Understanding Turkey Today

This Pivotal Democracy Remains Key to U.S. Foreign Policy

Recent disagreements notwithstanding, Turkey is fast becoming the new kind of U.S. ally we need in the region in the 21st century, writes Max Ehrenfreund.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pictured here at the G20 Summit recently held in Toronto. Turkey’s wealth and influence are growing, the country is becoming more self-assured and assertive in pursuing its goals, and that’s good for Turkey and good for the United States. (AP/Gerry Broome)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pictured here at the G20 Summit recently held in Toronto. Turkey’s wealth and influence are growing, the country is becoming more self-assured and assertive in pursuing its goals, and that’s good for Turkey and good for the United States. (AP/Gerry Broome)

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Turkish foreign policy over the past two months is sparking debate among analysts and commentators in Europe and the United States, with many of them wondering aloud whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government no longer shares strategic goals with the rest of the Western world. Their concern? That Ergodan now sees Iran, China, and the Arab countries as are more natural allies for Turkey.

These concerns are largely misplaced. Turkish leaders in and out of government aim at expanding their country’s diplomatic reach and economic influence. Their aspirations may be the best available explanation for Turkey’s actions in recent months. Turkey and the United States continue to share a belief in the principles of democracy and a broadly similar vision for the future of the Middle East, and therefore the two countries remain important allies.

Yet a clear view of Turkey’s goals and ambitions is clouded by misunderstandings about Ergodan’s motives and the complex forces at work in Turkish society driving the country’s politics. That’s why it’s important to read past the headlines Turkey has made in recent months and take a closer look at the international dynamic in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey in the News

Some observers interpret Turkey’s recent actions as indicating a shift in Turkish foreign policy away from the United States. In mid-May Turkey along with Brazil brokered a nuclear fuel exchange with Iran in which Iran agreed to ship 55 percent to 60 percent of its store of low-enriched uranium to Turkey. U.S. diplomats saw the deal as inadequate because it would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, and pressed for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. Turkey and Brazil were the only countries to vote against the sanctions, standing by the deal they had already negotiated with Iran.

Turkey’s vote against sanctioning Iran in the U.N. Security Council revealed disagreement with the United States but not necessarily a breach. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear that the United States welcomes continued negotiations between Turkey and Iran, and Turkish officials have expressed frustration with the suggestion that cooperation with the United States and Europe is no longer a priority for Turkey.

Later that month, nine Turks lost their lives when Israeli military commandos intercepted and boarded several ships off the coast of Gaza. Prime Minister Erdogan and other Turkish officials consistently and vehemently denounced Israel’s actions in response. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel, cancelled joint naval training exercises, and demanded that Israel apologize for the raid and lift the blockade of Gaza.

Notwithstanding, Israel and Turkey do look back at a productive relationship in recent years. Turkey benefits from Israeli military technology, and the two countries routinely conduct joint military exercises in the Mediterranean. The Turkish government mediated talks between Syria and Israel before the invasion of Gaza in 2008. Since the flotilla raid, meetings between Israeli and Turkish military officials continue, indicating that relations between Israel and Turkey might be in better shape than might appear.

Turkish Foreign Policy

A look at the Erdogan administration’s overarching regional strategy provides context for recent developments in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey wants to establish diplomatic and trade relations with almost all neighboring countries and expand its influence to become a powerful regional actor. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu articulated these foreign policy objectives as achieving “strategic depth.” Today’s Zaman, a major daily newspaper, summarized Turkey’s goal more prosaically as “to have no enemies and do business wherever it can.”

The country is now engaged in vigorous diplomacy to that end. May 2010 alone featured meetings with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, a visit from Syrian president Bashir al-Assad, and a joint cabinet meeting in Athens—yes, with Greek leaders despite decades of enmity—in addition to the deal with Iran and Brazil. Ankara also is encouraging Turkish businessmen to invest extensively in the Balkans, the Caucasus, northern Iraq, the Middle East, Africa, and central Asia.

These efforts are largely responsible for Turkey’s newfound influence after decades as a stalwart member of the Western bloc during the Cold War. Turkey also benefits from above average economic growth and its existing relationships with its neighbors, in addition to its established alliances with European countries and the United States. Polls conducted in the Arab world show that many Arabs look to Turkey as an example of how a modern democracy and moderate Islam can coexist.

Turkey also boasts leverage in Iran: The two countries continue to coordinate military operations against separatist Kurdish groups. And cooperation is natural between Turkey and the countries around the Caspian Sea seeking to export fossil fuels to the Mediterranean.

But there are stumbling blocks, of course. Turkey’s foreign policy occasionally involves contacts with countries whose interests are opposed to those of the United States. Erdogan, for example, met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. And foreign minister Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” attitude may not be a viable strategy in the long term because ideological disagreements between Turkey’s new friends could create problems for Turkish diplomacy.

Yet most Turks still identify with Europe and accession to the European Union remains a primary long-term foreign policy goal for Turkey despite fierce opposition from several countries, notably France and Germany. The process of seeking admission to the EU continues to help those in Turkey who support increased democracy make their case and move the country toward a more open society.

Indeed, the country will vote on an important set of constitutional amendments in September that will lessen the influence of the military and the court system in politics. Another result of that process is negotiations with Armenia as well as historic progress toward reconciliation with the Kurdish minority. For more information, see “Finding a Way Forward in the Caucasus: Renewing U.S.-Azerbijan Ties Should Not Put An End to Armenia-Turkey Reconciliation and “Eternal Minorities? Turkish Politics and the Challenge of Diversity.”

Although polling data suggest many Turks have negative views of the United States and Europe, there is support for many of the principles of Western democracy. As discussed in “The New Levant: Understanding Turkey’s Shifting Roles in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has used democratization, human rights, and an antimilitary position to bring together a broad coalition since it came to power in 2002. Its supporters include committed Islamists, progressive intellectuals, and Kurds.

But one particular group supporting the AKP that is having a major impact is a new class of socially and religiously conservative entrepreneurs from Turkey’s interior, where the economy has caught up with the rest of the country in recent years. The wealthiest of these individuals, known as the “Anatolian tigers,” are largely responsible for Turkey’s growing foreign investments. These new middle class and business elites stand to gain from a system that allows for economic and political competition, and they have been an important cause of the AKP’s democratic reforms and outward-looking foreign policy.

It is important not to allow assumptions about preexisting geographical blocs or political axes to cloud an understanding of Turkey’s multipolar approach to foreign policy. Culturally and strategically, Turkey remains part of the West. Yet its membership in that group is increasingly on the Turks’ own terms—not imposed by other Western countries and an authoritarian military government as it was during the Cold War. The result is a messy and sometimes fractious democratic process, but a process the United States should support and one the Obama administration understands it must work through in the future.


The upshot: Turkey’s wealth and influence are growing, the country is becoming more self-assured and assertive in pursuing its goals, and that’s good for Turkey and good for the United States. Prime Minister Erdogan’s administration is creating a new international network and establishing Turkey as an independent and potentially powerful actor. The AKP is a modern party, and most of its supporters hope for continued democratic and economic reforms.

Turkey’s vote against the resolution to place sanctions on Iran in the U.N. Security Council in May was a significant disagreement with the United States, but it should not obscure the fact that the United States and Turkey share basic foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Both countries want to maintain stability in Iraq, prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and resolve the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The two countries remain natural allies, and the United States should support Turkey as it seeks “strategic depth” and continues its transition into a modern, democratic society.

Max Ehrenfreund is an intern at the Center for American Progress.


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