Image via WikipediaIn the not so distant past, Turkey was impoverished, inward-looking nation, mistrustful – if not actively hostile – to its neighbors who were seen as either enemies of the state at worst or backstabbing traitors at best. Not.Any.Longer.
Turkey’s foreign policy has changed as rapidly as its internal politics – transforming from a closed, totalitarian system to a reasonably open and relatively liberal political environment while viewing its neighbors and Europe as opportunities and allies. It is closer to European norms of democracy than the Kemalist military and bureaucratic omnipresence.
Turkey does not view the EU as indispensable and the status quo in the relationship will not spell the end of civilization as far as Ankara is concerned. Turkey intends to continue policies of economic and diplomatic outreach with its neighbors as part of its expanding influence and commercial interests. Although not particularly concerned about the stalled EU accession process because the EU is still the largest trading partner, the atmospherics could be poisoned by the continuing deadlock resulting in an antagonistic attitude.
With the recent elections resulting in extending the 9 year rule of the AKP, concerns have been amplified regarding the direction of Turkey to the extent that France has even become more opposed to any accession talk. These are misplaced concerns although the Putinization of the political structure remains a fear as the AKP and the PM in particular react adversely to any sort of criticism. However, of the several scenarios for Turkish development, I think that the fear of a shift toward authoritarian rule – Islamist, or militant secularist/ Kemalist – is unlikely. I believe that Turkey will continue its path toward pluralism and liberal democracy.
We have seen that modern Turkey was founded through a top-down approach. It was secular and authoritarian. Between 1945 and the early 1980s a form of managed democracy took the place of the authoritarian regimes. But, this managed democracy was run by the military. It may have been multi-party but it was tightly controlled by the army and hand selected bureaucrats with an occasional coup thrown in. Then the evil empire vanished and with it the Cold War. The most recent transition had begun to form a liberal, pluralistic society from the bottom-up which is still evolving, sometimes painfully. The business class that grew from this transition came from the center of Turkey - conservative and Muslim; but, it believed in liberal economics and true democratic rule, not the elitism of the Istanbul business interests.
The economic change and the demographics of its source led to the founding of the AKP led by Erdoğan and his friends in 2001. The new party supported EU accession, and a European market styled democracy. It has been in power for a decade, many a huge number of mistakes and certainly has its flaws. Critics have been unwelcome – and critics abound. But, it’s hard to argue with success - economic stability, an average of 6-7 percent annual growth rate, and a tripling of per capita income from little above $3,000 in 2002 to about $10,000 in 2010. Broad freedoms, economic success and a vibrant democracy are popular. Try and change it and the AKP will fall.
In foreign policy, Turkey has reversed its previous attitudes toward its neighbors. Rather than viewing them with mistrust, they have been drawn closer. Unlike the short sighted Europeans, no visas are required for travel between Georgia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Russia and Syria. The cost of visas for others is minimal and visas are, unlike those for a closed EU, easy to obtain. This is called soft-power.
Much of the reforms and democratic trends over the past decade have been helped by the EU’s support. Then political and economic changes in Europe modified the dynamics. Despite the confirmation of Turkish EU eligibility by Brussels five times, the latest coming in 2002, the French simply decided to ignore EU rules and promises and actively opposed Turkey. No one in Europe pointed out to France that its opposition was improper. The ossified EU system is making a mistake of huge proportions.
Turkey is discovering new methods of using its soft power, both cultural and economic, to expand its influence despite the snubs of the EU. They no longer perceive Russia or even Greece and Armenia as enemies. Its view of its neighbors reinforces Turkish self-confidence as a growing regional hegemon that does not need the approval of Europe or the US. Turkish foreign policy continues to develop dynamically and proactively. It looks ahead, not to the past but still remembers its history and civilization. Its neighbors should take notice because Turks do and it governs how they perceive the region and their role in it. Geo-politically it occupies a unique position and has the economic, cultural and military depth to make itself a force.
This is why the EU’s antagonistic attitude is so astoundingly stupid. Turkish foreign policy mantra of peace in the neighborhood is exactly that of the EU stated policy. It is already an extension of the policy established by Brussels and supports that policy. Rather than show any sort of appreciation, Europe seems to think that this is some sort of competition. Another mistake and typical of European arrogance. What is it that Europe doesn’t get? Turkey is not Serbia or, frankly, Slovakia or Romania – just other applicant states. It is a strategic player and key to stability in the Middle East.
Europe, and to some extent the US, appear to think that Turkish involvement economically and socially with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, not to mention its strong desire to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East, are somehow signals of a change in direction away from the West. This is not a zero sum game and this line of reasoning in Europe and the US borders on the absurd, playing only to the uninformed and for the benefit of the talking heads.
Turkey has made some foreign policy mistakes but appears to be a quick learner. If Ankara is guilty of anything, it is one of tone. The PM in this regard does not do himself any favours. Ridiculous tirades against Israel, statements that genocide is prohibited by the Koran and therefore the government of Sudan could not have committed the crime, and walking out of meetings may play well in the Turkish media, but are intemperate and need to be avoided.
Turkey is a well on its way to becoming a regional, indispensible power – one that the EU and the US need to engage more effectively. Turkey is charting a foreign policy path that protects and extends its interests. The Cold War and the old blocs are gone.