Turkey and the West: A Fractured but Necessary Relationship

What can explain the recent slump in Turkish-Western relations? Having been a member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has long positioned itself as a staunch member of the Atlantic community. Kemal Kirişci argues that this in part due to the change in the elite within Turkey, and how they have reformed their government to reflect a different ideology and foreign policy. Kemal Kirişci is the TÜSİAD senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at Brookings, he joined the World Affairs Council on January 17, 2018 to discuss how Turkey is historically joined to the West, and despite it’s new attitude and institutional changes, will continue to remain aligned with Western interests. This conversation was moderated by the director of the Jackson School at the University of Washington, Henry M Jackson Professor of International Studies Resat Kasaba.

A change in the elite, Kirişci argues, is how Turkey has transformed its’ politics and institutions. The old order, led by Atlanticists, democrats, secularists and founding father Ataturk, was rooted in the Ottoman Empire, they had sought to turn Turkey into a Western and modern nation. Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development) Party, deeply disagrees with Westernization, thus seeking an alternative Turkish vision. This development didn’t occur overnight, as Erdogan’s Turkey was initially seen as a secularist achievement in the Islamic world, a reconciliation between Islam and democracy that was deemed impossible elsewhere. The Arab Spring was one opportunity for Erdogan and his cohort to unite the Muslim world which seemed to be divided by the West, and in this case, he blamed Obama’s plan to arm the Kurds (in their fight against ISIS) as a plot that ISIS was created by the West to tear the Muslim world apart. 

It hasn’t only been a rhetorical regression, according to Kirişci, Erdogan has completely destroyed the institution of the military in Turkey, which was rooted in the Ottoman Empire. As an important function of balancing the civilian government and as a secular institution, the military being deposed and transformed radically shifts the balance of power within Turkey’s governing structure. Ataturk’s lesson of non-interference in intra-Arab affairs, also now left by the wayside. Erdogan’s regime has become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy, particularly fueled by a fear of Kurdish separatism, and the formation of a Kurdish state both within and outside of Turkish borders. 

However, Kirişci safely claims that “the West is stuck with Turkey”, and vice versa. Since during the Cold War to the present day, Turkey has functioned as a barrier and Western state in suppressing Russian aspirations in the region. Turkey’s exports to the U.S. doubled their combined exports to Russia and Iran, both states who are neighbors. Not only do they export more to the U.S., they export valuable goods, such as manufactured goods and steel, whereas Russia gets cucumbers and tomatoes. Kirişci argues that the economic platform has always been the most important platform for voters, even if domestic terrorism is taking up more space in the civic conversation. Therefore, despite the turbulence in the relationship Turkey maintains with the EU and the U.S., Turkish interests remain firmly aligned in the Atlantic community. Even though the institutions that bind such a commitment to the West are being eroded, Erdogan’s government still finds more in common with its Western counterparts than it’s volatile neighbors.