Saturday, June 22, 2013

Understanding Turkey from Turkish Viewpoints

Currently, Turkey is in the midst of a bitter backlash against Islamist foreign and domestic policies of the Erdoğan administration. It is a front line of the NATO operation against Assad’s Syria. More importantly, Turkey is a strategic linchpin in the trans Atlantic region, the Middle East, and Eurasia. Therefore, it is vital for American, European, and Japanese policymakers to understand Turkey’s position in the world and at home.

I would like to mention some articles in “The New Turkey” to explore Turkish foreign policy and current turmoil. The New Turkey is based in Ankara, and promotes Turkish perspectives on world affairs in English throughout the world. We are liable to see Turkey from foreign, particularly American and European standpoints. However, it is necessary to understand Turkey’s unique position between Islam and the West from Turkish viewpoints. The New Turkey presents Turkish perspectives on Turkey’s foreign policy, Middle East issues in general, and Central Asian and global security. Also, foreign opinion leaders such as Professor Jefrrey Sachs of Columbia University contribute articles to this journal (“Why Turkey is thriving?”; New Turkey; May 30, 2013).

To begin with, let me talk about Turkey’s position in the world of this century. Professor Talip Küçükcan of Marmara University in Istanbul and Müjge Küçükkeleş, Research Assistant at a Turkish think tank called the Foundation for the Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA), present basic outline of Turkey’s foreign policy since the Kemal Revolution and Islamist diplomacy under the Erdoğan administration (“Understanding Turkish Foreign Policy”; New Turkey; May 17, 2013). Written before the Istanbul clash, this article says Turkey will implement more assertive foreign policy. Is this one of the reasons for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist foreign policy?

For this purpose, we need to understand the outline of Turkish diplomatic history after Kemal Atatürk. During the interwar and World War II period after the revolution in 1923, Turkey retained neutral position. After the war, Turkey associated itself with the West under the Truman Doctrine. This is partly due to Kemalist Westernization in its nation building, in addition to Cold War geopolitics. At the first Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955, Turkey defended the West. Moreover, Turkey even supported the Anglo-French invasion in the Suez War, and other Western intervention in the Middle East. As a result, Turkey’s Middle East neighbors regarded this country as a Trojan horse of the West. However, Turkey’s Western alignment foreign policy was weakened in 1960 because the United States criticized Turkey’s intervention in ethnic conflicts in Cyprus and détente eased relations with the Soviet Union. The pendulum moved westward again in 1980, in view of the threat of Islamism by the Iranian revolution, and instability by the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and the Iran Iraq War.

When the Cold War ended, then-President Turgut Özal initiated a new look of Turkish foreign policy to explore more assertive and multi dimensional diplomacies than those of the past. The Gulf War augmented the strategic importance of Turkey in the Middle East. Also, the collapse of the Soviet Union has raised awareness of historical ties among Turkey, Caucasus, and Central Asian nations. Özal launched a vision of “from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China”, but post modern and civilian Europe is critically alert to the rise of authoritarian Turkey. Meanwhile, Islamists and Kurdish opposed mainstream Kemalists’ orientation to the West. Due to post Cold War self-assertism and AKP (Justice and Development Party) victory in 2002, Turkey reconsiders its identity in Europe, and defines itself as a linchpin of the Afro-Eurasian sphere. On the other hand, AKP has transformed into a liberal and market oriented party to live with the European Union. Küçükcan and Küçükkeleş argue that Europeans are too obsessed with Islamist aspects of AKP. At least, that is a Turkish viewpoint.

The Afro-Eurasian diplomacy concept was created by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu when he was the chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Erdoğan. A typical attitude of this concept is shown that Turkey signed to become a partner to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) while staying as a member of NATO. Galip Dalay, PhD candidate at the Middle East Technical University, discusses this vital and compelling issue (Turkey between Shanghai and Brussels”; New Turkey; May 14, 2013). It is generally believed that Turkey’s bid for SCO partnership is a compensation for the continual reluctance of the EU to accept Turkey’s long cherished desire for the membership. Turkey’s AKP administration stresses that SCO entry does not contradict with human rights and the rule of law standards of the Copenhagen Criteria for EU membership. On the other hand, Dalay admits that Turkey’s association with the EU helps democratization.

The focal point is, whether EU membership is still more attractive than other regional cooperation in Turkish foreign policy. Since the bid for EU membership has been rejected for many years, Turkey explores alternative systems to strengthen its global presence. However, the United States regards Turkey’s partnership with the SCO is incompatible with its NATO membership. Delay talks about an interesting comparison between Turkey and Britain regarding this issue. Even if Britain withdraws from the EU, its membership in NATO shall never be questioned. Erdoğan’s SCO bid can worsen Turkey’s relations with the EU, and ultimately, risks its position in NATO. Instead, Dalay suggests that Turkey explore realistic processes which do not rule out full EU membership in the future.

Turkey’s quest for increasing Afro-Eurasian presence and bolstering multidimensional foreign policy are accompanied by AKP’s Islamism in domestic politics. These factors lead to assertive diplomacy and Istanbul’s Olympic bid. However, the Erdoğan’s AKP administration faces domestic turmoil at present. What caused uprisings, and how will those have effects on foreign policy? Despite vehement criticism to the government on the street, Turkish analysts say AKP wins more solid popular support than widely thought among Western media and commentators. Let me mention some commentaries from Turkish viewpoints.

Despite civic protests, AKP won almost 50% of the vote in the last general election in 2011. Taha Özhan, Director General of SETA, comments that AKP tackles critical problems which oppositions are reluctant to do, such as changing the current constitution ratified undermilitary rule in 1982 and  initiating peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He points out that “fear, feeling confined and repressed” does not explain civic protests, and more attention needs to be paid to socio-political transformation in Turkey (“The meaning of the protests”; NewTurkey; June 7, 2013). Quite interestingly, Hamza Taşdelen argues that AKP captures the heart of opposition electoral bases. While the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) rejects constitutional change, their grassroots supporters of nationalist conservatives in Central Anatolia approve of it. Also, AKP penetrates into supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) by adopting social democratic approaches to tackle socioeconomic inequality  (“Being the opposition while in power”;New Turkey; May 28, 2013). Though wealthy Turkish do not vote for AKP, they say “Let Erdoğan win the elections because he is good for the economy, but let him not make any other political decisions.” Taha Özhan comments that secular oppositions cannot attract voters in such a political landscape (“What really happened in Turkey?”; New Turkey; June 7, 2013).

Of course, we must keep it in mind that the above scholars are excessively generous to AKP. Their analysis may have some points that we need to listen, but remember that the Erdoğan administration is critically challenged by popular discontent. There is no denying of it. Prime Minister Erdoğan has not stabilized Turkey secure enough for the Olympics. On the other hand, industrialized democracies should not be obsessed with the fear of Islam itself. Europe is extremely alert to Turkey’s Islamic socio-political culture, and that has pushed this country to find the position in alternative groups such as the Russo-Chinese led SCO rather than in Western democracies. Turkish experts make it clear that the public is disillusioned with the West, secular political parties, and also, military establishment who boast themselves the guardian of the current constitution. The United States fails to bridge the gap between Europe and Turkey.

On the other hand, Japan is too naïve to “pro Japanese” Turkey. But has Japan done anything for this country? Most of the Japanese are so uninterested in Turkey, and so ignorant of this country. Few of Japanese opinion leaders are in a position to criticize Governor Naoki Inose for his improper remark in the Olympic bid to stress Tokyo’s advantage over Istanbul. The Turkish public may have a favorable impression to Japan, but when their country faces a real crisis, there is no doubt that Turkish people ask help to America and Europe, rather than Japan, as seen in the Syrian crisis. Japanese policymakers should bear it in mind, and reconsider foreign policy approaches to this country.


There is nothing wrong to endorse secular democracy itself, in view of the quest for freedom in neighboring Arab nations. The global community needs to understand the nature of ongoing political transition in Turkey. Currently, Brazil faces a similar sort of unprecedented burst of civic energy over the Rio de Janeiro World Cup Soccer.  Are there something common in emerging powers? Unlike Turkish experts, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese are in no position of hailing AKP, but it is necessary to examine Turkish viewpoints carefullyWe cannot dismiss that oppositions are not sufficiently attractive to win a nationwide support among the public. The New Turkey will give some clues to foresee Turkish political transition.