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TURKEY: Business interests drive Ankara's rejection of Western policies

November 30, 2010 |  7:02 am

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Turkey's assertive foreign policy and increasing overtures to non-Western governments -- most notably, Iran -- have led to increasing concern in the United States and Europe. But its decisions are driven more by ambition and economic aspirations than a rejection of Western policies.

Carnegie logoAs it seeks to become a regional power and a global player, Turkey is relying largely on its geopolitical advantages, economic strength and historical and cultural links with the Muslim world. Currently the 16th-largest economy in the world, it aims to be among the top 10 economies by 2023.

Opening new markets, deepening existing ones and making the most of commercial opportunities are also driving Turkish foreign policy. Turkey's economy is export-dependent, and Turkish businesses look to the government to help them with new markets. This led to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent decision to use Turkey's support for Iran at the U.N. Security Council to improve commercial relations between the countries, calling for a tripling of mutual trade in the next five years.

Not surprisingly, policymakers in Washington are worried that Turkey will drift toward the East and work against U.S. interests. In reality, Turkey is not going anywhere.

Turkey's current stature in the region would suffer greatly if it was perceived to have broken with Washington. Both countries need each other.

Their main problem is a communications gap. Although the United States has to adjust to the reality of Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP , Ankara has to learn to deal with the United States, which, as a global power, has numerous interests in far-flung places and is not solely focused on Turkey's region. The United States must accept Turkey's domestic transformation and how that manifests itself in the bilateral relationship.

For their part, the Turks have always exhibited a primitive and conspiratorial approach to Washington, which has led them to misunderstand and misinterpret American interests. The best example of this came during the recent crisis over Turkey's and Brazil's mediation efforts on Iran's nuclear program. Ankara completely misread the Obama administration's concerns about counter-proliferation efforts, and its desire to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and sign the START agreement with Russia.

Ankara could well become more aggressive internationally, but this could cut both ways. An Erdogan who feels more secure would be more comfortable and relaxed going into next year's election, and would be less inclined to go for populist, nationalist and flamboyant policies. Exacerbating relations with Washington will not help him overall as the Turkish electorate looks for leadership that is less combative, more mature and more constructive in its foreign policy approach.

Europe would welcome this approach as well. If Turkey continues to reform, solves egregious problems and changes its domestic politics to become more tolerant and to resist authoritarian tendencies that come naturally to government and party leaders, it will be in a better position to join the European Union when the time comes. The accession process will likely take 20 years or more, but it's in Turkey's interest to start addressing these issues now.

After punching well below its weight for many years, Turkey is now punching well above its weight. Its dynamism and its willingness to engage internationally have given it a great deal of clout. It's now up to Turkey's leaders to use this clout wisely if its power is to grow in a shifting geopolitical landscape.

-- Henri J. Barkey

Photo: President Obama shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi looks on as they prepare to pose for the "family photo" at the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 12. Credit: Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images

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