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Turkey’s Tensions With the West Are Nothing New

The failed coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed a trend in Turkish society that has been boiling under the surface for many years: a deep skepticism of the West, particularly America, and a willingness to look elsewhere for allies. If the United States and Europe are to successfully support Turkey in staying on a democratic path, the West must appreciate this trend in order to understand Turkey’s motivations.

Despite Turkey’s status as a NATO member, recent disagreements between Erdogan’s government and the US over strategies to defeat ISIS, and with the EU on the migrant crisis, have strained the country’s relationships in the West. The unsuccessful military takeover and Erdogan’s response have exacerbated these tensions and spurred a rise in anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric and sentiments. To this end, Erdogan’s recent visit to Moscow and apparent pivot towards Russia can be understood in the light of trends in Turkish public opinion indicating a strong distrust of Western institutions and a desire to look outside traditional alliances to other partners, including historical adversaries like Russia. 

The findings of a series of focus groups conducted in June in Ankara and Istanbul by the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research presaged many of the political attitudes in Turkey that have become prevalent in the wake of the failed coup. IRI’s research reveals that the current rise in anti-Western feelings and the desire to reconcile with Russia are rooted in a strong sense of Turkey’s isolation that has left it vulnerable to the many internal and external security challenges the country now faces. The findings also indicate that Turks feel that outsiders fail to appreciate their distinctive democratic culture, a misunderstanding that leaves the country open to interference by foreign powers.

Many Turks believe that their country is surrounded by foes that wish them ill. Participants in IRI’s focus groups felt that Turkey is a target of both the machinations of foreign powers and terrorist groups like the PKK and ISIS, which are seen as “subcontractors” created by Westerners to undermine the country’s security. These feelings of vulnerability are expressed in both the fear of the terrorist threat itself and the inadequacies of security institutions to protect individuals and their families from it. For instance, a female participant in Istanbul said, “I am not sure if it will soon be safe to take my child out to the park.”

This sense of encirclement and vulnerability is also rooted in a belief in the distinctiveness of Turkey’s national identity and political culture. There is a belief that their country is misunderstood by the West and is being treated by foreign powers like any other “Middle Eastern” country, rather than as a member in good standing of the democratic community of nations. For example, another participant in IRI’s focus group said “NATO would rather help the Syrians than us.” This feeling of abandonment by the Americans and Europeans contributes to a desire to seek allies elsewhere.

Turks are rightly proud of their distinctive democratic system, but they often express this pride in terms of Turkish exceptionalism, which itself feeds the feeling of isolation noted above. Perhaps because of this, they are also keenly aware of how vulnerable their democracy remains to attempts by the military to overthrow elected leaders, and to attempts by those elected leaders to undermine democratic norms through the over-centralization of power. 

This latter trend is clearly seen in the persistent opposition among a significant portion of the population to Erdogan’s plans to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. A female focus group participant in Istanbul said, “There would be no democracy with a presidential constitution,” while a male participant said that under such a system “we would not be able to hold the president accountable.” Nor do Turks believe their democracy should be sacrificed in favor of increased security. As one respondent noted, “You cannot solve security issues long term without democracy.”  

Citizens aren’t likely to give up their hard-won democratic gains in favor of an authoritarian system, either led by generals or elected officials, even if that centralized power promises protection from the many security challenges facing Turkey. At the same time, many Turks are highly skeptical of the West and are willing to keep their options open when it comes to allies. 

Yet in the end, Turkey and the West need each other. A ray of hope was provided on the night of July 15 when both government and opposition supporters came out on the streets to oppose the coup. If Turkey is to remain on a democratic path in the coming years, its political leaders will have to build on this fragile cross-party consensus to prepare the country to resolve the many crises it faces. Despite the current tensions, misunderstandings and mutual recriminations, only the West—and not Russia—can help Turkey attain this goal.

 

Paul McCarthy is the Deputy Regional Director, Europe at the International Republican Institute. @mrpaulmccarthy

 

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