Turkey and the West: Who’s calling the shots?

Turkey and the West: Who’s calling the shots?

Turkey has been in a process of democratization since the early 1950s. The launch of this process coincided with the country’s accession to NATO, which was obviously driven by the exigencies of the Cold War period and the need to contain the Soviet threat. Turkey’s democratization is still a work in progress; in fact, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and contrary to the original expectations – the country has experienced serious democratic backsliding. According to all international reports, the principle of the division of power is not adhered to. The judicial power is being abused (as was the case when the country was controlled by secular Kemalists), the news media are being controlled by the government, and freedom of expression is on the wane – all signs of growing authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, in the realm of foreign policy, Turkey’s dissociation from the West is neither for the sake of appearances nor an attempt to blackmail Western governments. It is, rather, the product of a conscious decision made by the Turkish leadership, which believes that the West is in decline (Erdogan has actually said so himself) and Turkey consequently needs to find a position in a changing world. This position, together with the transformation of Turkish identity and society, enabled the dominance of a new political model that is a mixture of political (neo-Ottoman) Islam and Kemalist nationalism. As a result, and also due to international and regional circumstances (Western withdrawal, US disengagement from regional affairs and the ensuing power vacuum, Arab Spring movements), Ankara developed hegemonic ambitions in its wider neighborhood, believing it is presented with a rare opportunity to prevail.

The main difference compared to the past is that Ankara no longer tries to convince the West that supporting Turkey is also in Western interests. The idea now is that the West must, if not back, then at least accept and tolerate Turkey’s ambitious plans. Meanwhile, Ankara tries to impose this idea on its partners through bargaining. Turkey seeks to expand its leverage by stepping into various fronts, often in defiance of international law as well as Western interests. This inevitably changes the nature, and the equilibrium, of Turkey’s ties with the West and complicates efforts by the latter to impose a set of rules that will be accepted and respected by the other side. Meanwhile, many in the West mistakenly underestimate the natural hostility to everything Western and the systematic disregard for Western norms – phenomena which further alienate Ankara from the West. This situation is fueled by the perception that as Turkey’s power grows, there will be no shortage of alternatives; therefore, a pro-Western orientation is not the only available orientation.

All that is constantly creating sources of tension with the West. Erdogan, however, sees no need to address these, which is neither because he is catering to his domestic audience (the public appeal of anti-Western rhetoric has played a key role here), nor some bargaining tool. Rather, it has to do with his conviction that the country is becoming independent and not obliged to follow Western dictates. For their part, Western governments must adapt to the new reality and ask no more than that Ankara accept, if reluctantly, the basic security structures of the West (such as NATO or the EU). But Turkey will not feel bound by them as it will explore ways to reshape the balance of power. The argument that Turkey’s eastward shift and NATO antics (such as its refusal to green-light Sweden and Finland’s membership) is undermining the cohesion of the transatlantic Alliance, is gaining ground but is not yet the majority position.

The judicial power is being abused, the news media are being controlled by the government, and freedom of expression is on the wane

Some people ask: Is it better for Greece and the West if Turkey stays in the Western camp or not? This is a false dilemma. It allows Turkey to constantly seek trade-offs and, most importantly, it makes Western governments tolerate Turkey’s extreme positions and maximalist claims for the sake of keeping it within Western structures, although the country really has no viable alternative. What is essentially at stake, as reflected in the different approaches in Washington, is what side determines the terms of the relationship.

The US State Department bureaucracy’s dread of losing Turkey is lowering the bar of expectations and allows Ankara to style itself as an irreplaceable Western partner; a partner that is not bound by the conventional obligations and which has the liberty to exercise multidimensional policy after the India model. The more pragmatic and daring – for US standards – reaction from the Congress suggests a framework of behavior that is based on principles which are, at least, acceptable to other NATO members. The German-inspired appeasement policy toward Russia (which failed in practice although it might have been correct in theory) based on interdependence (in energy, trade and other sectors) should be a lesson for the West.

Constantinos Filis is the director of the Institute of Global Affairs, associate professor at the American College of Greece and an international affairs analyst for Antenna TV.

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