What if the plot is to isolate Turkey?
The outrage ignited by the recent NATO drill scandal in Norway has sparked a debate on Turkey’s membership in the Transatlantic alliance, compounding the latent anti-Western and anti-American sentiment.
In retrospect, Turkey has always had a love-hate relationship with the West. Since the late Ottoman Empire, Western civilization has functioned both as a model for modernization and an object of cultural contempt due to its perceived moral decay. Western interference in the late Ottoman era, as well as the bitter experiences during Turkey’s War of Independence, solidified the idea that the West was a rival bloc that was eager to partition Turkey at the first opportunity. This suspicion toward the Western world – also known as the Sèvres Syndrome – has continued to haunt Turkish policymakers while nurturing periodic anti-Western sentiment.
Turkey is now experiencing one of those rare periods in which its relations with both Europe and the United States have reached a nadir. In the past, whenever there was tension with one, Turkey would move closer to the other so as to maintain balance and prevent a total rupture in ties with the West in line with a Westward-leaning foreign policy that has constituted one of the main pillars of Turkish political culture since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Today, that orientation is no longer a given. Particularly since the failed July 2016 coup attempt, the government has accused the West of engaging in a plot against Turkey to bring down President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This perception has poisoned ties with the West and pushed Turkey to seek alternative partnerships. Truth be told, the oblivion of Westerners with regard to Turkey’s security concerns has not made life easier for the alliance either.
The West’s ambivalence on freedom and democracy, which amounts to safeguarding Gülenists, believed to have orchestrated the coup attempt, and outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members, has deeply undermined Turkey’s trust.
However, the government’s efforts to frame its crackdown on the press, academia and civil society as necessary to combat terror have failed to convince anyone beyond Turkey’s borders.
While Turkish intellectuals have been debating whether or not NATO serves Turkey’s security interests in the wake of the NATO drill scandal, allies have also been questioning Turkey’s democratic credentials to qualify as a member.
NATO is first and foremost a collective defense organization. Since the end of the Cold War, the body has been struggling to find a new mission, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 helped the Atlantic alliance in this regard. Moreover, the institution’s efficiency in confronting today’s complex threats is being queried. Still, Turkey’s NATO membership not only provides a security umbrella but also an anchor to the West. Questioning Turkey’s membership creates a security risk on the alliance’s eastern and southern flanks, while Turkey’s possible departure from NATO would disrupt Ankara’s Western identity as well.
The latest drill incident might have been cooked up by the Gülenists, as claimed by many. But what if the initial plan is to sever Turkey’s ties with the West before – ominously – isolating Turkey politically and economically?
As Turkey’s ties with the West become evermore strained, there is increased rumbling that Ankara’s true interests lie in deepening relations with Russia and Eurasia instead.
Geography, however, dictates that Turkey pursues a multilateral foreign policy that connects east and west and north and south. Turkey’s relations with the East should not be considered as an alternative to the West. On the contrary, Turkey’s Western identity not only acts as a safety net but also provides leverage in dealing with competing partners.
Cast your mind back to the first term of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, when the West used to praise Turkey. Those were the days when Ankara had the ability to talk to everyone in the region, near or far.
The key lies in regaining that soft power again.