We live in turbulent times, with international pendulums made up of states, organisations and major NGOs swinging in close proximity; near misses, blocks and crashes are inevitable. Turkey’s relations with its neighbours and its stance on diplomatic issues are affected by this chaos, just as everyone else is.
Turkey is passing through a tough period after 16 years of government under the same party. At the outset of its first term, the priority was the democratic transformation of the country, which paved the way for a positive image around the world. With the elimination of tutelary factions within the system, successive AK Party governments have increased its control of many aspects of public life, from the economy to foreign policy. This longer than expected and more powerful than projected AK Party rule was discomforting for mainly secular elites. The 2016 coup attempt and the change to a presidential system led Turkey to an unexpected position in domestic affairs as well as foreign policy.
When considering “the West”, the main question is whether the West as a monolithic entity still exists. American and EU relations with Turkey were more predictable and coherent regarding security challenges, threat perceptions, human rights priorities and visions for cooperation in the immediate post-Cold War era. The EU’s wavering stance on Turkey’s membership brought public support for the accession process to record lows. Europe’s own problems of survival contributed to this downgrading. US President Donald Trump’s no-rule-binds-me and tit-for-tat approach has worsened the unpredictable nature of the Turkey-US alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s daring penetration of the Middle East and interference in democratic processes through unprecedented means, as well as trade wars and the increasing instability in the region have further complicated the nature and future of alliances in global politics.
Kemal Kirişci’s book, Turkey and the West; Fault Lines in a Troubled Alliance, is thus a timely and comprehensive contribution towards understanding Turkey’s transformation and the nature of its alliance with “the West”. Kirişci, a Professor of International Relations, is the TÜSİAD senior fellow and director of the Centre on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution.
Though Kirişci’s primary focus is the 15 years of AK Party rule until 2017, he presents an in-depth overview of Turkey’s alliance with the West. According to him, the Soviet threat was the main factor for Turkey to converge towards the Western camp and for the latter to keep Turkey on board as a member of NATO. Despite this convergence, fault lines, distrust and risks were always there for the alliance. From the outset, democracy in Turkey was not the primary concern for the US. “The military coup of 1960 did not sap energy from US-Turkish relations,” writes Kirişci, “nor would the discord arise because of sentences of capital punishment handed down to the elected leadership of the DP [Democratic Party].” (p37) After the 1980 coup, “…backsliding in democratic standards did not hamper Turkey’s relations with the United States, nor would Turkey’s numerous human rights violations impinge on bilateral relations.” (p43)
These quotations justify the perception that the US remains silent about military interventions in Turkey’s political process. This perception was strengthened further with the more recent examples of the 28 February “post-modern coup” in 1997 and the attempted coup on 15 July 2016 which dramatically affected the nature of Turkish politics and Turkey’s alliances.
Kirişci also tries to shed light on Turkey-Europe relations which are more than just a transaction between states and peoples; they are also an identity issue. Both sides are described and perceived as “the Other” in order to define themselves. That said, Turkey’s relations with the EU have been more focused on democratic standards compared with those with the US. Improvements in cultural rights, freedom of expression and religion, minority rights, “revising the penal code, abolishing capital punishment, terminating emergency rule, improving the rule of law…” throughout the 1980s, 1990s and onwards became possible only with the leverage of the EU accession process.
Regarding the AK Party’s contribution to the debate on compatibility between Islam and democracy in the modern era, Kirişci presents a comprehensive discussion and asks critical questions. At the outset, the party’s coming to power raised eyebrows and hopes about the compatibility of Islam and democracy concurrently. However, the author does not conclude that there will be a positive outcome from his analysis of the AK Party’s contribution to debates on Islam and democracy or whether Islamists or “conservative democrats” have succeeded in falsifying the sceptical expectations of their commitment to democracy, freedom of expression and freedoms for “the Others”.
Ahmet Davutoğlu is an essential focus of the book as he was perceived as the architect of AK Party foreign policy, being the chief advisor to Prime Ministers Abdullah Gül (2002-2003) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (2003-2009), and afterward the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2014) and Prime Minister until his forced resignation (2014-2016). Kirişci rightfully stresses that “[t]he argument developed here distances itself from the widely held view that dealing with Turkish foreign policy was equivalent to dealing with Davutoğlu.” (p153) However, he explains everything consistently through the Davutoğlu factor.
All negative developments and shifts in foreign policy, he claims, happened because of Davutoğlu’s Islamist background and romantic aspirations. Whenever there is an improvement, it is either because Davutoğlu was not so powerful or was removed from power. He dedicates an appendix as “Davutoğlu Doctrine” to explain what the politician outlined in his book The Strategic Depth and implemented as a policymaker. Kirişci has tried to squeeze Davutoğlu into an Arabist, Middle East-oriented, short-sighted and romantic Islamist. Throughout the book and the appendix there is no reference to, inter alia, the former Prime Minister’s covert meetings with the Armenian diaspora in the US; his signature under the protocols with Armenia; pragmatic dealings on Serbian-Bosnian relations; the nuclear deal with Iran taking Brazil as a co-negotiator; support for Ukraine against Moscow; or his efforts to reenergise Turkish-EU relations and reaching a ground-breaking immigration deal leading to the acceleration of Turkish citizens having visa-free travel to Europe. After Davutoğlu’s forced resignation, the Turkish government preferred to open a blank page and laid all the blame on him as if he had conducted Turkish foreign policy in isolation. This can be reasonable for pragmatic politicians to some extent but, as an academic, Kirişci would have been expected to have a fairer approach.
When explaining the current political trend in Turkey and the basis of Erdoğan’s power, Kirişci points out the Islamisation of the Turkish public. His analysis can be correct to some extent for the period up to the 2016 coup attempt. There are many more dynamics that can explain the trends in Turkish politics, though: periphery-centre discussions, the military tutelage-civil democratic increase perspective and the economic and social failure of centre parties, to name but a few. However, even if there is a basis to take “rising conservatism or Islamism” as a popular but simplistic tool to explain Turkish voting patterns and attitudes, the recent public opinion polls show clearly that nationalism is a more dominant character of Turkish politics than Islamism. As the MHP (Nationalist Action Party) becomes Erdoğan’s leading ally, nationalism shapes crucial decisions from the Kurdish issue to foreign policy matters.
In his conclusion, Kirişci gives noteworthy recommendations for Turkey and Europe. While Turkey is advised to turn back to its “zero problems with neighbours” policies, the author offers a to-do list for the Europeans and Americans. Lifting visas for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe will be a crucial step to keep bonds alive, while “… the United States would be advised to adopt a more sensitive attitude towards Turkey’s national security concerns.” (p194)
We should refrain from holistic and generalised approaches to Turkey’s relations with the West, as Turkey’s role in revealing the facts about Jamal Kashoggi’s killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the impact such a role had on improving Turkey’s global image; the Istanbul meeting bringing together Turkish, German, French and Russian leaders; and easing tension between Turkey and the US all demonstrate. Ankara and Western capitals cannot see their relations as a zero-sum game. They need each other and have common interests in the region. This relationship should be based on fairness. Kirişci’s book has mind-opening clues about how to arrive at such a position.
Osman Sert is Research Director at Ankara Institute, Turkey. As a journalist he has covered the economy, the Prime Minister’s office and diplomacy respectively. He was diplomatic reporter for Kanal 7, diplomatic editor at CNN Turk and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of TRT. He served as advisor of Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2014) and Prime Minister (2014-2016) of Turkey.