Turkey is Turning Its Face to the West

Editor’s note: This interview appeared in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet on February 7, 2013.

Read the interview in Turkish on the Milliyet website


Turkey will be discussed even more often in Washington in the coming months: Brookings Institution has revived its Turkey project and named Kemal Kirisci, an academic and a well-known figure in the Turkish foreign policy analysis establishment as its new director and TUSIAD Senior Fellow. Kemal Kirişci has an ambitious agenda: monthly panels on Turkey, quarterly reports and at least one book project…

Professor Kirişci plans to focus more on economic ties between the two countries as well as on the importance of Turkey’s economic integration with its neighborhood for U.S.-Turkish relations rather than just the strategic and military aspects of this relationship. Professor Kirişci has given his first interview in Washington to Milliyet. We discussed a range of issues such as Turkey-U.S. relations, European Union and the Kurdish problem.

What will be the major issues between Ankara and Washington during the second Obama administration?

Kemal Kirişci: Iran is obviously on the table. Israel will become more important. I imagine that the U.S. will try to reconcile Israel and Turkey in one way or another. On the Syria issue, Turkey will press the U.S. to be more active but I doubt that Washington is willing to do that… Iraq is another issue. Right now Turkey has a terrible relationship with Prime Minister Maliki. So all these issues will be at the top of the list…

Can we assume that the close relationship will endure?

Obama and Erdogan are close. However Prime Minister Erdogan has recently made some sharp statements against President Obama’s Syria policy. These words have, I am sure, been noted here. But I don’t know they will affect the relationship. I think overall the Americans have a desire to want to cautiously deepen and extend the scope of the relationship. I also feel that Turkey is turning to America and to the West once again.

What does that mean?

I think, compared to 2012, we’ll see an improvement in Turkey’s relationship with NATO and even the European Union… The impression I have is that there will be an effort to revive these relationships.

Is the EU still a realistic option for Turkey?

I think so. The political winds are changing quickly in Europe. Besides, Europe now admits that Turkey has achieved unimaginable economic success. They also know that the EU does not have much political strength in the world without Turkey on its side.

You’re painting quite a positive picture…

Yes, but there are problems with its implementation. Because the EU’s own decision making mechanism is problematic.

Turkey is not doing much either…

I think Turkey is making a mistake. Turkey has had a relationship with Europe for over 500 years. I see Turkey as part and parcel of Europe!

How about the fact that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country?

Of course there are some problems related to this… The Ottoman conquest of Istanbul continues to be framed as part of a Christian-Muslim conflict. I see it differently. I taught diplomatic history for a good 20 years and I see the Ottomans no differently than other dynasties of Europe such as the Bourbons or the Habsburgs or the Romonovs.

How about modern Turkey?

Tearing Turkey away from Europe would be the biggest mistake that anyone could commit against Turkey. But there is jealousy and resentment on both sides. You know what, I would have very much liked Turkey to turn to Europe in 2012 and say “You’ve helped as through bad days, now you’re having trouble. Let us help, what can we do for you?”

What are your thoughts on Turkey’s new found interest on the the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?

Even the Chinese elite admit that there is a serious problem of law and corruption in the country. I think in a scenario where Turkey is in close and deep cooperation with these countries there would inevitably be spillover effects on Turkey. Turkish democracy will stay healthy as long as its integration with the West continues.

So SCO should not be an alternative to the EU….

I’m saying that it cannot be an alternative, at least as long as Turkey wants to be a leading economy in the world and a democracy with strong rule of law by 2023.

You’ve defined Turkey’s changing foreign policy with the “trading state” theory. What is a trading state?

It’s a theory developed in the 1980s. It says that countries who have developed strong economic relations with each other can also solve problems with dialogue instead of violence and that, in turn, this brings greater prosperity to these countries. I look at Turkey in the 1990’s and see a country who organized frequent military operations into Northern Iraq and who threatened to “enter Syria from one side and exit through the other.” Then I look at Turkey today. The biggest difference between the two is the increase in Turkish trade with its neighbors and hence the pressure to have better relations.

Does this theory still hold after the collapse of the zero-problem policy?

Some steps that Turkey has taken recently are obviously different than what a trading state would have done. A case in point is Israel. Hypothetically, a trading state would have found a way to solve its problems instead of rupturing the relationship. With Russia on the other hand, I would say Turkey has managed the Syria crisis in line with the interests of a trading state. Even though it looks like there is a proxy war between the two countries regarding Syria, bi-lateral relations have not been adversely affected. This I believe is because both sides know that a hostile attitude towards each other can damage a good and beneficial economic relationship.

You once argued in an article that Bill Clinton played a crucial role in raising Turkey’s democratic and economic standards. Why?

I was in the U.S. during part of Clinton’s presidency and thus had a chance to closely observe this period. I read the archives and relevant documents from congressional records.  I also conducted interviews with many high level officials. I concluded that the U.S. did a critically important job in helping Turkey improve its democracy, revive its NGOs and ameliorate its relationship with the EU. It was the Americans who made it possible for the OSCE to gather in Istanbul in 1999. That meeting was a turning point in Turkey’s democratic transformation.

How does the Obama administration compare in this regard?

Washington is still under the influence of the political reforms that Turkey has made in the mid-2000s. Turkey’s democracy has had some problems since then. However democracy in the Western world, including the US, is in a crisis right now. So Turkey’s problems don’t stand out as much as it used to back in the 1990s.


The US before 9/11 was much more liberal. It was ambitious in promoting democracy in the world, it was economically strong enough to spend money on human rights issues. This has changed after 9/11. It’s still ahead of Turkey in upholding the rule of law. But it would be difficult to argue that it has the same level of freedom of speech as in the 1990s.

Why does Turkey still need the U.S. or the EU’s help to take steps towards greater democracy?

I can explain this only through examples. Spain, Portugal, Greece… All these countries were once dictatorships. And it wasn’t easy for them to make the transition to democracy. EU was the anchor, especially in Spain. Today Spain is able to discuss and debate Basques’ secessionist demands in its parliament without violence. It was the EU who enabled that!

So the EU can play a role in solving the Kurdish problem as well…

People usually compare this issue to similar conflicts in Ireland and Spain… One thing should not be forgotten, these countries made peace under EU’s umbrella. Today, not too many people can claim that people in Turkey enjoy greater human rights compared to mid-2000s. What changed? The EU is no longer an anchor.

Read the interview in Turkish on the Milliyet website