A New Era in Turkish Foreign Policy

June 14, 2010

The flotilla incident and Turkey’s “no” vote to new sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council once again triggered a familiar debate about Turkey’s alleged “Islamic” turn in foreign policy.

I made my personal opinion about this issue quite clear a number of times. I believe one of the major mistakes in analyzing Turkish foreign policy is done when analysts speak of a “secular” versus “Islamic” divide in Ankara’s strategic choices. While the growing importance of religion in Turkey should not be dismissed, the real threat to Turkey’s Western orientation today is not so much Islamization but growing nationalism and frustration with the United States, Europe and Israel.

Long before the recent turn of events, I argued that if current trends continue, what we will see emerging in Turkey is not an Islamist foreign policy but a much more nationalist, defiant, independent, self-confident and self-centered strategic orientation in Ankara. Because of similarities between the French and Turkish political tradition, I think it helps to think of this new Turkish sense of self-confidence, nationalism, grandeur and frustration with traditional partners such as America, Europe and Israel as “Turkish Gaullism.” One should not underestimate the emergence of such a new Turkey that transcends the Islamic-secular divide because both the Kemalist neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) foreign policy and the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) neo-Ottomanism — the ideal of regional influence — share the traits of Turkish Gaullism.

If you scratch the surface of what seems to be a secular versus Islamist divide in Turkish attitudes toward the West, you will quickly see that both the so-called Islamist and secular camps embrace the same narrative vis-à-vis Europe and America: nationalist frustration. New obstacles to EU accession, perceived injustice in Cyprus, growing global recognition of the Armenian genocide and Western sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations are all major factors forcing Turks to question the value of their long-standing pro-Western geostrategic commitments. Until a couple of years ago, I used to argue that Western-oriented Kemalist elites had traded places with the once eastward-leaning Islamists on the grounds that it was the AK Party that seemed more interested in maintaining close ties with Europe and the United States. The AK Party, in my eyes, needed the West more than Turkey’s Kemalist establishment for a simple reason: It needed to prove to the Turkish military, to secularist segment of society at home and to Western partners in the international community that it was not an Islamist party.

Now, however, I increasingly believe that the AK Party, too, has decided to jump on the bandwagon of nationalist frustration with the West. After all, this is the most powerful societal undercurrent in Turkey, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs to win elections. As the events of the last couple of weeks have shown, America and Europe should pay attention to Turkey’s Gaullist inclinations. In the past, Americans and Europeans would often ask whether Turkey had any realistic geopolitical alternatives and complacently reassure themselves that it did not. But today such alternatives are starting to look more realistic to many Turks. The rise of Turkish Gaullism need not come fully at the expense of America and Europe. But Turks are already looking for economic and strategic opportunities in Russia, India, China and, of course, the Middle East and Africa. It is high time for American analysts to stop overplaying the Islamic-secular divide in Turkish foreign policy and pay more attention to what unites both camps: Turkish nationalism.

The real question is whether Ankara will pay a price for challenging the United States. The frustration with Turkey in Washington is real and getting stronger. Many argue that Turkey needs to be shaken up. This is why Ankara should prepare itself for a new era in its relations with the US. Concepts of a “strategic or model partnership” are no longer meaningful. We are heading toward a new paradigm of what many in Washington call a “transactional partnership.” Next time Turkish officials come to Washington to lobby against the Armenian genocide or for more military or intelligence support against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they are likely to face a simple question from their American counterparts: “What have you guys done for us lately?” This is why it is now time for Turkey to solve its Armenian and Kurdish problems without coming to Washington. Only then will Turkey deserve real “grandeur and self-confidence” in its relations with the West.