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  • The Self-Appointed Superpower:Turkey Goes It Alone
  • Piotr Zalewski (bio)

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Istanbul—On December 11, 1999, a remarkable summit took place in Helsinki, Finland. Fifteen European heads of state granted Turkey—a nation of nearly 75 million Muslims—the status of candidate for accession to the European Union. Eleven years later, hardly anyone in Ankara or Brussels has much reason to celebrate. Thanks to rising opposition to Turkish EU membership in Europe, falling support for its accession in Turkey, as well as Turkey's refusal to recognize Greek Cyprus, the EU process appears stuck. The arithmetic is straightforward. Turkey opened membership talks with the EU in October 2005, at exactly the same time as Croatia. Since then, Croatia has reached an agreement on 25 of 35 chapters in the negotiating process (as of November 2010); Turkey has agreed to one. [End Page 97]

This is not to say the Turkish government has lost its appetite for change. Indeed, a new reform era—heralded by laws curbing the role of the powerful military, reining in an aggressive judiciary and extending cultural rights for Kurds—is underway. The promise of EU membership, however, is no longer the driving force behind such changes. Increasingly convinced that the EU will never open its doors to a large Muslim country like theirs, Turks have tired of reforming "for Europe's sake." Several years ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's conservative Islamic government jumped through hoops, passing one groundbreaking democratic reform after another to meet the EU's criteria for opening accession talks. Back then, it was fashionable to speak of the EU as an "anchor" for Turkey. Tellingly, the word used today by most experts to describe Turkey's geopolitical orientation is "adrift." The attitude among Turks, says Cengiz Aktar, an EU expert at Bahceshir University, "is that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU—and that Turkey can go it alone."

New Footing

To the extent that EU membership has ceased to be an overriding national interest—becoming one among many foreign policy alternatives—Turkey may indeed have drifted somewhat from the West and has found its footing elsewhere. Under the rule of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party [AKP], Turkey seems to have rediscovered its neighborhood.

Early in 2002, months before a massive electoral victory swept it into power, AKP strategists produced a compact pamphlet defining their party's political agenda. The document, promising an era of democratization, economic reform and EU membership, also contained a chapter on foreign policy. "The dynamic circumstances brought about by the post-Cold War period," it read, "have created a suitable environment for developing a foreign policy with several alternatives." The wording suggested what was to become a tectonic shift in Turkish foreign policy. For nearly 80 years, Turks had been told by their secularist leaders, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk onward, that their country's sole point of reference—culturally and geopolitically—was, is, and should be, Europe. By insisting that Turkey was as European as it was Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian and Central Asian, the AKP had launched a foreign policy revolution.

Under the watch of Ahmet Davutoglu, a former academic turned foreign minister, Turkey's new foreign policy—dubbed the "zero problems" approach—has delivered impressive results. Relations with neighboring countries are better than at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Ten years ago, when Syria refused to hand over Abdullah Öcalan, head of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party [pkk] and Turkey's public enemy number one, Ankara and Damascus were on the verge of war. Last October, they signed a deal lifting mutual visa requirements. Since then, Turkey has inked similar deals with Libya, Russia, Jordan and Lebanon. [End Page 98]

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Turkey-Iran: Bosom Buddies.

"Ours is an inclusionary foreign policy," says Suat Kiniklioglu, the AKP's deputy chairman for external affairs. "When other countries isolated the Syrians, we engaged with them." He adds, with a note of triumphalism, "Today, we are happy to see that the U.S. is following suit."

With "economic interdependence," as Davutoglu likes to call...


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pp. 97-102
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