This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
October 10, 2011
Summary: Turkey is a newly self-confident international actor that not only demanded global attention, but aimed to set forth a global agenda focused on the wide region, stretching from the Balkans to North Africa, where Turkey represents the new center of gravity. This dramatic arrival on the international stage has already caused waves as the perennial questions about Turkey’s “axis shift” and “Where is Turkey going?” debates are being renewed in Western capitals. But debates about Turkey’s “otherness” and “drift” rarely start with an honest admission of the West’s own inconsistencies and a recognition of its internal heterogeneity. While paying much greater attention to progress in Turkey, Western leaders should stop looking at Turkish foreign policy merely in terms of alignment or drift from an abstract standard that many Western countries themselves often do not meet.
Turkey’s Emergence as a Middle Eastern Stakeholder and What this Means for the West
by Joshua W. Walker and Emiliano Alessandri
The emergence of rising powers rarely was as crystallized as at the United Nations General Assembly this year. After a tumultuous Arab Spring, Turkey’s emergence as a serious Middle Eastern power player in the face of Western weakness was in full display. Coming on the heels of his tour of the Arab Spring capitals in Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was received enthusiastically by every world leader (except the Israeli prime minister), and used the UN platform to effectively position Turkey at the center of the world debate. The agenda, focus, and tone of Erdoğan’s speech and his numerous side talks and meetings with world leaders were telling. Gone was the humble and soft-spoken Turkey of just a few years ago. In its place was a self-confident international actor who not only demanded global attention (as happened last year), but aimed to set forth a global agenda focused on the wide region, stretching from the Balkans to North Africa, where Turkey represents the new center of gravity. Erdoğan emphasized both his strong support for the recognition of a Palestinian state and his condemnation of Israeli behavior in the ongoing bilateral dispute with his country. He also surprised attendants (and won over many African leaders) by drawing attention to Somalia’s food and humanitarian crises, where he has shown the strongest leadership in championing a moral issue that no other Western country has embraced. As the only world leader in the 21st century to land in Mogadishu and representing only the third country after Ethiopia and Djibouti to reopen its embassy there, Erdoğan flaunted Turkey’s diplomatic muscles. He chastised the developed nations of the world for “forgetting” about Somalia and the suffering throughout the Horn of Africa. At the same time, he tied it to a broader theme of international change that puts Turkey at the center, a Turkey that is a moral force and a model, as well as a new powerhouse — a sort of Mother Teresa with boots. Uneasiness in Western Capitals Turkey’s dramatic arrival and Erdoğan’s performance on the international stage has already caused waves as the perennial questions about Turkey’s “axis shift” and “Where is
Offices Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris • Brussels BelgraDe • ankara • BuCharest • WarsaW
Turkey going?” debates are being renewed in Western capitals. Western observers are accustomed to assessing Turkey’s behavior through the prism of convergence with or divergence from EU and U.S. policies and preferences without a critical assessment of Turkey’s own agenda. More seriously, debates about Turkey’s “otherness” and “drift” rarely start with an honest admission of the West’s own inconsistencies and a recognition of its internal heterogeneity. Turkey’s recent stance on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel immediately cast it as anti-Western, or at least less Western, in Washington and some European capitals. Germany’s abstention on UNSC Resolution 1973 to prevent mass killing in Benghazi; France’s initial support of Ben Ali’s security forces’ repression of the very first awakening of the Arab Spring in Tunis, and the United States’ continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia despite the latter’s counter-revolutionary agenda in the region — to take but a few recent examples — do not lead to similar conjectures about the Western orientation of these countries or their leaders. The truth is that Western countries have all been faced with huge challenges, difficult tradeoffs, and dilemmas in the context of the Arab Spring. As the international order and regional balance of the Middle East promoted by the West over several decades has collapsed, these powers have displayed a great deal of improvisation, inconsistency, and expediency in their foreign policies. Nobody is fully innocent from the charge of hypocrisy. What distinguished Turkey from others before the Arab Spring was not its support of autocracies in the region. Authoritarian stability was the model, or at least the convenient working arrangement with local regimes, that all Western countries to one degree or another pursued. The real difference between
Turkey’s leaders have recently prioritized Muslim solidarity and kinship over democratic solidarity when developing ties with local actors.
Turkey and the United States (but much less between Turkey and European countries) was the views in Ankara and Washington on which of these regimes could be trusted or not; the degree of development of their societies or the democratic nature of their governments were not the paramount criteria. In fact, if one avoids simplistic dichotomies and looks at Turkish foreign policy as the international actions of a regional player that is predominantly Muslim and closer to the democratic than to the authoritarian model, things look more nuanced, and certainly also less worrying, than one could be led to believe. In a country where democratization (with all its persistent shortcomings) has been led by Islamic elites for a decade, Turkey’s leaders have recently prioritized Muslim solidarity and kinship over democratic solidarity when developing ties with local actors. This is a factor in Turkey’s escalating tensions with Israel over the latter’s violation of the rights of the Muslim communities in Gaza and the West Bank. The use of terror aimed at Israeli civilians (therefore not merely ascribable to asymmetric warfare between a self-determining people and an established state) by some Palestinian factions is denied, or at least never commented upon, by the present Turkish leadership. What matters to the Turks is the humanitarian emergency shown daily in the media about the Palestinian camps and the harsh Israeli responses that are often sensationalized — a part of, but not the whole story. Turkey’s Emerging Role As a regional power primarily focused on building stability and expanding its influence beyond its borders, and one that is interested in embracing democratic change only if
The truth is that Western countries have all been faced with huge challenges, difficult tradeoffs, and dilemmas in the context of the Arab Spring.
this serves these primary goals, Turkey has also selectively engaged with its neighbors while using double standards and talk. It has remained notably silent on the need for political change in Iran, an important economic partner and a neighbor of Turkey, although more critical voices are now being heard. The Turkish government outpaced Europeans and Americans in asking for Tunisians and Egyptians leaders to step down earlier this spring; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, in particular, was never liked in Ankara. But it has been slower than the rest of the Western countries to push for change in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar Assad’s Syria, where Turkish economic and political interests were deeper and more concentrated. For reasons of national interest and security, Turkey never talks about the presence of the Turkish army in northern Cyprus while it condemns Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Even more notably, Erdoğan embraced Abbas’ “Palestinian Spring” but would never accept the notion of a Kurdish Spring, although Kurds in Turkey’s southeast have reportedly carefully watched what other fellow Muslims have achieved in Tahrir and other Arab squares. And if Erdoğan embraces the humanitarian and moral issue in Somalia, where was he in his dealings with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is charged with genocide, for many years? Turkey’s recent conversion to a champion of democracy and human rights is still as fragile as is its democratization process. It is therefore perplexing that the same Western leaders that unforgivingly expose the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy are also those that talk about a “Turkish model” that Ankara should promote and Arab masses should embrace. The Turkish model is still very much in the making. Plans to reform the Turkish Constitution, which dates back to the 1980s when the country was under military rule, will be a test for the consolidation of this model. Likewise will be progress in media freedom, gender equality, protection of minorities, and more broadly the rule of law. When debating Turkey, therefore, Western countries should focus on domestic developments more than foreign policy. Whether Turkey will develop into a more liberal type of democracy, with a strong multiparty system and real alternation of power between different political parties, and with effective checks and balances, is more important to the future of its foreign policy and the cooperation with the West in the long run than Erdoğan’s
It is perplexing that the same Western leaders that unforgivingly expose the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy are also those that talk about a “Turkish model” that Ankara should promote and Arab masses should embrace.
speeches and stances at the UN, and its initiatives on the regional and world stage. For the transatlantic community, Turkey’s newfound swagger and Erdoğan’s victorious international performance can be used to make the country a more responsible stakeholder in regional stability and long-term democratization. Turkish policies and Erdoğan’s populism can still complement the EU and United States if framed within a broader and longer-term perspective of the transatlantic alliance, which shares common goals and values, over short-term tactical differences. At a moment in which Western leadership is being questioned and Middle Eastern tensions continue, the timing has never been more opportune to refocus on the core principles and values that have led to the emergence of Turkey’s newfound self-confidence, namely its own domestic developments. Proving, Not Just Postulating, a New “Western Standard” While paying much greater attention to progress in Turkey, Western leaders should stop looking at Turkish foreign policy merely in terms of alignment or drift from an abstract standard that many Western countries themselves often do not meet and that is seldom defined, or is only selectively applied. More critically, they should lead by
Turkish policies and Erdoğan’s populism can still complement the EU and United States if framed within a broader and longer-term perspective of the transatlantic alliance.
consistent example rather than just talking about Western principles. It helps that on the condemnation of Assad, the ousting of Gaddafi, and the support to the democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, the United States, EU countries, and Turkey are ultimately on the same side. It is a very positive development that the inconsistency of Western countries is being exposed as they now are forced by the Arab masses to move from rhetoric to deeds when it comes to democratic reform in the Middle East. Double-standards and contradictions, motivated by either economic or geopolitical interest, or by inertia and path-dependency, nonetheless remain in both the foreign policies of Turkey and other Western countries. These are the issues that should be honestly discussed with a view to overcoming them. The challenge for the West with Turkey is applying these democratic principles consistently in constructing a viable partnership that is consequential, flexible, and mutually beneficial. Rather than seeing Turkey’s growing role in the Middle East as a challenge that must be managed, it should be an opportunity to reinforce Turkey’s Western credentials, which will make it an interlocutor to all its neighbors.
About the Authors
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He is also a non-resident fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and a Visiting Scholar at George Mason University. He holds a Ph.D. in politics and public policy with a specialization on international relations and security studies from Princeton, a Master’s degree in international relations from Yale University, and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Richmond. Emiliano Alessandri is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund., where he develops GMF’s work on the Mediterranean, Turkish, and wider-Atlantic security issues. Dr. Alessandri is an associate fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) of Rome and serves on the board of the IAI-based The International Spectator. Dr. Alessandri was educated at the University of Bologna, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University, and Princeton University, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. 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 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 seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. 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.