Opinion

The West must engage, not demonize, Turkey

In Washington and European capitals, it will be tempting to conclude that Turkey is already “lost,” that it is fated to become a rising theocracy that will work against rather than for international order. This would be a grave mistake.

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A hundred years ago, debate raged in Europe over how to exploit the Ottoman Empire’s decline. Today, the Turkish question is turned on its head: How can the West manage an ascendant Turkey?

It can start by understanding Turkey’s position in the world. Turkey is a member of a select geopolitical club: rising democracies. This club encompasses not only Turkey, but also India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. Their emergence is a crucial – but untold – development of the 21st century.

Rising democracies

Rising democracies offer the West an opportunity to perpetuate the international order founded in the wake of the Second World War. This order enshrines principles such as freedom of the seas, the moral superiority of democracy, and the primacy of free trade. But with economic malaise in Europe and Japan, and looming fiscal constraints in the United States, new partners are needed to sustain this order. The only possible partners are the rising democracies.

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Current tensions between the West and one of them – Turkey – should therefore cause concern. Although US and European relations with India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa remain works-in-progress, recent developments with Turkey have few parallels elsewhere.

Turkey’s fiery rhetoric following an Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara in May and its decision in June to vote against additional United Nations sanctions on Iran have led the West to question Ankara’s future course. Moreover, far from subsiding, areas of disagreement appear ready to flare up at any moment. Flashpoints include the role of Hamas in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and how to respond to Iran’s nuclear program.

In European capitals and Washington, it will be tempting to conclude that Turkey is already “lost,” that it is inevitably fated to become a rising theocracy that will work against rather than for international order.

This would be a grave mistake.

Turkey's unique role

In the Middle East, the other regional heavyweights are either authoritarian allies – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – authoritarian and antagonistic toward the United States – Iran – or democratic but besieged on all sides – Israel. No other state can substitute for Turkey as a pillar of stability and democratic values.

For example, Turkey can positively influence the future of Iraq by helping to resolve long-simmering tensions over the Kurdish issue. And while disagreement exists on the means, Western powers and Turkey share the goal of a non-nuclear Iran; Ankara remains a useful interlocutor with Tehran.

Lastly, only Turkey, as a Muslim-majority state with free and fair elections, can serve as a credible beacon for democracy in the region.

The West is more than a bystander to Turkey’s domestic politics. Its rhetoric and actions powerfully reverberate inside Turkey, both for good and ill.

Demonizing Turkey will bolster the very internal forces the West fears. It will give credence to their claims that Turkey can never be part of the West and allow them to move Turkey’s foreign policy in a more extreme direction.

The right response to current strains with Turkey is therefore deeper engagement.

This is not the same as coddling. The United States and Europe have a responsibility to speak hard truths to their Middle Eastern friends and stand up for their interests when challenged – Turkey’s status as a rising democracy grants it no special exemption here.

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech in Ankara demonstrated the commitment of Turkey’s friends in the West and should kick-start the process of deeper engagement with the European Union that has been languishing since 2005.

As for the United States, deeper engagement of Turkey should include the following steps:

Action items for deeper engagement

Establish a CEO forum for US and Turkish business leaders. As Turkey’s democracy has matured, business leaders have become increasingly influential. To be effective, deeper engagement must target them.

Institute a more systematic exchange of lawmakers. Personal connections between US members of Congress and Turkish members of parliament remain superficial. Although congressional delegations visit Ankara relatively often, these are more meet and greets than serious, cumulative consultations. A regular annual exchange bringing together many of the same lawmakers will result in a more durable network.

Launch a program to immerse American officials in the Turkish government. The program could be modeled on the Mansfield Fellowship, which currently provides US federal employees with a year of Japanese language training followed by an assignment with the Japanese government.

Double the number of Fulbright exchanges with Turkey. This will enable the United States to develop a larger cadre of Turkey experts and more importantly, will serve as a down payment on a future generation of Turkish leaders with close ties to the West.

Deeper engagement is a long-term process, one that will at times be marked by short-term frustrations as Turkey fails to meet Western expectations – and vice versa. But over the long term, deeper engagement will enable the West to shape Turkey’s rise and encourage it to become a pillar of the international order.

Daniel M. Kliman, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is completing a book on rising powers. Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. As a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, he co-wrote the report “Getting to Zero: Turkey, Its Neighbors and the West.”

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