Turkey, says the conventional wisdom, is “turning east.” Over the last two years Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proclaimed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “good friend” and blasted Israel for attacking a Turkish aid convoy to Gaza. He signed accords with Syria and Iraq and defended Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir as “a good Muslim.” Only last week Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu caused outrage in Israel by meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
American leaders, who had pushed Europe to accept Turkey as a full member of the European Union, are now openly worried. U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, has criticized Turkey for its “increasing petulance on the world stage.” Earlier this month, President Obama suggested that EU backtracking on accepting Turkey as a full member has pushed Erdogan to “look for other alliances” with other Muslim nations in the Middle East as well as with Moscow, with which Erdogan signed a series of accords on new gas pipelines earlier this year.
The reality, though, is not that Ankara is allying itself with the Islamic world. Instead, it is remaking itself as the center of the politics and economics of its own region. In other words, it’s a mistake to see Turkey as being “with” the EU and U.S., or “with” the Muslim world or Russia. All are parts of a new, strongly Turkey-centered policy that rests on its geography and economic position. In practice that means that while Europe remains Turkey’s top foreign-policy priority, it’s not the only one. Turkey’s own national interests, political and economic, now sometimes trump old alliances with the U.S., NATO, and Europe. Turkey has long been seen as having “strong muscles, a weak stomach, a troubled heart, and a mediocre brain,” says Davutoglu, referring to Ankara’s history of lashing out at neighbors and making piecemeal alliances. Now it is time for Turkey to “be European in Europe and Eastern in the East, because we are both.”
Ankara’s continued interest in Europe is fueled by a powerful sense that Turkey is still best off allied to the region’s strongest economic bloc and by remaking its institutions in Europe’s image. Its membership in the tariff-free EU customs union is crucial to its economy. So despite the fact that Germany and France continue to pour cold water on Turkish EU hopes, Ankara has pressed on with deep, lasting, EU-inspired reforms. It is attempting to bring its economy in line with European norms on such things as nuts-and-bolts regulation on working conditions. Most notably, Erdogan has pushed through ambitious plans to reform Turkey’s current Constitution, which was drafted by the military after a 1980 coup and gave Army officers and the judiciary immunity from scrutiny or prosecution. Turkey’s leaders know they can’t even begin work on key EU-accession issues without a new law that brings military personnel under the jurisdiction of civilian courts and guarantees basic freedoms of speech and assembly. “We cannot reach a level of democracy compatible with EU standards while the spirit of the coup Constitution is still with us,” says Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis.
For sure, it would be wrong to see the new Constitution as a solely EU-driven project because it delivers a lot of goodies to Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, too, as it struggles to break the power of an implacably hostile judiciary. But regardless of motivations, the bottom line on the Constitution, due to be voted on in a national referendum in September, is that it brings Turkey an important step closer to Europe, whether the EU wants it or not.
Accession to the EU is Turkey’s most important goal, but Ankara is increasingly looking elsewhere as well. In particular, it is finding in the Middle East and farther abroad massive opportunities to do business. In 2008, for the first time, less than 50 percent of its exports went to the EU, while imports from Europe dropped to less than 40 percent. At the same time, construction and manufacturing companies, many led by entrepreneurs from the backwoods of eastern Turkey, have become known as the “Anatolian tigers,” with most of their business coming from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
Sembol Construction (annual turnover: $1.6 billion) has built a university, a sports stadium, a convention center, and an outlandish pyramid-cum-opera-house in Astana, Kazakhstan, where Turkish firms control 60 percent of construction. And the Turkish TAV Construction has opened airports in Doha, Cairo, and the Georgian port of Batumi. Furniture companies like Istikbal and clothing retailers like DeFactor drove the $5.8 billion in Turkish exports to Iraq last year. Trade with Iran in 2009 topped $10 billion, and Ankara hopes to boost that to $30 billion soon with the construction of a new natural-gas pipeline from Iran’s South Pars field to Europe via Turkey. Small wonder, then, that Ankara is unwilling to sign up for sanctions on Iran—and seeks to defuse conflict between Tehran and Washington by any means necessary. “The Turkish economy is booming, and the growth is not coming from traditional sources of investment like Europe. It is coming from the Gulf, from the Middle East, from Russia,” says Ian Lesser, a Turkey scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “The flag is following trade, if you like.”
Another reason for Ankara’s turn east is its concern about terrorism. Much of Turkey’s outreach to neighbors like Syria, Iraq, and Iran has been driven by the need to isolate the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has traditionally operated out of bases in the borderlands of those three countries. Thanks to a blind eye turned by Iraq’s Kurds, and the help of U.S. intelligence (a little-trumpeted but crucial bit of very real cooperation between Washington and Ankara), the Turkish military has bombed and raided PKK bases in northern Iraq for three years.
Now, with the PKK in its death throes, the organization has turned to urban terror as a last resort. Recent bombings in Istanbul have left six dead, PKK ambushes have killed 59 Turkish soldiers in five months, and threats to bomb tourist resorts have unsettled the government and prompted furious efforts to destroy the remnants of the PKK. And to do that, it’s clear that Turkey needs the cooperation of both Iran, to deny the PKK safe haven, and the U.S., to continue providing crucial intel on operations and air corridors for Turkish strikes. It also needs Syria and Iraq on board, and to that end Ankara has signed a deal for visa-free travel with Damascus and instituted a monthly ministerial contact group with Baghdad to deal with cross-border security and trade issues. Both accords were also bolstered by a slew of business deals for Turkish companies to set up supermarkets, oil refineries, bus stations, and mobile-phone networks.
Seen from Ankara, then, Turkey’s diplomacy seems less like “petulance,” to use Sarbanes’s word, and more like ruthless antiterrorism, combined with a bit of good business sense. And indeed, the Obama administration has been wise enough to recognize not only that Turkey needs to forge constructive relations with its neighbors—including Iran—but that a Turkey at peace with the region is actually a good idea for the U.S. That’s why Washington’s response to Ankara’s vote against U.N. sanctions was low-key; it’s also why Erdogan’s vehement criticism of Israel after the Mavi Marmara attack in May went more or less without comment.
Even when Brazil and Turkey took the world by surprise with their joint attempt to defuse tensions over Iran’s nuclear program in May, the odd couple of international diplomacy were actually less odd than they appeared. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Erdogan are both charismatic, populist leaders, and their alliance sheds light on the kind of power Turkey wants to become. Both are economic powerhouses, both are struggling with the legacy of decades of military dictatorship, and both have a love-hate relationship with their mighty northern neighbors, the U.S. and the EU. Most of all, both Turkey and Brazil see themselves as challengers to the traditional, Western-dominated balance of power in their respective regions. “Brazil is a very natural ally of Turkey. As emerging powers, they have the same mindset,” says Lesser. “Both have leaders who have harnessed the politics of empowerment; they are consciously contrarian and believe that not all diplomatic initiatives have to come from the West.” The Turkey-Brazil alliance, even though temporary, may be a harbinger of more independent-minded regional diplomacy by rising middle powers.
So Sarbanes’s claim that “American foreign-policy makers…are beginning to realize that the United States cannot count on its ally Turkey in a pinch” is simply untrue. Ankara opposes sanctions on Iran, yes, but its troops are working alongside U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, and a Turk, Hüseyin Dirioz, is now deputy head of NATO. Ankara’s newly assertive view is that Turkey remains an ally of the U.S.—except it is also increasingly willing and able to push its own agenda if it believes its security would be endangered by following Washington’s line.
The Gaza flotilla crisis and Turkey’s opposition to Iran sanctions aren’t simply evidence of a Turkish drive to the Muslim east. Nor is a recent summit between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Erdogan an indication that Turkey is turning to Eurasia. Rather, both are signs that Turkey, like Brazil, is standing up and growing even as neighbors like Greece crumple under the economic crisis. For years Turkey was an unquestioning U.S. ally but at daggers drawn with almost all its neighbors, from Greece to Armenia, Syria to Iran. Now Ankara is at peace with those neighbors and has built an economic powerhouse on the back of that peace—though it no longer follows the Western line in all things. No wonder, then, with Ankara emerging as the political and economic anchor of the region, that it insists its relationships with the West be based on common national interests rather than old geopolitical blocs.