BACKGROUND: Turkey’s emergence as a serious Middle East power player in the face of Western weakness has been in full display and is symptomatic of new Turkish foreign policy activism. Having initially inspired great admiration in both the Arab world and the West for its early embrace of the Tunisian and Egyptian people, Turkey was initially criticized for its slower pace on Libya and Syria. Maintaining “zero problems” with neighbors has proven untenable given the domestic struggles between peoples and regimes in the aftermath of the “Arab spring”. Ankara has had to choose between sticking to its principles of “zero problems” with autocratic regimes or finding a pragmatic way to work with the West in reshaping the Middle East in its own image.
Turkey did not transform itself from a defeated post-Ottoman Empire state to a flourishing market-based, Muslim-majority democracy overnight; it has been almost a century in the making. The lessons learned and the opportunities offered by Turkey are unique, yet it is still being offered as a “model” for how neighbors might be able to transform themselves. The AKP, that prefers to be an “inspiration” rather than a “model”, has been quick to seize the opportunities presented to it in 2011 by inserting itself in every possible arena and role wherever possible in the region. Having promoted a proactive strategy and template for regional order, Turkish leadership was initially caught off-guard by the rapid developments of the Arab spring and still seems to be reacting to developments even as it seeks to promote an air of proactive confidence.
Turkey has selectively engaged with its neighbors while using double standards and talk. It has remained notably silent on the need for political change in Iran– an important economic partner and a neighbor, even as Tehran has increasingly become hostile towards Ankara. The Turkish government outpaced Europeans and Americans in asking for Tunisian and Egyptian leaders to step down earlier this spring as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in particular was never liked in Ankara; but it was slower than the rest of Western countries on pushing for change in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, where Turkish economic and political interests were deeper and more concentrated.
Turkey’s eventual support of Libyan and now Syrian opposition forces and calls for regime change – until recently close friends – are important developments. By hosting Syrian insurgents and political opposition figures, and by readying harsh unilateral sanctions against Damascus, Turkey is now stepping in tune with the international community in responding to the bloody crackdown on protests in its southern neighbor. These moves signal a potentially significant shift in Ankara to much stronger support for the democratic Arab awakening, from one of indiscriminate partnership to selective containment and engagement.
The real question now is whether 2012 will be the start of a new realignment in Ankara to try and democratize the region in support of the Arab awakenings.
Turkey boasts the fastest growing and largest economy in the region, and as a result of its own democratization and reform process undertaken, it is uniquely placed to play a decisive role in providing critical assistance and encouragement for the newly emerging governments of the region.
IMPLICATIONS: Having spent the last decade strengthening regional ties and promoting itself as an inspiration for the Middle East without placing preconditions on democratic conditionality, Turkey’s credibility has been put on the line with the Syrian crisis. Turkish foreign policy since the beginning of the Arab protests has been largely reactive; Ankara held that it worked with all actors, even though its “zero problems with neighbors” policy had to manage a new environment of “zero neighbors without problems.” Yet, subsequently the AKP government declared that Turkey’s place in history should be on the side of the people of the region. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s words echoed this theme when he proclaimed that "Turkey is playing a role that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history."
The fact that the European Union accession process is on life-support is of little concern in Turkey. Turkey’s emergence as a self-confident international actor represents a new equilibrium for a country once most known for its strong transatlantic link and insistent pursuit of EU recognition as a “Western” power. Turkey’s rebalancing has caused waves, with questions about a supposed Turkish “axis shift” being raised in Western capitals. Indeed, Western observers are accustomed to assessing Turkey’s behavior through the prism of convergence with or divergence from Western policies and preferences without a critical assessment of Turkey’s own agenda in its regions.
However, Turkey’s recent conversion to champion of democracy is still as fragile as is its own democratization process. It is therefore perplexing that the same Western leaders that point to the contradictions and shortcomings of Turkish foreign policy are also those that talk about a “Turkish model” that Ankara should promote and Arab masses should embrace. In fact, the Turkish model is still very much in the making, and the plans to reform the constitution, ensuring progress in media freedom, gender equality, protection of minorities, and more broadly the rule of law - a test for this model to consolidate. When debating Turkey, therefore, the real focus will need to be on domestic developments more than foreign policy. Whether Turkey will develop into a more liberal type of democracy is more important to the future of its foreign policy and the cooperation with the West than speeches and initiatives on the regional and world stage.
Having already been included in Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list and being the top-vote getter for Time Man of the Year,Erdoğan is clearly a man on a mission with a newly internationalized reputation. During his tour of the “Arab Spring Capitals”, observers marveled at a leader who could lead Friday prayers with the faithful in Libya one day and on the very next day lecture the Arab League in Egypt on the merits of secularism. Traveling with large business entourages across the globe there has never been a more successful Turkish champion selling Turkey to every available market around the world, signifying Turkey’s unique global role.
CONCLUSIONS:Turkey's newfound swagger and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s emergence as an international leader should be welcomed as signs of a more responsible stakeholder in regional stability and long-term democratization. Turkish policies and Erdoğan’s populism can still complement the West if framed within a broader and longer-term perspective of the transatlantic alliance that shares common goals and values over short-term tactical differences. At a moment in which global Western leadership is being questioned and Middle Eastern tensions continue, the timing has never been more opportune to re-focus on the core principles and values that underpin the emergence of Turkey’s newfound self-confidence, namely its own domestic developments.
While paying much greater attention on progress in Turkey, Western leaders should cease looking at Turkish foreign policy merely in terms of alignment or drift from an abstract standard. More critically and consequentially, they should stop postulating, as opposed to incarnating by their actions, the principles of the ‘West’ that they take for granted to represent. It is only positive that on the condemnation of Assad, the ousting of Gaddafi, the support to the democratic transitions in Egypt and Syria, the U.S., EU countries, and Turkey are ultimately on the same side. The evolution of Turkish foreign policy beyond the lofty principles of “zero problems with neighbors” should therefore not simply be criticized, but praised by a West for which Turkey is a critical partner, and with whom Middle Eastern policies needs to be coordinated with.
The fact that the hypocrisy of Turkey and Western countries is being exposed as they now are forced by the Arab masses to move from rhetoric to deeds when it comes to democratic reform in the Middle East is a welcome development. Double-standards and contradictions, motivated by either economic or geopolitical interest nonetheless remain in the foreign policies of Turkey and other Western countries. These are issues that should be honestly discussed with a view to overcoming them.
To the extent that the West is defined as a set of principles and democracy, the very challenge with Turkey is applying these standards consistently and universally in constructing a viable partnership that is consequential, flexible, and mutually beneficial. Rather than seeing Turkey’s growing role in the Middle East as a challenge that must be managed, it should be taken as an opportunity to reinforce Turkey’s Western credentials that makes it a unique interlocutor to all its neighbors.
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
© 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".