Turkey and the West
This week’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Russian-built Akkuyu nuclear plant has prompted more handwringing about Turkey’s tilt away from the West. Moscow and Ankara may have had diverging interests in Syria in recent years, but they both see opportunity to expand their presumed spheres of influence in the current global disorder. Warmth between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin should therefore not come as a surprise.
At this juncture appears Kemal Kirişci’s “Turkey and the West: Fault Lines in a Troubled Alliance.” Formerly a professor at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University and currently at the Brookings Institution, Kirişci is a veteran interlocutor for Westerners looking for insight on Turkey. “Turkey and the West” appears at a time marked by anchorlessness in the global order. The unipolar post-Cold War system has frayed, replaced by an emerging form of multipolar great power politics. Current angry discord between Ankara and Washington over Syria is just the most immediate and visible manifestation of this broader story.
Turkey’s current shift may have been a long time coming, but not so long ago Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were being praised for propelling Turkey closer to the EU and deeper into the transatlantic community. Post-9/11, the country seemed to fit the bill for many looking for a model of “moderate Muslim democracy” and economic development for the Middle East. Its rising soft power encouraged the seductive idea that “Western” ideas of liberalism, democracy and moderation could find a foothold in a troubled region.
That seems like a long time ago now. Kirişci comments on how far the pendulum has swung in just a few years, “from peaceful aspirations, from the language of hope and compromise, to instability and a situation exacerbated by the venom of populist, nationalist rhetoric.” He gives a fairly uncontroversial account of how that happened, examining push and pull factors and identifying the Arab Spring – specifically its chaotic extension in Syria - as a tipping point.
Perhaps the book’s most original and useful contribution is the full-throated case Kirişci makes for the benefits of Turkey’s Western vocation. Referring to comparable states Yugoslavia, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Poland and South Korea, Kirişci writes that integration with the West has benefited Turkey economically, politically and institutionally. The country “is still territorially intact and relatively stable, despite the raging instability in its region,” he writes. “Turkey could not have maintained a robust economic growth, financed major infrastructural projects, modernized its agricultural sector, or invested heavily in its defense architecture without Western assistance.”
These arguments feel novel in a Turkey where they are today almost never voiced. The many gains from Turkey’s ties to the West are often taken for granted, or, worse, “overlooked by skeptical narratives that fuel distrust,” writes Kirişci. These gains are generally “underappreciated in the popular opinion, which wrapped the West’s intentions in malevolent conspiracy theories.” Attributing blame to the West for Turkey’s internal problems has a long heritage in Turkish politics “and has been used masterfully by Erdoğan in particular,” Kirişci writes.
The book gives a useful reminder of why Turkey was nudged in the direction of the West after the Second World War. Along with the commitment to westernization of Turkey’s founding fathers, containing Soviet expansionism was a critical factor that brought the U.S. and Turkey together. In March 1945, Stalin made territorial claims to Turkey’s northeastern provinces and demanded privileged shipping access to the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles. This hardball backfired, with the role of “the Soviet menace” playing a key role “in facilitating Turkey’s integration into a string of transatlantic institutions, ranging from the Bretton Woods system to GATT to regional West European organizations,” writes Kirişci.
Having the Soviet Union as a common enemy, and its containment as a common objective, facilitated Turkey’s entry into the emerging international order led by the West. It also meant that during subsequent episodes of anger against the U.S. and Europe any Turkish search for an alternative alignment inescapably ended up confronting the Soviet threat. This ultimately pushed Ankara to “walk its steps back into the transatlantic fold.” Today, Russia is again the major beneficiary of Turkey’s apparent break from the West, and it remains to be seen whether Moscow’s shady designs will be enough to make Ankara think twice once again.
Kirişci is conversant in the turbulence and institutional fatigue in the current liberal order. He therefore argues that Erdoğan’s Turkey “will be caught between structural factors that pull it toward the West and the fault lines in the transatlantic relationship that push it away.” The logical extension of this is that “the Turkish leadership is likely to continue to pursue a rhetoric critical of the West as long as the direction of the international order remains unclear.”
One of the last factors keeping Turkey anchored to the West is its continued need for Western investment and credit to keep the economy going. Kirişci does not address this, but he is aware that structural geopolitical forces alone are not enough to determine Turkey’s future direction. “The West must understand that Turkey today is not yesterday’s Turkey,” he writes. “The leadership is not keen to uphold ‘old’ Turkey’s Western orientation, believing rather that Turkey belongs to a different civilization from the West.” The likely result of this is “a foreign policy run on self-interest, driven by a strong sense of nationalism, shaped by an Islamic worldview, and articulated in a confrontational mode directed against the West.”
Turkey today is a revisionist power, little interested in the health of a supposed global liberal order and keen to engage in an increasingly zero-sum great power game in its region. The strengths and weaknesses of its hand in that game are most immediately being tested in the cauldron of Syria.