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Whither the Ankara-Washington Standoff?

Fall / Winter 2019 Nez À Nez

Whither the Ankara-Washington Standoff?

Proposition: The Turkish-American dispute signals the end of Turkey’s Western project.

Balkan Devlen is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen (in favour): The recent spat between Turkey and the US is not a cause but instead a symptom of a growing divide between Turkey and the West. To be sure, there are real disagreements between Turkey and the US – particularly in respect of how to deal with the PYD/YPG in Syria, which Turkey sees as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, a terrorist organization that has been recognized as such by Turkey, the US and the EU. The issue of the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish national living in the US, after the failed putsch in July 2016 in Turkey also grates on the relationship between Ankara and Washington (see the In Situ article by Mitat Celikpala and Sinem Akgul Acikmese in the Fall 2016 issue of GB). Still, disagreements – even serious ones such as these – are not uncommon between allies, and Turkish-American relations have had their ups and downs over the years since 1945.

Three things make the current crisis different from previous disagreements, and may signal the end of Turkey’s ‘Western orientation’ – at least for the short to medium term. First, the current crisis with the US has come at the end of a decade-long transformation of Turkey in which power has been concentrated in the hands of President Erdogan, while institutional and societal checks and balances have been progressively dismantled. The June 2018 Turkish general elections completed the country’s transformation from a parliamentary system to a presidential one – a transformation that moved Turkey far from its traditional post-WW2 aspiration of becoming a liberal democracy and a part of Europe. Bref, the gulf between Turkey and the West has been growing for a while, but it is only now that some in the West have begun to realize it.

Second, domestically, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) has, for a variety of reasons, been amping up the nationalist rhetoric since 2015. Anti-Americanism – or, more broadly, anti-Westernism – is a cornerstone of this nationalist turn, as it runs deep across the political spectrum, from the left and their Cold-War-era ‘anti-imperialism’ to the Islamists who see the US as modern-day ‘Crusaders’ (and the protector of Israel) and indeed anyone in between, including those who disagree with Erdogan on everything else. The US (and the West more generally) has, for all practical intents and purposes, been the party to blame for all of Turkey’s domestic and international problems.

President Erdogan seems to have broad public support for pursuing an antagonistic policy vis-à-vis the West, and the present crisis provides the opportunity for political exploitation.

Such sentiments were largely kept in check by the country’s staunchly pro-Western civilian and military elite throughout most of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. However, the rise of the AKP after 2002 and the gradual replacement of the old elite within the state made it possible for those deep currents to surface. Bref, President Erdogan seems to have broad public support for pursuing an antagonistic policy vis-à-vis the West, and the present crisis provides the opportunity for political exploitation. Of course, the genie of anti-Americanism in Turkey will not be easy to put back into the bottle.

Third, this latest crisis between Turkey and the US is embedded within the broader crisis of the Western-led liberal international order – one that includes ‘internal’ challenges like the rise of populism and nativism across Europe and the US. Intra-Western disputes that would in the past have been sorted out without much damage have become harder to resolve. President Trump is openly hostile to the post-WW2 liberal international order, and his dealings with US allies have often been hostile. Given his penchant for Twitter outbursts and other unpredictable behaviour against adversaries and allies alike, it becomes very difficult to negotiate a solution that provides face-saving options for both parties. The US president’s style not only forces President Erdogan to adopt a more rigid position in this crisis, but also provides Erdogan with a useful foil to rail against ‘Western schemes’ of intervention in Turkish domestic politics. Erdogan is able and willing to shift the blame for Turkey’s economic woes to ‘foreign powers.’

Katerina Dalacoura is Associate Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (opposed): Anti-Westernism is deeply rooted in Turkish history and in the Turkish psyche. The project of the Kemalist elite was to turn the new republic, after its establishment in 1923, westward in terms of values and general orientation. But Turkey did not join the Western alliance – that is, in the formal sense of joining NATO – until 1952. Throughout the Cold War and in the post-Cold War period, Turkey’s firm commitment to the West in security terms has always co-existed with a profound suspiciousness and occasional dislike of the West – particularly of the US. This was the case even among the Kemalist military and bureaucratic elites, who may have been pro-Western in their military, political and ‘civilizational’ preferences – in spite of their own authoritarian inclinations – but were also, at times, anti-Western, abhorring the imperialistic designs of the West, real or imagined.

Granted, the present-day dominant elite around the AKP does not have the same civilizational commitment to the West that the Kemalists had in the past. This has increasingly become the case with each year they have stayed in power. At present, the West is an easy target – a punching bag that allows the government to whip up popular (and populist) support in its favour, and that comes in handy as the economic situation worsens. President Trump’s lack of political foresight and disregard for the rules of diplomacy and diplomatic decorum make this all the easier. And yet it is easy to forget, in the current climate, that the relationship between Turkey and the West (both the US and Europe) has suffered – and survived – tremendous hits, not least around the Cyprus crisis in the 1960s and 1970s, the military coup of 1980, and the complex Kurdish issue with its multiple ramifications for Turkish domestic politics and external relations.

What reduces the likelihood of the current conflict between Turkey and the US becoming a permanent divorce is the same set of factors as in the past: membership in NATO remains the mainstay of Turkish foreign policy, as the alliance continues to provide Turkey with a security umbrella that is, for the time being, irreplaceable. President Erdogan, for all the concentration of power in his hands, will find it impossible to extract Turkey from NATO without putting both domestic stability and the country’s security at serious risk. Furthermore, the Turkish economy’s dependence on Europe and the US, combined with Turkey’s embeddedness in (and reliance on) the global financial architecture – which, for all of President Trump’s efforts, is still underwritten by US structural power – will make the cost of a divorce exceedingly high for Turkey. Erdogan will therefore continue to employ anti-American rhetoric, but he will not push things to extremes in a concrete sense.

BD: We broadly agree on the deeper roots of anti-Westernism in Turkey, or at least on the ambivalent relationship of Turkey vis-à-vis the West – including among the Kemalist elite, whose orientation may be described as ‘Westernization in spite of the West.’ However, the lack of ‘civilizational’ commitment by the current elite is crucial to assessing whether today’s crisis is different from the many others that you have pointed out.

One of the key elements of those previous crises was the perceived betrayal of Turkey by the West among the Turkish elite. This perceived betrayal involved a sense of being abandoned by key allies in the case of, say, Cyprus, and of not being treated as a ‘true’ member of the West, while not having Turkish interests and concerns taken into account in Western decision-making. Whether such a betrayal was real or imagined is beside the point. What was indubitably real was the sense of injury – not only to the material interests of Turkey, but also to the country’s sense of identity. The cultural-civilizational commitment to the West was the cornerstone of Turkey’s ‘Western project’ from the early days of the Turkish Republic. The security dimension came later on with the Cold War. As such, during those earlier crises, Turkey’s fundamental civilizational choice had not been seriously questioned – apart from some rhetorical moves by Turkish leaders at the height of the various crises. That cultural-civilizational commitment also underlies – or used to underlie – Turkey’s decades-long quest to be part of the European Commission and then the EU.

Without that cultural-civilizational commitment, all that is left is a transactional relationship – something that would put Turkey in the same category as other Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, with which the West does business or that the West befriends or courts for security or economic purposes. Even with its nominal membership in NATO – at least for now – this transactional turn means an end to Turkey’s century-long ‘Western project.’ Such a state of affairs might even be welcomed by the current elite in Turkey, as it could imply less pressure or fewer demands to adopt or implement Westerns norms in Turkey’s domestic affairs.

KD: It may well be that the AKP elite and leadership do not have the same cultural-civilizational commitment to the West that the Kemalist elite did. Still, they do not totally reject the West. For one, this elite is not uniform in its ideas and values. Like all politically successful movements, the AKP is an umbrella organization comprising individuals with a range of views and positions. Erdogan may be a very powerful leader, but even he has no complete dominance over the AKP elite – or any ability to enforce a single line, for that matter.

More to the point, rather than a tilt to the ‘East,’ the AKP has tried to put forward the proposition of ‘making Turkey great again’ by appealing to both East and West, thereby resuscitating and trying to put into effect a new variant of the old idea of Turkey as a ‘bridge’ between the two. To this end, what the AKP wants is not to abandon the West, but rather to renegotiate Turkey’s relationship with it from a position of greater strength. It may be true that, for many of the AKP cadres, Turkey must reclaim its Islamic past and the orientation from which the nation had been severed by the Kemalists. However, for some of these cadres Islam is conceptualized as modern and modernized – not necessarily in antithesis to the West. In other words, the West, as such, is not rejected, but Turkey is seen as being in the unique position of speaking to all of the civilizations and regions surrounding it.

We see here a strong Turkish nationalist strand – albeit one that is distinct from the Kemalist one – pervading the AKP discourse. The AKP has not severed itself from Kemalism – which has, after all, successfully revolutionized Turkish society’s attitudes and approaches over the decades – but has instead appropriated strands of it to widen its appeal. Herein, after all, in its partial appropriation of Turkish nationalism and its ability to (partly) build on Kemalism, lies one of the secrets of the AKP’s spectacular political success.

Another secret of AKP success is a keen awareness of, and ability to pursue, the party’s own material and political interests. For this reason – more than anything else – the AKP would be reluctant to sever relations with the West. This is true even at times like the present, when relations appear to be at their lowest point. Bref, the Turkish economy is too closely tied to Europe, and Turkish security is too closely tied to the US for the severing of ties to happen without tremendous costs.

Of course, economic relations with Europe do not necessarily entail membership within the EU. Indeed, it could be argued that the AKP could sustain the former (economic relations) while seeking the latter (membership). However, the political cost of Turkey withdrawing from the accession process would be high, given that the majority of the Turkish public remains consistently in favour of EU membership.

As for abandoning the American or NATO security umbrella, this would render Turkey dangerously vulnerable to outside threats by undermining the country’s military infrastructure. Such a move could also trigger domestic political turmoil and even violence. One must remember that, in terms of its economy and national security, Turkey does not have many other options: Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and even China can each offer trade deals, weapons systems or ad hoc alliances, but not enough to commend themselves as bona fide alternatives to the US, NATO, Europe and the West.

BD: Let me make four points – two by way of disagreement, and two by way of agreement. First, the idea of the AKP as an umbrella organization might have been apposite before 2011, but it has not been so since then. Any potential alternative power centre within the party has been, since 2011, gradually tamed or expunged by Erdogan. Some would even argue that this process started in 2007, but it is also true that it picked up steam from the 2015 elections. Bref, the current AKP is one and the same with President Erdogan. This was the case even before Turkey switched to a presidential system. The members of the parliament and the party officials derive their power not from their constituents or from their role within the party organization, but instead from their proximity to the president. The rise and fall of Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister is perhaps among the clearest examples of this dynamic.

Second, and relatedly, I disagree with the idea that the political cadres advocating for a modernizing Islam within AKP have any relevance today. Even when they were to be found, in the early years of AKP rule, they were a small minority within the party – window dressing, as it were. Their most prominent members – such as Abdullatif Sener, one of the co-founders of the AKP and deputy prime minister between 2002 and 2007 – are long gone from the party. Indeed, to have expected Westernization of a different kind – ‘Westernization with Islamic characteristics,’ as it were – from the AKP cadres turned out to be a mirage that was exposed since at least the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

Third, I do agree that the rhetoric of the AKP has become increasingly nationalistic – albeit through a species of religious nationalism that highlights the Sunni component of Turkish identity. This rhetoric does, in a way, harken back to the ‘Turkish-Islamic synthesis’ of the 1970s and 1980s, and therefore manages to forge an alliance with the MHP, the traditional Turkish nationalist party. However, it is also important to note that this new alliance between the MHP and the AKP has not necessarily sat well with all of the nationalists – thereby leading to the establishment of a new nationalist party, the Iyi, which managed to win over 10 percent of the vote in the June 2018 elections.

Fourth, I agree that structural factors – specifically, in terms of national security and the economy – make it unlikely and irrational for Turkey to effectuate a complete break with the West. Still, I have concerns. To reiterate a point made above, the abandonment of the cultural-civilizational component of Turkey’s national disposition is, for all practical intents and purposes, the abandonment of Turkey’s Western project – even if transactional relations with the West on economic issues and security are maintained.

Moreover, at this stage, Turkey-EU relations are a game of chicken, with each side waiting for the other to blink first – that is, to give up on the accession process. We may well see one of the parties blink in the coming few years. If Turkey blinks first, I do not believe that the domestic political cost of such a move would be high for the AKP, given that EU membership is not among the leading concerns for its power base or for the nationalists that the party has been courting over the past couple of years. Indeed, such a move may actually reinvigorate relations between Ankara and Brussels, providing a more realistic, access-to-markets-centred framework. Having said this, withdrawal from NATO is highly unlikely, given that international systemic constraints arguably operate more effectively in the security realm. The net result would therefore be that Turkey would remain part of the Western security architecture, but that its future role would be much more complicated.

KD: Granted, Turkish membership in the EU may never happen and, yes, there may at some point be a formal admission in this regard – perhaps in the shape of an official end to the accession negotiations and the pursuit of a different kind of relationship. Brexit may offer an impetus for such an outcome by indicating that the EU would be prepared to enter into a number of ‘bespoke’ arrangements with close allies.

Far more than economic, political, or cultural issues, the main obstacle in the relationship between Turkey and the EU has been the conflict over Cyprus – a nationalist Turkish issue par excellence.

But even if this does occur – not an easy option, given that the cost of ‘blinking first’ remains high – to argue that its main cause will have been the AKP’s anti-Westernism is quite a stretch. Let us remember that the main obstacle in the relationship between Turkey and the EU has been the conflict over Cyprus – a nationalist Turkish issue par excellence. It is Cyprus, more than economic, political or cultural divisions and splits, that has been a conspicuous stumbling block between Turkey and the EU – particularly after Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2004.

Of course, another major issue has been the complex internal situation in the EU and the serious problems that Europe has been facing over the past few years and indeed decades over its identity, its economic project and its enlargement. To reduce this complex relationship and the political process between Ankara and Brussels to a simple ‘East versus West’ logic prevents us from seeing the many other parameters at play, and therefore skews the big picture.

More immediately relevant to events in the current juncture is the fact that Turkey and the EU are entering a phase of improved relations because they face a common problem in President Trump. Turkey has been at the receiving end of the Trump administration’s abrasive policies over the detention and recent release of the American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and, as a result, relations between Ankara and Washington have deteriorated dramatically. (This deterioration has not been meaningfully reversed, in any sense, by the latest breakdown in relations between Western countries and Saudi Arabia over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.) This may serve Erdogan and the AKP well domestically in that they can use the US as a lightning rod to divert attention from their own economic failings. However, the tensions have also pushed the Turkish government to mend fences with the EU and individual European countries with which it had fallen out in the last couple of years. And this most recent development or dynamic is a reminder, if any were needed, that ‘the West’ is a complex entity and that no one country – not even the US – can claim to represent it in its totality.

BD: I do agree with Katerina’s description of the main obstacles and issues in Turkish-EU relations. For the record, I do not think that anti-Westernism is the primary issue at play here. I do think, though, that by foregoing the cultural-civilizational dimension of Turkish-EU relations, the AKP decreased the domestic political cost of a ‘divorce.’ Potential membership in the EU is no longer tied to the perceived self-identity of modern Turkey, but is instead a purely transactional relationship based on cost-benefit analysis. And as the centre of gravity of the global economy continues to shift to the East, without that cultural-civilizational anchor, Turkey will find more reasons to drift away from Europe.

It is true that Erdogan is trying quietly to mend relations with European countries in order to hedge against the worsening of the current problems with the US. However, given Trump’s preference for transactional bilateral relations, it is not too difficult to imagine Washington moving on from the present tensions as soon as an acceptable exit is found. As such, Erdogan will actually be more comfortable in dealing with a transactional leader like Trump than with an EU leadership that will continue to criticize Ankara on several fronts even once this most recent crisis is over.

In sum, the recent crisis may not – in and of itself – mean much, but it is a symptom of a growing divide between the West and Turkey. Turkey’s cultural-civilizational aspiration of Westernization – and of belonging to the West – was and remains the essence of Turkey’s ‘Western project.’ To be sure, structural factors could make it very hard or unlikely for Turkey and the West to effectuate a complete divorce between themselves. Nevertheless, the relationship will be increasingly transactional and not transformational. This would mean the end of Turkey’s Western project – at least for the foreseeable future.

KD: Although we may not be poles apart on many of the issues debated here, we do have a significant difference in emphasis. For me, the past relationship between Turkey and the West has been equally about material interests (‘transactional’ – as it were) as about ‘civilizational’ direction. Both ‘the West’ and ‘Turkey’ are such broad and complex categories that reducing the relationship between them to single facets or elements will not take us very far in our analysis.

This brings me to my last point, which is implicit in everything that I have argued thus far: the very idea that Turkey has been pursuing a ‘Western project’ – insofar as this is understood in terms of a ‘civilizational’ orientation – is problematic and ahistorical. The idea rests on the implication that ‘the West’ can be reduced to a number of principles that can be distilled and emulated, and that these principles remain the same across time. It builds on the notion that societies such as Turkey can indeed be ‘led’ or ‘shaped’ on the basis of these chosen principles by a vanguard elite. Furthermore, it rests on the supposition that Turkey previously belonged to another civilization – to wit, ‘the East’, another problematic category – from which it must be dragged and pushed in the opposition direction.

Is it helpful, at the current juncture of world politics, to still think in terms of these categories – particularly after we have seen the destructive effect that they have had on how we deal with real-life political issues like multiculturalism, and how they have skewed our perspectives and policies toward Islamist extremism? Is it not time to leave these old-fashioned categories behind and recognize the complexities of people’s identities and the multiple loyalties that they may hold? I put it to GB’s readers around the world that abandoning the terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ will help us to better understand contemporary Turkey and offer fresh insights about the future of its relations with the outside world.


Balkan Devlen is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.

Katerina Dalacoura is Associate Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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