Istanbul, Turkey All during the Cold War, Turkey was the NATO country the United States took for granted, a secular Muslim state that straddled Europe and Asia and defended a long border with the Soviet Union.
Then communism collapsed, and Washington thought it had a new role for Turkey: With the election of an Islamic-oriented government in 2002, it could become the model of moderate Muslim democracy. But after several days in Ankara and Istanbul, I saw that this country is no longer ready to play a role designed by others.
Welcome to the new Turkey, which is changing so rapidly that smart people here tell me they don’t know where their country is headed — abroad or at home.
When it comes to Turkey’s foreign policy, the debate over whether Turkey has shifted its axis from West to East misses the point, says veteran journalist Sami Kohen. He says the message from Ankara is: “Forget the staunch supporter of NATO, the loyal ally, we’re no longer in the Cold War. Turkey is getting strong and can build its own axis. Don’t take Turkey for granted anymore.”
Indeed, Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told me that “Turkey no longer feels it necessary to define itself in an oppositional way, linked to one country at the expense of another. People see no contradiction between membership in the European Union and increasing trade with Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
“Our economic interests compel us to have better relations with all our neighbors,” he said.
No question Turkey’s efforts to expand its foreign trade and attract new sources of foreign investment are part of what drives its new interest in its Arab neighbors — and Iran. Turkey is a country that is booming economically while Western Europe sags; its once-backward heartland boasts 15 so-called Anatolian “tigers,” or growing industrial cities.
Turkey’s dynamic construction sector — which has rebuilt northern Iraq and is a force all over the region — had high hopes of getting huge contracts in Iran, and Erdogan has called for increasing trade with Tehran fivefold. That has proved far more difficult than expected, and Iran has so far been skittish about letting the Turks in.
But Turkey’s aspirations for developing its own foreign policy axis go far beyond economic expansion. How far is a matter of debate inside Turkey and the West.
Does Erdogan, who has traveled extensively to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia, and receives adulation from Arab publics, harbor dreams of becoming the preeminent Sunni Muslim political leader? He vehemently denied that to me in an interview, saying, “I have an identity as the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey.”
Kalin describes Erdogan’s role as “the most powerful leader in Turkey in a long time who has become a regional leader — by virtue of geography, not to score points with the Arab street. Every major issue in the region affects stability of the region, and therefore we pay attention.”
The unspoken premise is that the one-time guarantor of Mideast regional stability — the United States — is fading from the picture. “Obama is still popular here,” Kalin said, “though most Turks think he can’t deliver.” What he didn’t say, but I heard everywhere, was that Turks think Obama has used up his political capital and his Mideast peace policy is a failure. Turks of every political persuasion are also scornful of the mess made in Iraq by the Bush administration.
So given the American fade, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, has concluded that the United States is but one pole of many, and Ankara will pursue better relations with China, Russia, Iran, and its Arab neighbors. Perhaps the most startling indication so far of this shift was the recent joint air exercise that Turkey held with China, which raised questions about Ankara’s commitment to NATO, and whether NATO security was being breached.
And Davotoglu has famously scripted a foreign policy aimed at having zero enemies on Turkey’s borders, while undertaking ambitious efforts at peacemaking in the region. So far most, though not all, of these efforts have come to naught.
Ankara has vastly improved its relations with Iraqi Kurds, and its ties with Syria, with whom it nearly went to war a decade ago. But the Erdogan government’s efforts to reconcile with Armenia tanked, as did efforts to broker talks between Israel and Syria, which came apart when Israel invaded Gaza in 2009.
After a week in this fascinating country, the question that lingers is whether the Erdogan government can juggle its multiple ambitions, maintaining links with the West and NATO while showing its independence of both and occasionally spitting in their eyes. And whether Erdogan can woo the Iranians without alienating the Arabs, or promote regional stability without rapprochement with Israel.
No one can be certain where Ankara’s foreign policy is headed, perhaps not even the Erdogan government, just as it’s hard to predict the outcome of the deepening secular-religious split in the country. All one can say with certainty is that this is a country to be watched.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org