Turkey – turning away from the West or rebalancing its priorities?

by | Sep 15, 2010

Turkish voters approved a new constitution this weekend, greeted in Brussels – if not Paris and Berlin – as a key step on the road to EU membership.

But recent commentary and headlines – particularly in the US – have claimed Turkey is turning its back on the West as the rift between Turkey and Israel deepened following the killing of 9 Turkish citizens by Israeli forces when they raided a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza in May.

Turkey is an ally of the US and a staunch member of NATO, it has also been trying to get into the EU for more than twenty years, so why are some commentators saying Ankara is turning away from the West?

A new poll from the German Marshall Fund published  today suggests Turks are cooling in their attitude towards the EU and NATO and are distinctly less concerned about Iran than the public in Turkey’s NATO allies.

And over the past 8 years, under the leadership of the AK Party, which is rooted in political islam, Turkey has changed.


In the domestic arena, it has reduced the power and influence of the armed forces which see themselves as the guardians of the secular legacy of the Turkish Republic’s founder Kemal Ataturk.

But AK has also made its mark in foreign policy. It has accelerated Turkey’s negotiations to enter the EU, even if Cypriot blocking tactics and the lack of enthusiasm in France and Germany for Turkish entry have undermined the momentum of those talks.

But Foreign Minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, who is a respected political scientist rather than a career politician, has articulated a clear vision of Turkey’s international role – and it doesn’t involve turning its back on NATO and the EU.

Professor Davutoglu espouses a policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’, others have called it ‘neo-Ottomanism’, which has seen Ankara reaching out to its neighbours to the north, east and south. This has seen the Turks return to the Middle East as mediators between Israel and Syria and to the Balkans where they have recently tried to ease relations between Serbia and Bosnia. It has also seen booming trade with Russia and Iran.

And it is with Iran that American commentators and, seemingly, the Obama administration, have the most problem with Turkey’s changing foreign policy.

Turkey, along with Brazil, attempted to revive talks over Iran’s nuclear programme in May, when Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan and President Lula went to Tehran and got President Ahmedinejad to agree to send some nuclear material abroad for reprocessing as a confidence building measure. According to the Brazilians, the initiative was coordinated closely with the US and the Iranians agreed to the three conditions the US had insisted on. But following the announcement of the agreement, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, rejected it out of hand.

Brazil and Turkey were not best pleased and responded by voting against the stronger sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.

President George W Bush’s response to the September 11th attacks was to tell the world “you’re either with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

Some American commentators’ response to Turkey’s dispute with Israel and attempt to negotiate with Iran, has been reminiscent of this zero-sum approach by arguing  that if Turkey adopts foreign policies the US doesn’t agree with, then it is turning against the West.

Turkey is an emerging power – sometimes bracketed along with the BRIC countries. It’s a member of the G20 with an economy expected to grow more than 5% this year. It sees a new role for itself as a regional power, but it does not seem to see that as being incompatible with remaining a member of NATO and continuing talks to join the EU.

As a senior AK MP, Ozlem Turkone, told the World Tonight’s Paul Moss, in an interview to be broadcast tonight “of course Turkey is still an ally of the West and the US, but the world is no longer a bi-polar world. New regional powers are increasing and Turkey can play as a regional power”

The reaction in government and think-tank circles in Washington to Ankara asserting a more independent foreign policy illustrates the difficulty the US seems to be having adjusting to the changing distribution of power in the world, particularly in the Middle East where it asserts stong national interests of its own.

The World Tonight is broadcast at 22.00 UK time on BBC Radio 4 and online


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    Alistair Burnett is Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Before that he spent 26 years with BBC News where he was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years and before that Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.

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