June 14, 2012

Summary: Will Turkey, a historic member of the West that has recently been included in the “Rest,” still make its European anchor a priority over regional issues. Turkey’s strategic location is a fundamental reason for why the country is seen as a part of “the Rest” as well as the “West.” Yet the paradoxes in this Muslim-majority capitalist secular democracy are precisely why Turkey is critical for understanding the concept of a “new” West that can go beyond its geographic and historical borders.

Stuck between the “Rest” and the “West:” Turkey at the Crossroads
by Joshua W. Walker

GMF’s 6th annual Trilateral Study Group (TSG) dealt with a question dominating many policymakers’ minds but rarely actually spoken for fear of the answers, “Can the West cope?” The euro zone crisis threatens the very concept of the “West.” In turn, this crisis reinforces the ideas of the “Fall of the West” and the “Rise of the Rest.” Perhaps as a harbinger of challenges to come, many of the questions raised among TSG participants centered on whether Turkey, a historic member of the West that has recently been included in the “Rest,” would still make its European anchor a priority over regional issues. Turkey’s strategic location is a fundamental reason for why the country is seen as a part of “the Rest” as well as the “West.” Yet the paradoxes in this Muslimmajority capitalist secular democracy are precisely why Turkey is critical for understanding the concept of a “new” West that can go beyond its geographic and historical borders. Crisis of Western Leadership

tional assertive global leadership role in crises from Libya to Syria has only exacerbated doubts about the future of the West. At precisely the moment in which Western leadership is being questioned, Turkey’s new-found swagger and emergence as a global actor has been both decried as arrogant and welcomed as a sign of a more engaged partner that could determine the future direction of Europe as a global or parochial power. As the United States discusses its “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia, and Europe continues to be consumed by its own existential crisis, Turkey is weighing its traditional bias towards Europe. Rather than being geographically defined by the traditional borders of Europe, the idea of a broader West that includes “like-minded” democracies sharing a certain set of values and interests has replaced the Cold War logic. In turn, rather than discussing whether the European Union should deepen or widen, many are now asking how Brussels can adapt to the new realities. Led by Britain’s skepticism of Europe and turn away from Brussels, Ankara’s questions about loss of sovereignty and security concerns in its own neighborhood no longer look

OffiCes Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara Bucharest • Warsaw

Questions about Western leadership have increased in the wake of the global financial crises. Reluctance of the United States to assume its tradi-

exceptional. The reality of an era of austerity has breathed new life into NATO as the only comprehensive European security architecture and the need for more rather than less engagement with Ankara. While Brussels stopped looking at Ankara in terms of alignment or drift on specific foreign policy issues long ago, focusing on the democratic principles and values still does not come easily for Europeans or Turks. The evolution of Turkish foreign policy beyond the lofty principles of “zero problems with neighbors” now must also be juxtaposed against the ongoing euro crisis and the effect this has on Turkish perceptions of its long-desired EU membership. Turkey to the Rescue? No longer confined to being simply a U.S. geo-strategic “barrier,” “bridge,” or “bulwark,” Turkey represents an exemplary model of a Muslim-majority, secular, and democratic nation in a dynamic geopolitical neighborhood. The nation’s broadened awareness and appreciation for the positive role that it can play in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia, and beyond has caused Turkish leaders to promote the country’s potential as a versatile and increasingly powerful international actor. This new-found activism and confidence in Turkey’s own regional policies has had a direct impact on Turkey’s relationship with its traditional allies in the West and has significant implications for policymakers. At the same time, Turkey’s European vocation has never been more necessary for its own domestic developments and reforms. As a key ally of the United States, a long-standing member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and a candidate for membership in the EU, Turkey has strong ties to the West and to the East in a volatile, yet strategic region of the world. But only in the last decade of the post-Cold War environment has Turkey assumed the confidence and trappings of a geopolitically pivotal player. At no time since their days at the helm of the Ottoman Empire have the Turks been as actively involved as they are in the Middle East today. And the Middle East seems receptive to Turkish activism in the region. Many in Turkey still remember 1996 when then-Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was dressed down by Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi for Turkey’s Kurdish policies. Fifteen years later another Turkish leader, a student of Erbakan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, eventually helped bring down Gaddafi and arrived in Libya to a hero’s welcome as the most popular leader in the Arab World.1 Allowing for a more global than parochial Turkey is in the West’s long-term interests, but the short-term divergences over significant foreign policy challenges such as Iran and Russia must be considered. There are a host of possible areas for cooperation in the Middle East. Ankara’s emphasis on the importance of economic interdependency in the globalizing world and the need to build strong linkages with all regional states regardless of former Cold War mentalities or hostile Western policies can be a guiding principle if taken as complimentary and not competitive with the West. Ankara’s new foreign policy envisions a Turkey that would transform itself into a global actor rather than a regional or junior partner to the West, taking on more responsibility in the international and regional efforts necessary to stabilize Egypt, Libya, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia, to name only the most recent cases. Seeking Europe at Home Rather than Abroad Having spent the last decade strengthening regional ties and promoting itself as an inspiration for the Middle East, Turkey’s credibility has been placed on the line by the situation in Syria. Ankara’s foreign policy of working with all actors had largely been reactive since the beginning of the Arab protests, leading some people to scoff that the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy had become “zero neighbors without problems.” Yet the AKP declared that Turkey’s place in history should be on the side of the people of the region. Turkey’s recent conversion to a champion of democracy is still as fragile as is its own democratization process. The “Turkish model” is still very much in the making as are plans to reform the Turkish Constitution and progress in media freedom, gender equality, protection of minorities, and more broadly the rule of law. The fact that the EU accession process is on life-support has had a direct impact on both the pace of these reforms and the consolidation of the reforms initiated by the AKP in its first terms in office.

1 See TESEV polling in “Turkey: Arab Perspectives” TESEV Foreign Policy Analysis Series 11 2009.


The “new” Turkey of the 21st century has far more tools at its disposal to push its agenda as a leading regional power than any previous generation. The tremendous success of Turkey’s private sector has opened a world of possibility not known there before. The spread of Turkish businesses, construction, hospitals, hotels, and schools throughout the region is part of its regional leverage. Having sought the role of regional mediator over the last decade, Turkey’s litmus test of leadership comes in its own neighborhood, beginning with how Ankara deals with authoritarian regimes like Syria’s Bashar Assad, which still enjoys support from Beijing, Moscow, and most critically Tehran. Ankara is not alone, however, since the West shares almost all of Turkey’s long-term strategic interests when it comes to its immediate neighborhood. The real focus for the West with Turkey will therefore need to be on domestic developments more than foreign policy convergence. Whether Turkey will develop into a more liberal type of democracy is more important to the future of its foreign policy and the cooperation with the West than speeches and initiatives on the regional and world stage. Conclusion Turkey’s emergence in the 21st century as a global power has been in the making for many years, but most significantly the last decade. Balancing Ankara’s historically close relationships with the West both in its “strategic alliance” in Washington and its ongoing process with Brussels amidst the realities of its neighborhood is no simple task. Key to this is managing the interdependency between a democratizing and often polarized domestic political scene and the ambitious foreign policy vision in Ankara. The question of whether Europe needs Turkey or vice-versa is moot given the reality of interdependence. While some have argued for a “broader Europe” that includes Russia and Turkey, it would be a mistake to include an authoritarian Moscow that continues to dream of its old empire and not hold Ankara to the standards by which it has always wanted to be judged, mainly the Copenhagen Criteria. The way in which the “new” West evolves and the extent to which Ankara can be integrated will be crucial for the future of both the West and the “Rest,” particularly given the domestic implications of a more nationalist and populist Turkey that could increasingly look to the Russian model of strong centralized czar rather than the more defuse decentralized leadership structure of Europe. Turkey has the economic and political potential to be either a trans-regional actor that promotes peace, prosperity, and stability or an inward-focused state, whose domestic turbulence inflames problems abroad. Therefore, understanding Turkey on its own terms and assessing its potential global and regional impact as it determines its own future is of critical importance to answering the question of whether the West can cope with geopolitical shifts.

About the Author
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

About GMF
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. or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.


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