23 August 2012
In the midst of an uncertain Middle East, Turkey plays an increasingly powerful role. Given its rising economy and territorial bridge between Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Greece, Turkey has a hand in several of today’s most pressing issues: burgeoning democracies in the wake of the Arab Spring, oil trade and refinery, and policies governing the G20 economies.
Moreover, Turkey’s amicable relations with both Eastern and Western powers reiterate its diplomatic potential; with a vested interest in both Islam and democracy, the country’s political culture appeals both to its Middle Eastern neighbors and to the U.S. and Europe. Despite the uncertainty of Turkey’s E.U. membership, experts note that its very process of Europeanization has bolstered its reputation among European nations—and diminished the “racism” and “fear of the unknown” that, according to Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, has long characterized European-Turkish relations. Among Middle Eastern nations, Turkey has been highly involved in the process and aftermath of the Arab Spring, most recently aiding Syrian refugees and providing a base of operations for the Syrian National Council. Turks’ unique ability to bridge cultural differences most Westerners see as irreconcilable has even led international relations experts like Robin Wright to call it “the soft power giant of the Middle East.”
Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan has expressed the blessing and the curse that come with his country’s geography. “As any student of history will attest, geography is destiny,” the ambassador said at a U.S.-Turkey conference sponsored by the Middle East Institute. “We know the truism in this statement: What does not kill you makes you stronger.” Tan did not bemoan Turkey’s close proximity to struggling nation-states, but instead focused on Turkey’s involvement in the changes sweeping the region. The idea that Middle Eastern nations are inherently autocratic, either as a result of the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or a lack of credible institutions, Tan said, adds up to nothing more than Orientalist prejudice. While Turkey has in part felt the repercussions of its neighbors’ political instability, it has both maintained relative domestic stability and aided foreign refugees. Moreover, it has benefitted from the region’s economic strongholds, especially Iran. The second largest exporter to Turkey, and a major source of oil, Iran has long supported the Turkish economy—and vice-versa. As Turkey rises on the international stage, it aims to strengthen these ties with Iran via a free-market relationship.
However, in the interest of maintaining a neutral stance in the region and worldwide, Turkey has spoken unfavorably of Iran’s nuclear testing sites. Ambassador Tan hopes that diplomacy will be enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, seeing “dialogue as the sole way” to yield results. An Iran with definitive nuclear weapons capability would certainly put Turkey in a thorny diplomatic situation. But given Turkey’s capacity for bridging East-West dichotomies, Turkey will likely play a mediating role in the issue, recognizing both Iran’s right to develop and research nuclear energy, and the West’s concerns that Iran’s possession of nuclear arms would give the country excessive control of the region and lay the grounds for inter-state conflict.
Turkey has also played an indispensable front-line role in one of the international community’s most trying challenges: the Syrian conflict. While Turkey’s Iranian allies have aided Bashar al-Assad, Turkey remains staunchly on the side of the Syrian opposition; at the U.S.-Turkey conference, Ambassador Tan assured his audience, “Dear guests, the people of Syria are brothers.” Especially in the wake of Syrian forces’ shooting of a Turkish aircraft in what was presumably international airspace, tensions ran high; of the attack, Tan said, “It runs against all principles of good neighborliness” and signifies a “flagrant violation of international law.” While the Ambassador assured that any response to the attack would be “defensive in nature,” it was clear that Syria’s actions damaged his faith in Turkish-Syrian relations. Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Adviser to the Turkish Prime Minister, echoed Tan’s attitude, remarking that while Turkey is “against any type of war in the region,” it is “on the right side of history” and “will remain committed to the Syrian peoples’ aspirations.” As a democratic state, Turkey could have an ideological influence on Syria’s course, as well as the course of other Arab Spring nations’ state-building process.
Turkish leaders have appealed to their democratic system, as well as the region’s historic multiculturalism and multiconfessionalism, to refute Western misperceptions about Middle Eastern culture. Turkey’s democracy, while failing to represent all ethnic groups within the Turkish state, still resonates with U.S. and European leaders. Increasingly, Turkey seeks to reach European Union human rights standards, and representatives from both Turkey and the E.U. have voiced a growing interest in foreign policy dialogues. Brice de Schieter of the Delegation of the E.U. to the U.S. says that the E.U. seeks a joint discussion with Turkey concerning issues in Iran, Syria, Egypt, and the Western Balkans. Kalin has said that Turkey will move forward with the question of E.U. membership if the E.U. can “overcome whatever political, psychological differences” that may still exist between the countries. U.S. representatives such as Senator John McCain have also publicly supported “the interests and values of a rising democratic Turkey,” further strengthening Turkey’s ties to the West.
Unfortunately, Turkey’s ascendency on the international stage is checked by a number of domestic problems. The Kurdish people remain unable to access constitutional protection and political representation; constitutional measures that protect “Turks” apply to ethnic Turks rather than citizens of the Turkish state, and several Kurdish political parties are often unjustly deemed “terrorist groups.” And while Turkey’s rising middle class seeks better institutions and political representation, the country has the largest number of jailed journalists in the world.
Turkey’s domestic situation may improve in tandem with its international standing. Given its willingness to combine traditionally “Eastern” and “Western” values, hope remains that the same attitude could translate to minority and women’s issues within the state. Moreover, if Turkey seeks to strengthen ties with the West, it may be pressured to make social changes from a diplomatic perspective. The strongest evidence that Turkey is on the path to social change may be the words of Turkish leaders themselves, such as Ibrahim Kalin, who has asserted that Turkey has the natural resources and human capital to move toward pluralism and co-existence. If Western nations abandon their misperceptions about Middle Eastern culture, and aid Turkey in this movement, Kalin’s prediction could come true. Modern-day Turkey, acting as a cultural bridge between all-too-divergent viewpoints, is not a bad place to begin.