Why should Turkey play by western rules?

Publication date:
Francis Ghilès, Senior Researcher, CIDOB

Notes internacionals CIDOB, núm. 26

Turkey has re-emerged as a confident regional power in areas of vital interest to the European Union and the United States. It is no longer the pliant supplicant that the Europe and the United States West imagined it would forever remain. It is economically vibrant and politically self confident. It has outgrown the role allotted to it by the West. This is one reading of Turkey’s new found confidence. A second very fashionable one is that Turkey is seeking to reclaim leadership in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, a reading which is comforted by the Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s goal of Pax Ottomana. The riftwith Israel over Gaza and the angry rhetoric of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan carry dangerous undertones for some observers in Europe and for those in Turkey committed to the secularist political settlement of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Whatever the truth, the contrast is palpable between Turkey’s new regional status and the disdain shown by France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

The government of Turkey hopes that the country’s rising regional influence will strengthen its claim for admission to the European Union (EU) but such may not be the case. Americans and Europeans who had come to know the country in the late 20th century, the Turkey of their imagination was one forever in their debt and forever grateful for any seat at the western table. A reality check tells us that Turkey has a dynamic and growing economy, a constitutional revolution which, until recently, was broadening democratic rights and a foreign policy which, as it settles long running disputes with neighbours, seeks to establish the country as a new regional power. Turkey is using the tools of soft power developed by the EU in a creative fashion. The country’s growing regional influence is however a mirror reflexion of Europe’s declining sway, a state of affairs which grates nerves in Paris, London, Berlin and Washington.

For most of the 20th century, the constraints of nation building, the Cold War and its erratic economic development forced Turkey to punch below its weight, today the risk is that Turkish leaders believe their own rhetoric and imagine themselves as major contenders on the global scene. Practising realpolitik is one thing, representing Islamic culture is another.