Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Parliamentary elections June 12, which means it will remain in power for a third term. The popular vote, divided among a number of parties, made the AKP the most popular party by far, although nearly half of the electorate voted for other parties, mainly the opposition and largely secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP). More important, the AKP failed to win a super-majority, which would have given it the power to unilaterally alter Turkey’s constitution. This was one of the major issues in the election, with the AKP hoping for the super-majority and others trying to block it. The failure of the AKP to achieve the super-majority leaves the status quo largely intact. While the AKP remains the most powerful party in Turkey, able to form governments without coalition partners, it cannot rewrite the constitution without accommodating its rivals.
One way to look at this is that Turkey continues to operate within a stable framework, one that has been in place for almost a decade. The AKP is the ruling party. The opposition is fragmented along ideological lines, which gives the not overwhelmingly popular AKP disproportionate power. The party can set policy within the constitution but not beyond the constitution. In this sense, the Turkish political system has produced a long-standing reality. Few other countries can point to such continuity of leadership. Obviously, since Turkey is a democracy, the rhetoric is usually heated and accusations often fly, ranging from imminent military coups to attempts to impose a religious dictatorship. There may be generals thinking of coups and there may be members of AKP thinking of religious dictatorship, but the political process has worked effectively to make such things hard to imagine. In Turkey, as in every democracy, the rhetoric and the reality must be carefully distinguished.
Turkey’s Shifting Policy
That said, the AKP has clearly taken Turkey in new directions in both domestic and foreign policy. In domestic policy, the direction is obvious. While the CHP has tried to vigorously contain religion within the private sphere, the AKP has sought to recognize Turkey’s Islamic culture and has sought a degree of integration with the political structure.
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This has had two results. Domestically, while the AKP has had the strength to create a new political sensibility, it has not had the strength to create new institutions based on Islamic principles (assuming this is one of its desired goals). Nevertheless, the secularists, deriving their legitimacy from the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, have viewed his legacy and their secular rights — one of which is the right of women not to have to wear headscarves — as being under attack. Hence, the tenor of public discourse has been volatile. Indeed, there is a constant sense of crisis in Turkey, as the worst fears of the secularists collide with the ambitions of the AKP. Again, we regard these ambitions as modest, not because we know what AKP leaders intend in their heart, but simply because they lack the power to go further regardless of intentions.
The rise of the AKP and its domestic agenda has more than just domestic consequences. Since 2001, the United States has been fighting radical Islamists, and the fear of radical Islamism goes beyond the United States to Europe and other countries. In many ways, Turkey is both the most prosperous and most militarily powerful of any Muslim country. The idea that the AKP agenda is radically Islamist and that Turkey is moving toward radical Islamism generates anxieties and hostilities in the international system.
While the thought of a radical Islamist Turkey is frightening, and many take an odd pleasure in saying that Turkey has been “lost” to radical Islamism and should be ostracized, the reality is more complex. First, it is hard to ostracize a country that has the largest army in Europe as well as an economy that grew at 8.9 percent last year and that occupies some of the most strategic real estate in the world. If the worst case from the West’s point of view were true, ostracizing Turkey would be tough, making war on it even tougher, and coping with the consequences of an Islamist Turkey tougher still. If it is true that Turkey has been taken over by radical Islamists — something I personally do not believe — it would be a geopolitical catastrophe of the first order for the United States and its allies in the region. And since invading Turkey is not an option, the only choice would be accommodation. It is interesting to note that those who are most vociferous in writing Turkey off are also most opposed to accommodation. It is not clear what they propose, since their claim is both extreme and generated, for the most part, for rhetorical and not geopolitical reasons. The fear is real, and the threat may be there as well, but the solutions are not obvious.
Turkey’s Geopolitical Position
So I think it is useful to consider Turkey in a broader geopolitical context. It sits astride one of the most important waterways in the world, the Bosporus, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That alone made Ataturk’s desire for an inward Turkey not playing great power games difficult to attain. Given that it is part of the Caucasus, shares a border with Iran, borders the Arab world and is part of Europe, Turkey inevitably becomes part of other countries’ plans. For example, in World War II both powers wanted Turkey in the war on their side, particularly the Germans, who wanted Turkish pressure on the Baku oil fields.
After World War II, the Cold War drove Turkey toward the United States. Pressure in the Caucasus and the Soviet appetite for controlling the Bosporus, a historic goal of the Russians, gave Turkey common cause with the United States. The Americans did not want the Soviets to have free access to the Mediterranean, and the Turks did not want to lose the Bosporus or be dominated by the Soviets.
From the American point of view, a close U.S.-Turkish relationship came to be considered normal. But the end of the Cold War redefined many relationships, and in many cases, neither party was aware of the redefinition for quite some time. The foundation of the U.S.-Turkish alliance rested on the existence of a common enemy, the Soviets. Absent that enemy, the foundation disappeared, but in the 1990s there were no overriding pressures for either side to reconsider its position. Thus, the alliance remained intact simply because it was easier to maintain it than rethink it.
This was no longer the case after 2001, when the United States faced a new enemy, radical Islamism. At this point, the Turks were faced with a fundamental issue: the extent to which they would participate in the American war and the extent to which they would pull away. After 2001, the alliance stopped being without a cost.
The break point came in early 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which came after the AKP election victory in late 2002. The United States wanted to send a division into northern Iraq from southern Turkey, and the Turks blocked the move. This represented a critical break in two ways. First, it was the first time since World War II that the Turks had distanced themselves from an American crisis — and in this case, it was one in their very neighborhood. Second, it was a decision made by a government suspected by the United States of having sympathies for Islamists. The Turks did not break with the United States, eventually allowing U.S. air operations to continue from Turkey and participating in assistance programs in Afghanistan.
But for the United States, the decision on Iraq became a defining moment, when the United States realized that it could not take Turkish support for granted. The Turks, on the other hand, decided that the United States was taking actions that were not in their best interests. The relationship was not broken, but it did become strained.
Turkey was experiencing a similar estrangement from Europe. Since medieval times, Turkey has regarded itself as a European country, and in the contemporary era, it has sought membership in the European Union, a policy maintained by the AKP. At first, the European argument against Turkish membership focused on Turkey’s underdeveloped condition. However, for the last decade, Turkey has experienced dramatic economic growth, including after the global financial crisis in 2008. Indeed, its economic growth has outstripped that of most European countries. The argument of underdevelopment no longer holds.
Still, the European Union continues to block Turkish membership. The reason is simple: immigration. There was massive Turkish immigration to Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Germany and France have significant social strains resulting from Muslim immigration, and allowing Turkey into the European Union would essentially open the borders. Now, a strong argument could be made that EU membership would be disastrous for Turkey economically, but for Turkey it is not the membership that matters nearly as much as the rejection. The European rejection of Turkey over the immigration issue alienates Turkey from the Europeans, making it harder for the AKP to counter allegations that it is “turning its back on the West.”
Thus, the Turks, not wanting to participate in the Iraq war, created a split with the United States, and the European rejection of Turkish membership in the European Union has generated a split with Europe. From a Turkish point of view, the American invasion of Iraq was ill conceived and the European position ultimately racist. In this sense, they were being pushed away from the West.
Turkey and the Islamic World
But two other forces were at work. First, the Islamic world changed its shape. From being overwhelmingly secular in political outlook, not incidentally influenced by Ataturk, the Islamic world began to move in a more religious direction until the main tendency was no longer secular but Islamic to varying degrees. It was inevitable that Turkey would experience the strains and pressures of the rest of the Muslim world. The question was not whether Turkey would shift but to what degree.
The other force was geopolitical. The two major wars in the Muslim world being fought by the United States were not proceeding satisfactorily, and while the main goal had been reached — there were no further attacks on the United States — the effort to maintain or create non-Islamic regimes in the region was not succeeding. Now the United States is withdrawing from the region, leaving behind instability and an increasingly powerful and self-confident Turkey.
In the end, the economic and military strength of Turkey had to transform it into a major regional force. By default, with the American withdrawal, Turkey has become the major power in the region on several counts. For one, the fact that Turkey had an AKP government and was taking a leadership position in the region made the United States very uncomfortable. For another, and this is the remarkable part, Turkey moved moderately on the domestic front when compared to the rest of the region, and its growing influence was rooted in American failure rather than Turkish design. When a Turkish aid flotilla sailed to Gaza and was intercepted by the Israelis in 2010, the Turkish view was that it was the minimum step Turkey could take as a leading Muslim state. The Israeli view was that Turkey was simply supporting radical Islamists.
This is not a matter of misunderstanding. The foundation of Turkey’s relationship with Israel, for example, had more to do with hostility toward pro-Soviet Arab governments than anything else. Those governments are gone and the secular foundation of Turkey has shifted. The same is true with the United States and Europe. None of them wants Turkey to shift, but given the end of the Cold War and the rise of Islamist forces, such a shift is inevitable, and what has occurred thus far seems relatively mild considering where the shift has gone in other countries. But more important, the foundation of alliances has disappeared and neither side can find a new, firm footing. As exemplified by Britain and the United States in the late 19th century, rising powers make older powers uneasy. They can cooperate economically and avoid military confrontation, but they are never comfortable with each other. The emerging power suspects that the greater power is trying to strangle it. The greater power suspects that the emerging power is trying to change the order of things. In fact, both of these assumptions are usually true.
By no means has Turkey emerged as a mature power. Its handling of events in Syria and other countries — consisting mostly of rhetoric — shows that it is has yet to assume a position to influence, let alone manage, events on its periphery. But it is still early in the game. We are now at a point where the old foundation has weakened and a new one is proving difficult to construct. The election results indicate that the process is still under way without becoming more radical and without slowing down. The powers that had strong relationships with Turkey no longer have them and wonder why. Turkey does not understand why it is feared and why the most ominous assumptions are being made, domestically and in other countries, about its government’s motives. None of this should be a surprise. History is like that.