A Turkish flag waves in front of a poster of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Opinion: The West still needs Turkey

  • The relationship between Turkey and Europe has always been tense
  • Turkey effectively contained Russia to the benefit of Europe
  • Today, the country can serve as a buffer to contain Islamist radicalism

Turkey, once among NATO’s strongest and most trusted members, a model society for the Islamic world and an outpost of European values in an otherwise very troubled region, is today the odd man out of the Western system. At least, that is how it is treated by many of the West’s most powerful leaders. Too much has gone awry in recent years and too many misunderstandings remain unresolved.

The relationship between the Ottoman Empire – later the Republic of Turkey – and the West has mainly been built on strategic considerations and common interests – especially containing the expansion of Russia (later the USSR). From the late 16th to the early 19th century, Ottoman sultans and the Russian tsars fought nine wars. Yet the first alliance between the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire and the Western powers was only forged in the 1850s when the United Kingdom and France came to the rescue of Sultan Abdulmejid I during the Crimean War (1853-1856).

Trouble in the south

When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it finally anchored the country within the Western security system. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, huge new problems surfaced on Turkey’s southern border – the result of inconclusive military interventions by the United States and its allies. However, Turkey was not allowed to play an active role in safeguarding its vital interests in this new environment, in which even its territorial integrity was threatened.

Turkey is facing its biggest security challenge since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Turkey’s southern neighbors have been Iraq and Syria since the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Soon, this may no longer be the case. A referendum on independence will take place in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region before the end of this year. Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of relying on Kurdish guerrillas in Syria deeply troubled Ankara, and the Trump administration’s decision to supply them with new arms has deepened its distrust of Washington.

These developments, combined with a violent civil war in the eastern provinces of Turkey, would have created an impossible situation for any Turkish political leader. The country is facing its biggest security challenge since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Fickle relationship

During the Ottoman Empire’s long decline, various sultans initiated modernization programs. This started with Ahmed III, whose reign (1703-1730) included what Western historians refer to as the “Tulip Era,” when the empire began orienting itself toward Europe. The most daring changes, however, were undertaken by the aforementioned Sultan Abdulmejid I, after the Crimean War.

The announcement of his reforms, called “Tanzimat” (“Reorganization”), was hailed by European ambassadors in Constantinople. European banks provided ample credit. Yet their consequences were disastrous. Rather than quelling the nationalistic movements that proliferated throughout the empire, the reforms ended up encouraging them. Conservative religious reaction, coupled with corruption and mismanagement, finally led to the empire’s bankruptcy in 1875. The first effort to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the civilizations in the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe had failed.

Soldiers wear historical Ottoman attire during a parade, with a poster of Ataturk in the background
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (on poster in background) founded modern Turkey with an emphasis on secularism, but Islam-focused Ottomanism has made a comeback (source: dpa)

Nearly a century and a half has passed, and a closer relationship between Turkey and Europe is again both a much-desired goal and a constant source of frustration. When Turkey applied for formal membership in the European Economic Community in 1987, the U.S. pushed for its full integration, so that the borders of NATO and the Community would coincide, extending Europe’s stability to the east and countering Soviet influence.

Only weeks after the Berlin Wall collapsed in November 1989, the European Commission refused to start accession negotiations with Turkey. It justified this decision by citing Turkey’s poor economic and political situation, diplomatic tensions between Ankara and Athens, and a lack of progress on the dispute between the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus. It took another 10 years before the European Union recognized Turkey as a candidate. Three more years passed before the EU said that it would begin accession negotiations with Turkey “without delay.”

One of the ironies of this process is that the door for Turkey’s accession opened precisely when an Islamic party took power. Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003. EU leaders were fascinated by his enthusiasm for abolishing the army’s influence in politics, promoting democracy, introducing liberal economic policies, opening serious talks on Cyprus, and establishing a dialogue with the Kurds.

Turkey is a complex country, always struggling to balance East and West

More than a decade later, however, things have changed drastically. Ankara’s relationship with Europe has dropped close to rock bottom. Mr. Erdogan – who has been president since 2014 – certainly bears most of the blame for this situation. But Turkey is a complex country, always struggling to balance East and West. This balance is as elusive for Turkey today as it was during the Ottoman Empire.

Religious resurgence

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of today’s Turkey, attempted to unravel this Gordian knot. One of the drastic steps he took was to abolish the Caliphate in March 1924. But religious teaching was reintroduced gradually from the early 1950s, and in 1982 the military regime enacted a constitution that made religious education mandatory. Under the premiership of Turgut Ozal in the early 1980s, the concept of neo-Ottomanism gradually reemerged. Western analysts were mostly interested in the economic reforms introduced by Ozal, paying little attention to these other developments.

The reintroduction of some Ottoman elements in modern Turkey went rather smoothly at first, until Ozal’s sudden death in 1993, when he was serving as president. Thereafter, there was a resurgence of traditional Turkish politics. Yet the seeds of Muslim influence in Turkish society had already developed strong roots. Another important factor was the emergence of an influential group of businessmen from central Anatolia who were devout Muslims.

Turkey is once again considered the ‘sick man of Europe’

In June 1996, Necmettin Erbakan, who advocated strengthening Islamic values and turning away from the West, was elected prime minister. The Kemalist establishment panicked, and Erbakan was forced to resign a year later. However, a new political champion – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the mayor of Istanbul – took up the Islamic cause. He has dominated Turkey’s political scene since becoming prime minister in 2003.

New policy needed

After the attempted coup in July 2016 and the ensuing purges, the deepening division of Turkish society and renewed Kurdish separatist activity, Turkey is once again considered the “sick man of Europe.” The term was purportedly first used by Tsar Nicolas I of Russia to describe the Ottoman Empire just before the Crimean War.

As was the case in the 1850s, vital European interests are at stake if Turkey falls apart. A reassessment of Western policy is imperative. The reality – unpleasant as it may be – is that President Erdogan is here to stay. The West should find a way to coexist with him and build a positive relationship with his country, based not on high-minded principles but on realpolitik. Turkey can serve as a buffer zone to contain Islamic radicalism, just as the Ottoman Empire helped to hold back Russian and Soviet expansion. Both the West and Turkey will profit if such a way forward can be found.

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