European Affairs

On the world stage, Turkish government officials are acting both independently and with confidence, unconcerned about negative reactions in Washington, Brussels and other European capitals.  In addition to its self-confident behavior abroad, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved Turkey away from some of its historical policies. 

The Turkish government has felt strong enough at home to move against the military in the Ergenekon investigation and trials.  Senior military officers have been wiretapped, indicted in civilian courts, and tried for plotting against the civilian government.  All this without public backlash or serious concern about the traditional role of the Turkish military as protector of the state. 

The Prime Minister’s Justice and Development Party is unabashedly Islamist and has  chipped away at the emphatic secularism of the Turkish Constitution.  It has caused concern in more traditionalist circles for quietly challenging totems of Turkish secularism like headscarf bans.(The Prime Minister’s wife routinely covers her hair in public). 

We are looking at a new Turkey, one no longer content to define itself in terms the West would choose.  How should Turkey’s NATO allies understand that country’s tilt away from its Western-oriented reflexes, and what are its likely consequences?

That Turkey has finally stopped seeing itself as a country with a Western vocation should not be particularly surprising.  It is hard not to sympathize with Turkish exasperation at the West.  In recent years, its  progress toward democracy has complicated relationships with long-time allies, in particular the United States, which for too long relied on the Turkish military as the conduit for relations with Ankara on bilateral questions and within NATO.  The U.S.  was surprised that a nascent democratic government just installed in Ankara could or would not deliver parliamentary support for the use of Turkish territory by U.S. forces to invade Iraq in 2003. The consequences of the Iraq war have been a huge burden on Turkey’s economy and risk aggravating Kurdish separatism within Turkey, problems the U.S. has been little help in alleviating.

Signals from Europe have been even more discouraging.  After applying in 1987,  twenty three years ago,  for EU membership, Turkey watched the union eagerly pursue negotiations to “consolidate Europe” by bringing in former central and eastern and even former Soviet states, without bringing the same positive engagement to Turkey.  The EU accepted both Greece and Cyprus as members without caveats on their potential for vetoing Turkish accession.  Even when the EU ostensibly got serious about negotiations with Turkey in 2005, only one of 35 chapters in the process has been concluded, despite burgeoning positive change in Turkey. 

Turkey believes it has met the Copenhagen political criteria for membership.  Moreover, some of the Turkish policies criticized by Europeans as infringements on individual rights are now being adopted by EU countries themselves. (France’s planned ban on headscarves comes to mind.)  European politicians (and the French in particular) have slammed the door on Turkey’s accession to the EU, irrespective of what Brussels may say.  It is difficult to finesse President Sarkozy’s statement that he would not “tell French schoolchildren that the borders of Europe extend to Syria and Iraq” or Valery Giscard-d’Estaing’s phrase that Turkish accession “would be the end of the European Union.”


New development: Defence Secretary Gates blames EU for Turkey "drift" -- BBC, June 9

For more than a decade, the EU has expected Turkey to accept its pejorative verdict on accession without recourse.  Instead, the Turkish government has shrewdly used the means available to it in order to impose costs back on the EU.  The Turkish government retaliated by resolutely preventing NATO-EU cooperation. 

There have been two views within the EU on cooperation with NATO: the “protectionists”, like France, that want an EU security and defense “identity” completely separate from NATO; and the dual-hatters, to include Britain, that want to save costs, not alienate the U.S., and foster EU progress that builds on the base of NATO activity. 

Turkey has made that impossible.  It has a veto over NATO activity and has not hesitated to use it.  Sensible efforts to use NATO planning staffs, redesign command structures to branch off for EU missions, provide NATO military assets to EU operations (such as airlift and high-tech communications), hold discussions among ambassadors, even meetings between the NATO Secretary General and the EU security affairs Special Representatives -- these have all been blocked.

Ankara has by no means been the only impediment to NATO-EU cooperation.  France and the other such “protectionists” – including, many times, the U.S. – would have still tied the process in knots with ideological debates over shibboleths such as the “right of first refusal” (i.e. the highly theoretical question of who between NATO and the EU would get to pick which war it wanted to fight). These same European states also had a very ambitious agenda for the EU in security and defense, and it is likely that they could have gained more consensus for their more moderate European allies if the ambitious governments had opted for a less confrontational approach, involving reduced ideological purity, greater political comity with non-EU NATO members, and functional access to what the EU wanted credit for doing and which NATO already does. But, even if well-calculated views had materialized, any such internal EU deal-making has always been made irrelevant by Turkish obduracy.

The years of getting nowhere have taken their toll on both the EU and Turkey.  Turks themselves are now skeptical about whether they want to be European. Public support for joining the EU, which once ran as high as 70 per cent, is no longer a majority view. Turkish businesses, long a major force in propelling Turkey toward the EU,  now blanch at the potential costs: $120 billion is now the estimated cost of bringing Turkey into line just with EU environmental directives.

This reorientation in Turkey actually precedes the Iraq war and even the fraught negotiations with the EU.  More than a decade ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan advocated an Islamic Economic Union that would parallel the integration of the European Union – in other words, a move toward Turkey’s eastern neighborhood that would balance (and enhance) closer ties with Europe.

Part of this reorientation is that Turkey wants to be considered equal to the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries, i.e. perceived as a dynamic economy with increasing political clout in the international system.  Turkey would even have a special weight among the BRIC because of its particular appeal in the so-called Muslim world.

New development: "Turkey is rethinking its place in the world"  -- The Economist, June 10

This is a legitimate goal for Ankara.  It is a positive vision for the country, propelling it forward and offering a measure for “bench-marking” with comparable countries. During Turkish-Brazilian cooperation on the Iran negotiations, a Turkish newspaper highlighted that Brazil had “managed de-militarization and reached political stability after military coups and regimes” – a relevant comparison for Turks. 

An important component to Turkey’s claim to be a bridge between the West and Islamic countries is its presumed ability to deliver the West.  Ankara needs a Western bridgehead as something it brings to making an eastern connection.  This dimension is the context for understanding Erdogan’s resentment at Western rejection of the Iran deal.   It is instructive to note that he said "the countries criticizing this accord are envious because Brazil and Turkey brokered and pulled off a diplomatic success that other countries had been negotiating without results for many years."  The countries he has in mind would be the U.S. and some European allies, notably France and Britain.

The episode, including the attitudes in Ankara to international reactions about it, suggests Turkey both wants and believes it deserves to be taken seriously. 

Such a Turkey would not necessarily be inimical to American or European interests.  It would be less reliable as a vote in international institutions, more irritating in relations with long-standing Western allies. But it would be attempting to carry out what Foreign Minister Davutoglu has called  a “proactive and pre-emptive peace diplomacy.”  That is the Turkey we are already looking at. Most of us just have not adjusted our vision to its emerging form. 

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of Managing American Hegemony: Essays on Power in a Time of Dominance.