In an interview this month with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, President Obama suggested that the European Union’s continued reluctance to accept Turkey into its ranks has pushed Turkish leadership to “look for other alliances” and move toward closer relations with other Muslim nations in the Middle East. These comments echoed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who last month blamed Europe for Ankara’s movement away from the West.
Both men are wrong. They are wrong in their analyses of Turkish behavior and wrong on the policy prescriptions implied by their statements. Fully engaging with and understanding Turkey is of critical importance for this administration, and blaming Europe oversimplifies the situation and could lead to unintended consequences.
It is true that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and to a lesser extent German Chancellor Angela Merkel have poured cold water on Turkish ambitions for membership in the EU, in part because of Turkey’s failure to resolve issues relating to the divided island of Cyprus. But in any circumstance, Turkey’s entry into the EU is at least 20 years away, and continued rejection by the EU does not alone account for Turkey’s growing ambivalence toward Europe and the West. The current Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would have acted the same way even if membership to the EU were imminent.
The Turkish government’s increasing overtures toward non-Western governments is driven in part by an over-inflated sense of its importance on the world stage. Turkish leaders believe their country should be among the premier world powers, and that its strategic location, economic prowess, historical ties and cultural affinities with the Muslim world are assets that can be marshaled behind an activist foreign policy designed to further enhance Ankara’s importance. This ambition weighed down by an unhealthy dose of hubris is one of two drivers of the new foreign policy.
The second is Turkey’s commercial interest. A forceful export drive and an appetite for foreign investment have fueled growth and made Turkey the 16th largest economy in the world. As President Obama acknowledged, trade benefits were one of the factors that drove the Turks to side with Tehran and against the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions. Turkey is in a constant search for new markets for its wares and its Middle East policy has helped open new opportunities and consolidate existing ones.
When it comes to the EU, Turkey has two fundamental and difficult problems that are unlikely to disappear anytime soon and will remain the main impediments to progress for EU membership.
The first is the Kurdish question. Turkey is deeply divided over its Kurdish minority, and a 26-year insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is nowhere near being subdued. The ruling AKP, to its credit, made modest proposals for engagement with the Kurds last year, but it quickly pulled back from them. As a result, the possibility for a greater explosion of violence threatening to also engulf many of the cities has never been higher. There is no military solution to the Kurdish problem; it will require a political approach that allows for much greater cultural freedom.
The second problem is that although Turkey is a country of laws, it does not embrace the rule of law. Its 1982 constitution, drafted by a military junta, is designed to protect the state from its citizens and not vice versa. Application of the law is arbitrary and allows the state to persecute whomever it wants whenever it wants. This has not changed one iota under the AKP.
Both of these impediments will take years, if not decades, to deal with. Therefore, to blame Europe for Turkey’s difficulties is unfair and unnecessarily alienates the Europeans. It made sense for the U.S. to push the Europeans on Turkey in the 1990s when Europe was pushing Turkey away. Now, however, a process has been put in place for Turkey to pursue EU membership. The current U.S. rhetoric and silence on domestic issues relieve Turkish leaders from the burden of reform and from being honest with their public about the travails ahead for EU membership. It does not do Turkey any favors; on the contrary, it solidifies the distance between Turkey and the EU.
A smarter American policy would focus on pushing the Turks to reform. The faster Ankara institutes reforms, the closer it will get to EU membership. And if membership for Turkey is in the U.S. interest, then Washington needs to develop a more comprehensive approach to the country that also pays attention to its domestic concerns. The U.S. must align itself with Turkish and European advocates of change and help transform Turkey into a more tolerant and democratic society. Only then is EU membership likely.
Henri Barkey is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.