BACKGROUND: On April 18, 2010, the BBC released the results of a survey of global public attitudes towards 17 states and the EU. Between November 16, 2009 and February 16, 2010, a total of 29,977 in 28 countries were asked in telephone or in-home interviews whether different countries had a “mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world”. In Turkey, 1,000 people aged 15 or older in 11 urban centers were interviewed face-to-face during the period December 4-27, 2009.
Although it was possible to see certain patterns recurring in many of the countries surveyed, the findings for Turkey suggested the presence of sui generis factors which are shaping public attitudes; although precisely what these factors are remains unclear. For example, there was a remarkable overall improvement in global perceptions of the United States. On average, the proportion of people who believed that the U.S. had a mainly negative influence in the world fell by an average of nine percentage points compared with the previous poll in December 2008; while the number who thought that it had a mainly positive influence rose by four percentage points. In their report, the interviewers attributed the change to the improvement in the image of the U.S. following the election of Barack Obama in November 2008.
However, for reasons that are unclear, Turkey bucked the trend. Despite President Obama’s pledge to wind down the US-led occupation of Iraq, the proportion of Turks who believed that the U.S. had a mainly negative influence actually rose from 63 percent in December 2008 to 70 percent in December 2009, while the number who thought it had a positive influence fell from 21 percent to 15 percent over the same period. In the latest survey, only Pakistan recorded a lower positive rating for the US at nine percent, although the proportion of Pakistanis who had a negative view of the United was much lower than in Turkey at just 52 percent.
As in 2008, Turks took a dim view of the influence of all of the countries about which they were asked, with each receiving more negative than positive ratings. In 2009, there was also an overall decline in positive attitudes, with only two countries receiving higher positive ratings than one year earlier. In December 2009, 34 percent of Turks believed that Japan had a mainly positive influence (up from 30 percent one year earlier), while 21 percent thought that China had a mainly positive influence (up from 18 percent). For all of the other 15 countries, the already low positive ratings fell still further. For example, in December 2009, only 30 percent of Turks believed that Germany had a mainly positive influence (down from 44 percent one year earlier), compared with 18 percent for the UK (previously 24 percent), 17 percent for France (previously 20 percent), 16 percent for Russia (previously 19 percent), 15 percent for Pakistan (previously 23 percent), and 13 percent for Iran (previously 20 percent). Even Brazil, with whom Turkey has traditionally had minimal political, economic and cultural ties, suffered a sharp decline in its ratings. Only 19 percent believed that Brazil had a mainly positive influence, down from 33 percent in December 2008. Not surprisingly given the high levels of anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkey, Israel had the lowest positive rating at just six percent, compared with 10 percent one year earlier. Only 29 percent of Turks believed that the EU had a mainly positive influence, down from 34 percent in December 2008.
Taken on their own, the decline in the positive ratings for all but two countries would suggest a rise in xenophobia in Turkey. However, nearly all of the negative ratings also fell. Apart from the U.S., the only other country whose negative rating increased between December 2008 and December 2009 was Israel. In December 2009, 77 percent of the Turks surveyed said that Israel had a mainly negative influence, up from 70 percent in December 2008. In addition, 45 percent of Turks believed that the EU had a mainly negative influence, marginally up from 44 percent one year earlier. However, the negative ratings for 15 of the 17 countries actually fell, sometimes quite significantly.
For example, in December 2009, 54 percent of Turks believed that Iran had a mainly negative influence (down from 60 percent one year earlier), compared with 53 percent for the UK (previously 56 percent), 53 percent for France (previously 58 percent), 50 percent for Russia (previously 64 percent), 47 percent for China (previously 64 percent), 40 percent for Pakistan (previously 53 percent), 35 percent for Japan (previously 47 percent), 34 percent for Brazil (previously 45 percent) and 33 percent for Germany (previously 36 percent). (Click here for details.)
IMPLICATIONS: Although it rarely manifests itself on a personal level – with the majority of Turks tending to treat visitors to their country with considerably more kindness and courtesy than they accord to each other – xenophobic nationalism has long been one of the main determinants of most Turks’ views of the world.
There is no doubt that, in addition to deepening social polarization over the role and visibility of religion in public life, there has also recently been a significant rise in nationalism in Turkey. But it has been mostly directed at the “internal other”, the Kurds, subsequent to the Kurdish, or democratic, opening of the government. With an unprecedented growth in ethnic violence on the streets of Turkey’s cities, Turkish ultra-nationalism is becoming a threat to societal peace. However, there has not been a noticeable increase in hostility towards foreign states. Indeed, the marked decline in the negative ratings for all of the 17 countries except the U.S. and Israel strongly suggests that xenophobia alone cannot explain the results of the BBC survey and that there are other dynamics at work. But it is not clear what they are.
It is possible that part of the explanation lies in a shift in perceptions of Turkey’s role in the world, particularly since Ahmet Davutoğlu was appointed foreign minister in May 2009. Davutoğlu has accelerated a trend initiated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it first came to power in November 2002 of allocating more time and resources to improving relations with other Muslim states. The AKP increasingly describes this policy in terms of making Turkey a “regional power” or a “power centre” in its own right.
Inevitably, Turkey’s ability to assert itself as an independent “power centre” implies a measure of detachment from – though not necessarily opposition to – existing blocs and alliances. Whether or not the AKP will succeed – or whether Turkey will end up in a form of strategic limbo – currently remains unclear. However, it is possible that the AKP’s increased emphasis on Turkey’s individual role – rather than as a member of a grouping or alliance of states – has meant that some Turks are now more focused on their own country’s own impact on the international arena and less concerned, one way or the other, with the merits of the influence of other countries.
Yet, even if true, this is likely to provide only a partial explanation of the results of the BBC survey; and it certainly does not explain the rise in anti-U.S. sentiments. The increase in the negative ratings for Israel is probably attributable to widespread public condemnation of the Israeli military operations in Gaza in December 2009 and January 2010, and the AKP’s vigorously anti-Israeli statements and deeds over the months that followed. But the same cannot be said of attitudes towards the U.S. In fact, given the intensity of opposition in Turkey to his administration’s policies – particularly the war against and occupation of Iraq – it would have been surprising if Turks’ attitudes towards the U.S. had remained unchanged when George W. Bush stepped down as president. Given the absence either of similarly controversial new policy initiatives by the Obama administration or of any evidence of an overall rise in xenophobia in Turkey, the increase in negative perceptions of the U.S. appears to defy logical explanation.
CONCLUSIONS: Although it is difficult to identify the reasons for the changes in Turkish attitudes suggested by the recent BBC poll, the results are still significant; not least in the run-up to the Turkish general election scheduled for 2011.
The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the results of the survey is that the AKP’s antagonistic policy towards Israel is not going to harm the party at the ballot box, and that a more conciliatory approach could be electorally damaging. Similarly, the negative ratings for both the EU and its leading individual member states provide further evidence of a lack of public enthusiasm for – or even interest in – eventual accession, and provide the AKP with little incentive to reenergize Turkey’s apparently stalled bid for EU membership.
Perhaps more pertinently, the survey results suggest a deep public antagonism towards the U.S. at a time when Washington is anxious to enlist Turkey’s support as it weighs up possible measures against Iran over its nuclear program. Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has already announced that Turkey is opposed to any fresh sanctions against Iran. It is possible that the Turkish government may change its mind. But the BBC survey suggests that, if it does so, it is unlikely to be as the result of public pressure from within Turkey to support the United States.
Gareth Jenkins, a Senior Associate Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".