In their dealings with Washington, Moscow and Ankara, European powers make little attempt to understand the other side. Behaving as if they were morally superior, short-sighted leaders ignore geopolitical realities and put relations with Europe’s partners at risk.
Europe is a peninsula on the western side of the Eurasian continent limited by the Atlantic Ocean and its extensions, especially the Mediterranean. Because of its geographic location, Europe is part of both the vast Eurasian-African landmass and the North Atlantic region. In the 16th century, sailing to the Americas became possible and millions of Europeans have settled there since. That historic migration has produced a special bond – rooted in many shared values – between the countries across that ocean.
Also in the 16th century, on another flank of the European continent, Russia started to expand to the east, eventually capturing the entire northern part of the Asian continent as far as the Pacific Ocean. Its explorers even crossed the North Pacific into North America and reached the coastline of what is now southern Oregon. Alaska was part of the Russian empire until 1867, when it was sold to the United States. Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1682-1725) reformed the country based on German and Western European models. Since then, Russia has been an important element in the European balance of power.
In the 11th century, the Turks, a people of central Asian origin, began expanding their territory. They gradually took over Anatolia – a large peninsula between the Mediterranean, the Black and Marmara Seas and the Bosphorus Strait – from the Byzantine Empire and conquered Constantinople in 1453. At its height, the Ottoman Empire covered parts of Europe, reaching Vienna, the Middle East (up to the borders of Persia) and North Africa. The empire endured until World War I. The Christian countries of the Balkans and the Mediterranean, followed by Austria, Hungary and Poland, defended Europe against the Turkish expansion. Spain provided naval defense, with the Holy See’s support. Venice, an important sea power, kept changing sides, as trade in the Eastern Mediterranean was the Doge’s priority. Although it considered itself a devoutly Christian monarchy, France supported the Ottomans in their expansion into Central Europe to weaken Austria’s power.
Turkey was thoroughly reformed by looking to Europe for inspiration, much like Russia had done two centuries earlier.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Turks were humiliated by the powers that emerged victorious from World War I. Army officer Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later known as Ataturk, liberated Anatolia and the European part of modern-day Turkey from Allied occupation, founding the present Republic of Turkey. The country was thoroughly and successfully reformed by looking to Europe for inspiration, much like Russia had done two centuries earlier. Turkey considers itself both a European and Anatolian country. Now, Ankara has become the strongest power in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is a major economy and a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East, the Black Sea and Caucasus area, the Balkans and, more recently, in Africa.
The U.S. was created by European settlers. Its value system and its setup as a constitutional republic are European. Russia is a European country, predominantly Christian, with vast landholdings and interests in Asia. Turkey is a moderate Islamic country with democratic structures similar to most Western European states.
Need for respect
Geopolitically, Europe's chief partners, the U.S., Russia and Turkey belong on the top of their priority list. All three, in their own way, are genuinely interested in having good relations with Western and Central Europe. Most of the countries in these regions, but not all, are now members of the European Union. The fate of this part of the world will depend largely on how these countries build mutual relations.
Unfortunately, most European capitals – and perhaps Brussels – appear somewhat careless in their relationships with neighbors. The foreign policy with Europe's partners is largely made in London, Berlin and Paris. The United Kingdom benefits from its “privileged partnership” with the U.S. However, in Germany and France, it seems that prejudice and emotional judgments often take precedence over pragmatism and problem-solving. When Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, the customary diplomatic notes sent from Berlin and Paris were close to offensive because of the leaders’ indignation at the choice of the American voters.
It cannot be the role of the EU or European leaders to change Russia’s and Turkey’s governance systems.
That displeasure was visible throughout the entire Trump presidency. When Germany concluded the Nord Stream 2 arrangement with Russia, Berlin first ignored Washington’s disapproval. It had no practical way of placating Europe’s most crucial ally, and neither could it reassure other deeply concerned partners, such as Poland. Germany, as a middle-sized continental power, needs good relationships, east and west. But such shows of arrogance, which are not infrequent, could lead to political trouble with Europe's partners.
Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential race stirred enthusiasm in Europe; soon, the new U.S. leader was presented with a catalog of Europe’s wishes. At the same time, however, the EU rushed to sign an investment agreement with China, arch-rival of the U.S. – in effect, a slap in the face for Washington.
In their dealings with Moscow and Ankara, the European powers make little attempt to understand the other side. While their tone differs slightly from how they address Washington, they still behave as if they were morally superior to Europe's partners.
Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are democratically elected presidents. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their worldview and policies, they are legitimate rulers. They are in office because Russian and Turkish voters believed they would best represent their country’s interests. Of course, one can try to support the cause of freedom, but it cannot be the role of the EU or European leaders to change Russia’s and Turkey’s governance systems.
Learning from history
Turkey has a sensitive geopolitical position between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea – between Europe and the Middle East. This location needs to be taken into account. And yet, Western powers treated the former Ottoman Empire in an offensive and incredibly short-sighted manner. In recent years, the EU and some of its key member states handled Turkey’s accession bid in an appallingly disrespectful fashion. Negotiations were launched and milestones set. But when Turkey attained these goals, the bar was raised. Instead of this charade, the EU should have offered Turkey a generous free trade agreement and visa-free access to its citizens.
When the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, Russia lost large parts of its territory and about half of its population. The former global superpower was downgraded to a mere “regional power,” as President Obama disdainfully put it. Understandably, that remark created frustration in all of Russia. There were many other situations when Western impertinence hurt the Russians’ pride and fueled resentment.
Even if Washington, a faraway power, does not respect Turkey and Russia, Europe, their neighbor, should. This is in its vital interest.
Improving these relations could only benefit Europeans; Russia, Turkey and Europe need each other.
Sanctions against Russia are routinely prolonged, without proper discussion, despite failing to change Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine. Likewise, Turkey’s interests are neglected, and European governments like France and Austria rarely miss an opportunity to bash Ankara.
Meanwhile, Europeans can watch Turkey and Russia gain influence and play constructive roles in conflict zones from the Caucasus through Syria to North Africa. But they fail to take this into account.
European capitals and Brussels need to wake up, if only for their own interest, and embrace pragmatic policies that show respect to our neighbors. We recently witnessed a diplomatic disaster when the EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs tried to lecture Russia on European values during a trip to Moscow. The attempt backfired and he stood by helplessly at a press conference as his Russian counterpart delivered well-prepared, biting remarks about Europe.
Improving these relations could only benefit Europeans. Russia, Turkey and Europe need each other. It could be a tremendous opportunity to help Russia to develop Siberia, for example. The West has the capital, technical know-how and the required human resources. This project could be made possible by making two critical concessions: the West would need to renounce supporting regime changes in Russia, and Moscow would have to respect its neighbors’ integrity.
Turkey has already proven extremely helpful to Europe during the refugee crisis. Now, the continent faces challenges in southern Europe and volatile conflicts in the Middle East as well as the looming Iranian threat. Collaboration with Turkey, the most powerful actor in this region, is essential. Western Europeans should learn from their mistakes and replace arrogance with understanding and respect. Such an attitude does not show weakness; it signals wisdom and strength.