Who in the West knows what to do about Recep Tayyip Erdogan? He’s no longer who we hoped he was. He challenges what we stand for – our norms and values – and what we thought were our shared strategic interests. He is the rogue that is supposed to be a Western ally. He plunges headlong into Libya; deploys troops deep inside northern Syria; and he buys S-400 surface to air missiles from Russia; let alone that he now escalates tensions with Greece and Cyprus.
Like Vladimir Putin, he flouts international law and standards. He uses refugees as mere collateral. He stamps down on domestic media and universities in a way that would make Alexander Lukashenko proud. He is no champion of Western values: He has seemingly become their antithesis.
As a rogue, he challenges us to declare what we stand for and who we stand with. It is this thinking that led me to co-lead a letter earlier this month (with former ambassador John Kittmer) to The Times in London calling for Europe to stand by those countries, like Greece and Cyprus, committed to basic principles of international behavior and law in the current disputes over exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was signed by public figures from across the arts, academia and politics. Signatories like Louis de Bernières, Stephen Fry and Victoria Hislop, among others, ensured the letter would be noticed.
The letter was directed at British officialdom. The UK Foreign Office will not easily shift from making its calculations based on power politics, blurring over matters of principle, and accepting new ambiguities being attributed to past treaties. Post-Brexit, these calculations will be even stronger. But the letter spoke to wider British opinion, in the hope that the tide might turn. The signatories wanted to express their deep misgivings about Erdogan’s illiberalism. They’d had enough: Anything that gave voice to this was worth signing. Similarly, the letter even drew support from Turkish intellectuals.
Many in the UK feel let down by Erdogan. In earlier years, he had seemed the new hope for the Middle East. He would be an Islamic version of a “Christian Democrat.” I recall hosting him for a press conference in London in 2003, to announce the London School of Economics had created a newly endowed professorship in Contemporary Turkish Studies. There came the obvious, but awkward, question: What would Erdogan think if the LSE was to appoint someone as professor who took a different stance than that of his government on the issue of the Armenian Genocide in 2016? My pulse raced. But Erdogan’s reply was near-perfect: Universities are free institutions to debate in the search for truth. Speaking no English, he still managed to pat me on the arm privately and ask if I thought his reply – which I had rather ostentatiously written down as he spoke – was “OK?” I confirmed that, indeed, it was.
Around about the same time, I also remember being told of a prominent Greek politician – to remain nameless – visiting Erdogan and being drawn into a long discussion, at Erdogan’s instigation, about the position of the patriarch and of the Halki Seminary. Erdogan was genuinely keen to learn about these issues, on which he appeared to have an open mind. Indeed, as a man of faith himself, he seemed to respect the rights of those with other faiths.
So, did we get him so wrong or has he changed so much? Perhaps both. Some see him, all along, as seeking some new kind of caliphate for Turkey. Yet, for Erdogan, the world changed around him. The European Union shunned his application for Turkish membership, blocking his big new project. The Brotherhood was defeated in Egypt, shattering his hopes for the region. At home, he lost allies and was shaken by the coup attempt. He became far more defensive, even paranoid, seemingly power-crazed.
The talk now is of how to contain his calculated risk-taking and maintain stability in the region. The EU has been cautious. Last Saturday it failed to support calls for sanctions on Ankara. Of course the EU was right to call for dialogue – as we had in our letter. But Erdogan must be brought to the table knowing that the EU is firm and prepared to act. I think of the young Greek soldier doing his national service on Leros, who wrote to me this month, concerned what trouble Erdogan might cause.
The EU is nothing unless its stands up for liberal causes. It must not be influenced by British thinking. A switch from Donald Trump to Joe Biden can help restore our Western identity and rein Turkey in. President Emmanuel Macron has appeared a beacon of European values sending his ships into the region. Erdogan should bring out the best in us: crafting our strategy firmly around our values.
Kevin Featherstone is director of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics.