Middle East, states are literally under siege. Their declining ability to impose order, and even to control their own territory, may eventually yield more open and stable regimes. But that day appears far off, and in the case of Syria, in particular, there is every prospect of protracted chaos and fragmentation. The proliferation of jihadist insurgents and well-armed proxies is rapidly making Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighborhood a zone of chaos. Turkey will be increasingly exposed to spillovers from conflict and refugee flows across its borders. This environment is hardly conducive to Turkey’s preferred vocation as a geopolitical bridge. With the possible exception of northern Iraq, it also augurs for the collapse of Turkey’s active policy of regional engagement, a policy wellsuited to conditions prevailing for much of the last decade, but now facing enormous obstacles. In strategic terms, and especially from the perspective of Ankara’s U.S. and European partners, Turkey is likely to be cast, once again, in the role of a “barrier” to instability and transnational threats emanating from the Levant and the Gulf. But this time, the risks are largely from non-state actors, and they are not theoretical. Strategic Implications Against the backdrop of Turkey’s internal crisis, there is a great deal of external maintenance to be done, especially with regard to NATO allies and with international investors. In practical terms, Turkey’s tentative decision to opt for Chinese surface-to-air missiles in preference to U.S. and European bids, has raised political hackles across the alliance and works against the evident need for more closely integrated air and missile defense in the Eastern Mediterranean. In more atmospheric terms, repeated references by Prime Minister Erdoğan and others in his government to international conspiracies, hidden hands, interest rate lobbies, and other murky forces allegedly stoking Turkey’s internal and external travails, has produced dismay on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, Turkey is being taken less
In strategic terms, and especially from the perspective of Ankara’s U.S. and European partners, Turkey is likely to be cast, once again, in the role of a “barrier” to instability and transnational threats emanating from the Levant and the Gulf.
seriously as a partner, at the precise moment when closer cooperation is an imperative for all sides. Apart from an obvious need for more measured rhetoric, this analysis suggests a few steps that can be taken to contain the damage to Turkey’s relations with transatlantic partners, and improve the prospects for crisis management on Turkey’s borders. First, the so-called reset in Turkish policy — the strategy of “zero problems” revisited — should be aimed, above all, at Turkey’s Western neighborhood. The preservation and extension of détente with Aegean and Balkans neighbors is a strategic imperative, even as the situation to the south and east continues to deteriorate. Ideally, this should include new efforts on the Cyprus dispute. Second, on Syria, and potentially with Iraq, Ankara should look to a strategy of containment rather than intervention. The mounting chaos across the border, and the growing role of proxies, will make it hard for any deliberate policy of regime change to succeed, and Ankara will have increasing difficulty in convincing its Western partners to adopt a more assertive posture. Instead, Turkey should focus on containing the growing risk of cross-border violence and criminality, recognizing that the chaos in Syria could well become a semi-permanent state of affairs.
Third, Turkey and its transatlantic partners need a new narrative to animate their security cooperation, one that underscores Turkey’s central role in the management — and certainly the containment — of long-term instability in the Levant, alongside opportunities for greater integration in the eastern Mediterranean (cooperation on energy and border security should top the list). Turkey’s domestic distractions will make this more difficult, and Europe and the United States should also be under no illusions about their leverage on this front. The current political crisis is one for Turks to resolve. The sooner Turkey emerges from this new period of domestic flux, the sooner Turkey can set about fending off the serious dangers on its borders.
About the Author
Ian Lesser is Executive Director of the Transatlantic Center, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where he also directs foreign and security policy programs across GMF. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the views of GMF, its staff or directors.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) strengthens transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, non-profit organization through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has offices in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, Warsaw, and Tunis. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database. gmfus.org/reaction.
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