“The westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia,” is how the British historian Barry Cunliffe describes Europe’s topographic form. It’s a useful image because it emphasizes what this nominal continent is anchored on to rather than what sets it apart. Seen in this way, the importance of Turkey — a figurative bridge between two continents that actually reveals how indivisible they are — cannot be overestimated. Yet now more than ever, Europe’s eastern edge is being viewed warily.
Western disquiet about the political trajectory upon which Turkey might be heading has been growing ever since the AK party became the dominant political force. At the same time, there’s no denying that under Islamist governance Turkey’s economy has thrived as never before. But what offends Western capitals more than anything else right now is the perception that Turkey no longer looks up to its cultural superiors.
“Who do they think they are?” the Americans, Germans and French must be muttering as they witness Turkey step out of line by voting against Security Council sanctions on Iran. Worst of all, why does the Turkish prime minister repeatedly insist on exposing the obsequious nature of the ways in which so many Western governments indulge Israel?
Just as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarrassed most Arab leaders by presenting a model of leadership that cannot be emulated without democracy, he likewise exposes the weakness of Western leaders — politicians who instead of showing leadership have become service managers catering to the needs of special interests.
In this context, Turkey’s rising power is increasingly being characterized as a rogue tendency. Maturity is being cast as insubordination.
But at the Financial Times, Philip Stephens explains why the claim that “Turkey has been lost,” really has no foundation.
[T]he message I took from policymakers and business leaders at a recent conference in Istanbul convened by Chatham House was far more subtle than the present discourse in the west. Far from turning its back on Europe, the [Turkish] government hopes that the country’s rising regional influence will strengthen its claim for admission [to the EU].
It is not often these days that you hear anyone praise the EU. Turkish politicians are the exception. The Union, one of Mr Erdogan’s ministers told the conference, had been a “greatest peace project in the history of mankind”. Securing Turkey’s membership remained a “national and a strategic” objective.
Nor, according to ministers, had Turkey taken pleasure in opposing a new UN Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran – a vote that followed an abortive Turkish-Brazilian initiative to broker a deal over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The initiative, which would have seen the transfer of part of Iran’s stockpile of uranium to Turkey, was dismissed in Washington as at best naive. Ankara was accused of falling into an Iranian trap. Turkish ministers offer a rather different version of events. The terms of proposal, they insist, were entirely consistent with those set out in a private letter sent to Mr Erdogan in April by US president Barack Obama. The initiative was never promoted as a comprehensive solution, but rather as a confidence-building measure that could lead to broader negotiations with Tehran.
Whatever the precise details and chronology, nothing that I heard in Istanbul spoke to a nation looking for a breach with the west; what I took away instead was that 20 years after the end of the cold war Turkey has decided that it can sometimes shape its own foreign policy. Membership of the west once meant doing whatever Washington said. Now it has interests, opinions and rights of its own.
For many Americans, and for some Europeans, this is more than irritating. The Turkey of their imagination was one forever in their debt and forever grateful for any seat at the western table.
The irony, of course, is that the new, assertive, Turkey has more to offer the west than its pliant precedessor. With a mind of its own, it has greater strategic credibility in the Middle East and the Muslim world. This is the Turkey the west really must not lose.