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. This is an understandable fallacy.
After all, Turkey’s population is almost fully Muslim and a political party with Islamic roots has won consecutive election victories. Many policymakers, analysts and scholars thus equate the notion of Turkish divergence from the West — or the fear of “losing Turkey” — with the idea of an Islamic revival. Moreover, this is exactly how some members within Turkey’s Kemalist establishment — the military, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the foreign service — describe current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) policies vis-a-vis Iran, Syria, the Gulf and Israel. Such an analysis gives a sense of superficial credibility to the fallacy of an “Islamist” foreign policy in Turkey.
However, 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 and Europe. 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 short, a Turkish variant of “Gaullism.” As in the case of Charles de Gaulle’s anti-American and anti-NATO policies in the 1960s, a Gaullist Turkey may in the long run question Ankara’s membership within the military structure of NATO or the logic of waiting decades for the elusive EU membership. In search of full independence, full sovereignty, strategic leverage and, most importantly, “Turkish glory and grandeur,” a Gaullist Turkey may opt for its own “force de frappe” — a nuclear deterrent — and its own “Realpolitik” with countries such as China, India and Russia. One should not underestimate the emergence of such a new Turkey that transcends the Islamic-secular divide because both the Turkish military’s Kemalism and the AK Party’s neo-Ottomanism — the ideal of regional influence — share such a long-term version.
Make no mistake. A majority of Turks still want to see their country firmly anchored in the West, but their patience is wearing thin because of what they perceive to be Western prejudice, double standards and a lack of respect toward their country. 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. 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-a-vis Europe and America: nationalist frustration. Ironically, Turkey’s Kemalists, which were once Western oriented, have now turned perhaps even more anti-Western than the current AK Party government. 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. 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.
Should the West pay attention to Turkish Gaullism? The answer is yes. 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. If the strategic relationship between Ankara and Washington continues to erode and prospects for joining the EU continue to recede, Turkey will certainly go its own way. Americans and Europeans who do not take the risk of such a development seriously underestimate the degree of resentment of the West that has been building up in the country. It is high time for Western analysts to stop overplaying the Islamic-secular divide in Turkish foreign policy and pay more attention to what unites both camps: Turkish nationalism. Gaullism may be the real future for Turkey in the 21st century.