How Europe and America Lost Turkey

A Japanese diplomat once replied to an American counterpart asking him about the principles of the Japanese foreign policy by pointing, “Your country may be based on principles, ours is based on archipelago”. Geographic boundaries are rarely elastic, even when socially constructed. Cultural boundaries may seem more elastic, but like the physical ones, they too are rarely prone to fundamental changes. More importantly, the latter often determine the perception of the former. In “The Revenge of Geography” Robert Kaplan argued in a powerful way that ignoring geography may be a fatal mistake that could prevent us from understanding the nature of many political conflicts. What he ostensibly omitted from his paradigm is the difference between physical and human geography. A cursory look would show that when the two overlap, greater stability ensues. But when they don’t, a search of identity could take many paths, not all of them leading to stability.

Turkey is a case in focus. In a striking similarity, its territory resembles an animal with a tiny head stationed right over the European border, and a huge fat body laying across Asia and the Middle East. Its 80 million strong population is predominately Muslim, mostly Sunni, its culture, language, history, even cuisine standing in sharp contrast with the cultural boundaries of Europe. Yet, since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s leaders have strived to bring the physical boundaries of the country within Europe, and overlay a Western social and political blanket over the Turkish cultural identity. But despite the best efforts of the guardians of the Kemalist visions for reforms, this cultural identity remained over the decades skin-deep. Now, the most powerful man in Turkey, the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is about to scrap it altogether.

Last weekend’s referendum is momentous in that respect. With a thin majority of 51.4% of the voters, or about 1.2 million vote difference, the president opened the route to changing the 1982 constitution of the country – an amended version of previous constitutions that engendered the spirit of Kemalism, to destroy its basic principle of governance that lays within the sovereignty of the Grand National Assembly – the unicameral parliament – and to pass a radical constitutional changes that would take the power and sovereignty from the legislative branch, put it in the hands of all-powerful president, and would abolish the constitutional checks and balances over the office of the president. In effect, starting from the next presidential term in 2019, the future holder of the office will become a kind of a neo-sultan in all but name. Almost undoubtedly, this person will also be the current president, Erdogan. 

This dramatic political transformation seems to be done against the wishes and hopes of the West. But it is with this same West, and its decades-long political short-sidedness, that a large portion of the blame for the current situation lies. Even more, it was the West – used here as an aggregate term to denote the European Union and American political elites – that enabled and even encouraged the process, which now resulted in the drastic retreat of Turkey from democracy, and its dramatic sliding towards authoritarianism-cum-Islamism.

When Ataturk began the radical reforms to implement his vision for Turkey as modern, secularist, in effect European country, with romanized alphabet, Western political system of institutions, radically new economic and administrative systems, and even new Western clothing code, he de facto had to destroy in rather brutal way centuries old political, cultural ,and religious traditions that had served as a basis for the dominant social order. He also gave up on the historical legacy of the Ottoman empire, and denied the Muslim world its spiritual center - the Caliphate, sending in 1924 the last caliph in exile. By all accounts, his six arrows of reforms – republicanism, secularism, nationalism, populism, statism, and reformism – were as radical as they were painful for large segments of the society. With the help of repressions and political purges, he installed the new social system and forced down a new political and cultural identity, despite the inner desires of many Turks. His chances for success, with or without the use of his iron fist, were shaky from the start, and there is little doubt that they would have imploded into a quick reversal in the years after his death. What saved them was the outbreak of the World War II, the ideological fallout between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the crucial geopolitical role Turkey was about to play in the upcoming Cold War. Kemalist republicanism, with its “arrows”, survived not because of the forced modernization from inside, but because of the Truman Doctrine and the necessity to turn Turkey into the most powerful military counter-weight to the Soviet Union outside North America in the fringes of Europe. 

While the United States, purely geographically, remained not just far away from Turkey but also liked it this way, Europe never really tried to come any closer, either in political or cultural aspect. At least not in any genuine way.  It never embraced Turkey as a European state, just like it never embraced Russia as such, either. Both shared the same geographical idiosyncrasy, only different in scale: small heads in Europe, and huge bodies in Asia. Both experienced late modernization, and top-down Westernization, only to be rejected as non-European by the core of Europe. Both have seen the rise of strong man in the recent decades – the all-but-in-name tsar Putin in Moscow, and now the all-but-in-name sultan in Ankara (or rather Istanbul-Ankara, as Erdogan was also a long time popular mayor of the most populous city in Turkey in the 1990s). Both were also stung by the West’s false promises and empty rhetoric: Russia was praised as a democracy under Yeltsin, but apart from being squeezed out of its role as a superpower, it got little recognition, help or support in its attempts to join the West, while finding itself surrounded by NATO. Turkey was promised European Union membership as far back as 1987, only to be jumped by 13 states, 12 of which Eastern European, including neighboring Bulgaria, as well as Romania Cyprus and Croatia. Even after Turkey’s formal application process began in 1999, European political pundits and self-appointed guardians of the spirit of the European Union, like the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, unabashedly rejected any possibility for such membership. 

But while Turkey’s European Union membership had appeared stillborn from the get-go both to Turkish political elites, and to their European counterparts – a hypocritical game of politics that served narrow political interests on both sides – it made possible the radical changes inside the country that have led to the current reversal of the political system, and the subsequent slide to dictatorship. Ironically, this regression was enabled by the accession criteria process itself, the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, which primary goal was the guaranteeing of a deeper level of democratic consolidation, greater individual and religious freedoms, economic liberalization and guaranteeing of stronger human and civil rights, protection of minorities, and stronger democratic institutionalism. 

The official negotiations for EU membership, which started in 2005, pushed among other things for radical reforms in the military, bringing it under civilian leadership. This highly autonomous political force in the country was largely responsible for safeguarding the principles of Kemalism, and for decades was a staunch sentinel of secularism, at the cost of course of frequent coups d’etat and repressions, all five in total since the 1960s. The autonomy of the military and its anti-democratic role for safeguarding a founding principle of democracy – secularism  – is perhaps one of the biggest paradoxes, not just in the Turkish history, but also for the practical implementation of the democratic theory itself.  It was largely necessitated, however, by the discrepancy between professed cultural and political values, and the latent preferences that lied hidden beneath the mantle of secularism. The transformation of the role of the military, required by the EU and strongly encouraged by the Bush Administration’s push for global democratization, destroyed the single force in the country that kept the dormant eruptive power for reversal towards Islamization and single-person authoritarianism in the country. 

Erdogan’s role in all this is also notable. When in 2003 he rose to power and became prime minister to head the AKP government, he inherited a country of economic recession and political instability. In his first years, during the negotiation process with the EU, he promised political reforms that would keep the creeping Islamization in the country from taking a permanent hold, despite the deep roots of his party, and himself, with a core base of religious conservative constituents, who hiding for decades their true cultural and religious preferences, had brought him to power with the hope of bringing religion back to politics. Deep down, it appears, Erdogan knew that neither Europe will ever recognize Turkey as one of its own, nor Turks will actually become “true” Europeans. The political identity of the Turkish state was never European enough to be accepted by Europe proper as such, nor internalized enough to lead to radical cultural transformation inside the country. Instead, this apparent discrepancy between professed identity, and hidden core values that lingered for decades since the forceful westernization of the country under the Kemalist doctrine had led to a latent but potentially explosive tension that boiled up to the surface with Erdogan’s rise to power. 

Being a shrewd politician and visionary – what he undoubtedly is – Erdogan had quickly recognized the window of opportunity for him to transform the country that was laid open by the Bush’ Doctrine for blind push for democratization around the world at all cost, and the right requirements for democratization and socio-political restructuring embedded in the Copenhagen criteria. His first priority, no doubt, was the military. For as long as the military was not tamed down, his vision for the transformation of Turkey into a regional powerhouse, and regaining the role of a world center of Islam, was impossible. The global changes, with the ill-conceived American-led war on terror, the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of Russia as a counterweight to the American global supremacy, gave Erdogan the necessary opportunity to grab the moment and carve a niche for Turkey as a regional power center. 

As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, and the Syrian conflict loomed large as the greatest humanitarian crisis since the World War II, Erdogan used the geographical position of his country to turn a disaster into a weapon. By controlling the flow of refugees towards Europe as a destabilizing power, and a boogie-man for many European constituents and politicians – either genuinely frightened or opportunistically xenophobic – he established a powerful counter-weight to Europe’s strong hand in keeping his regime afloat: the economy. Europe is by far the largest economic partner for Turkey, and flow of European money is largely responsible for the Turkish economic wonder over the past decade and a half that delivered the real power behind Erdogan’s rule. Rural Turkey became a high-quality substitute for the Chinese workshops needed by the European economies. Turkey’s covert support for ISIS for quite a while gave the country a seat at the table for the future of Syria and Iraq, while also helped the country curb the rising separatist demands of the Kurds. 

Turkey is undeniably now a major regional political power broker: it holds one of the pivotal keys for stability in Europe and the Middle East; it yields critical influence over Syria and Iraq; it is a an energy hub of a growing importance for Europe; it is still the largest NATO military power outside the United States, but also a close ally of Putin’s Russia, that lately even plays with the idea of joining a rival military and economic pact – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, alongside Russia, China and a number of central Asian countries. Not at last, Turkey is on the path of regaining its role of religious champion for political Islam. 

In the aftermath of the last Sunday’s referendum, Erdogan seems to hold now even stronger hand of cards. For the foreseeable future, Europe and the United States will have to hold their noses and court him back, as his growing prominence in regional politics has now elevated him into a global player to reckon with. The rise of Erdogan’s regime is a powerful reminder that without the presence of tight institutional constraints of interaction, the traps of the Prisoner’s Dilemma – a popular game theoretical anecdote that exemplifies and embodies the pitfalls of cooperation – will always lead to defection and “duping,” regardless of its reiterative or non-reiterative nature. 

Erdogan indeed succeeded in duping the West in supporting him, while promised them the stars, only to renege on his promises when it was too late for reaction. The United States, blinded by its push for democratization, forsook the foundations for its pragmatic if cynical, decades-long partnership with Turkey – the military. Europe, for its part, is paying now a high price for its dishonesty and supercilious cultural haughtiness for never even trying to accept Turkey as one of its own. After the Sunday referendum, despite the narrow margin of the “Yes” victory, nothing will be able to stop Turkey anymore from its slide into authoritarian neo-sultanism. Among other things, this also means not just further loss of civil rights, liberties, and freedoms inside the country, but also greater unpredictability of Turkish foreign policy and increased regional and global instability. 

*A version of this analysis is now available at


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