Why have relations between Turkey and the West deteriorated so badly?

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AP

In 1950, Turkey signed up as a member of the Council of Europe. A year earlier, Turkey’s foreign minister Necmettin Sadak had visited Washington, where he shook hands with his American counterpart Dean Acheson. Sadak also penned an article headlined “Turkey faces the Soviets” for Foreign Affairs explaining his country’s appreciation for financial support via the Truman Doctrine. This was named after the then US president Harry Truman who in 1947 made an important foreign policy speech to Congress outlining his determination to curb Soviet influence which involved pledging $400 million to Greece and Turkey in their fight against communism.

A year after Sadak’s visit, Ankara sent troops to fight alongside US soldiers in Korea to repel the communist North’s invasion across the 38th parallel, the latitudinal line that divided the country. That was followed by Turkey signing up to Nato in October 1951 and officially becoming a member in February 1952. Eleven years later – four years after first applying – Turkey became an associate member of the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the European Union, under the Ankara Agreement. Then foreign minister Cemal Erkin remarked that Turkey’s future and welfare were “closely bound up with Europe and European civilisation”.

Who would have thought that would lead, just decades later, to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to dish out an “Ottoman slap” to US forces in Syria, calling European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands “Nazis” and receiving US and EU sanctions for buying Russian weapons and drilling off the coast of Cyprus?

It begs the question: how have relations between Turkey and the West broken down so badly?

The West is not blameless. The EU stalled Turkey’s accession process repeatedly; there has been a lack of understanding of Turkey’s difficult geostrategic climate and little support during times of crises; and there have even been cases of anti-Turkish hostility. However, even when major differences existed between Turkey and the West during the Cold War era, good relations still endured.

Back then, there was a mutual enemy, the Soviet Union, which made strategic ties essential. Now there is no such common threat while the weak nature of the Turkish state, where the internal threat is greater than external enemies, has negatively affected relations with the West. So, too, have Turkey’s grandiose regional ambitions.

During the Cold War, whenever relations were strained, the threat of Soviet belligerency pulled Turkey back into the western orbit. For example, in 1964 US president Lyndon Johnson enraged Turkish politicians by warning Ankara not to interfere in Cyprus. He wrote a strongly worded letter to the Turkish prime minister, practically ordering Turkey to desist from invading Cyprus as it was bound to consult the US, as one of the island's guarantor powers, before using military force.

When major differences existed between Turkey and the West during the Cold War era, good relations still endured

However, the notion that Ankara might realign its loyalties were dashed after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia four years later, a reminder to Ankara of the benefits of being part of the western alliance.

When an emboldened Turkey went on to invade Cyprus in 1974 and carved out an autonomous region, it faced a US arms embargo and overwhelming European condemnation. But its loyalties remained unchanged, particularly as the Soviet Union joined the international chorus in demanding that Cyprus remain unified, and left Turkish officials horrified when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Today, however, there is no shared threat. Instead, Turkey resembles a weak and fragile state, where internal rifts are the primary threat to the country’s integrity. Nor do the West and Turkey have common interests in dealing with these challenges.

Turkey claims that the July 2016 coup attempt was orchestrated by members of the Gulen Movement, followers of the exiled Turkish Islamic Preacher and US resident Fetullah Gulen. According to the Turkish government, Gulenists infiltrated state institutions, including the judiciary and military, to orchestrate a coup. In other words, many thousands of high-ranking civil servants and security personnel were not loyal to the state but an exiled cleric. Subsequently, hundreds of thousands were either arrested or dismissed, a process which continues to this day.

Since the collapse of the ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, Turkey’s southeast once again resembles a war zone. During the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey’s counterinsurgency involved human rights abuses, the destruction of thousands of villages, the displacement of millions and an estimated 40,000 killed. The Turkish state considers social movements which advocate greater rights, freedoms and accountability a danger, as seen by the way in which the Gezi Park movement of 2013 was brutally crushed and in the way activists continue to be targeted, together with members of Kurdish political movements.

However, the Gulen Movement, the PKK and democracy advocates are not a threat to the West. If anything, the West’s support for Syrian Kurds fighting against ISIS and its condemnation of what often seem to be arbitrary and politically motivated purges are perceived by the Turkish government as evidence that the West conspires against Turkey.

Then there is Turkey’s grandiose regional ambitions. Mr Erdogan not only considers Turkey the leader of the Muslim world but sees an opportunity to grab regional influence by either muscling out the US or by stoking anti-American sentiment.

Turkey set up a military base in Qatar, which is also home to the largest US base in the Middle East. In Syria, Turkey backs the Free Syrian Army in Afrin, Al Bab and other areas west of the Euphrates. Meanwhile, Ankara also insists on having a 30-to-40-kilometre safe zone to the East. This cuts into the heartland of Kurdish Syria where US forces are based and threatens to deny Washington a role in deciding the future of Syria. Meanwhile Turkey brazenly violated sanctions against Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal was signed, despite Iran’s nuclear ambitions being a major concern for the US and Europe.

There is no longer a basis for strong strategic ties between Turkey and the West. There is no mutual threat and the internal challenges to Turkey and Ankara’s regional ambitions only add more tension to a relationship in decline.

Instead, the focus should be on trade. At least that way relations will be cordial, potentially productive and at least stand some chance for success.

Dr Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London

Updated: August 20, 2019 08:01 PM


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