On January 14, Soner Cagaptay, Ross Wilson and James F. Jeffrey addressed a
policy forum at The Washington Institute.Cagaptay, the Beyer Family
fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the institute, is author
of the new report “The New Turkey and US Policy.” Wilson is director of the
Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to
Turkey (2005-2008) and Azerbaijan (2000-2003), while Jeffrey is a visiting
fellow at the institute and a former US ambassador to Turkey (2008-2010) and
The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their
Cagaptay: Much has changed in Turkey after 11 years of rule
under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Previously, fragile governing
coalitions had been the norm, usually collapsing after a few years. The AKP’s
rule has been long and steady, however, allowing the party to transform the
country politically and socially.
Turkey is no longer secular in the way
its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, envisaged: Religion has now permeated
government, politics and education. The AKP has also remolded the country’s
global political identity. In the past, Turks regarded themselves as Europeans
who happened to live next to the Middle East. Today, they have reimagined
themselves as members of the Middle Eastern world, though with connections to
These drastic changes have also split Turks into polarized camps.
About 35 percent of the population staunchly opposes the AKP, and another
serious split exists between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists.
is much good news for Turkey as well. Its economy has trebled in size over the
past decade and is catching up with many European economies. This growth has
been driven in part by trade diversification. Turkish firms have ventured beyond
their traditional markets in Europe to attain a truly global reach, and the
worldwide economic downturn and Eurozone crisis have only highlighted the
advantages of this approach.
Political stability has been another key
driver of economic growth. For example, many wealthy moguls in unstable
neighboring states use Turkey as a haven for their assets. Thus, Turkey is
growing because it is more stable than other countries in the area, and the AKP
wins elections because Turkey is growing. The downside is that Turkey’s large
account deficit and high unemployment could foreshadow a sharp and disorderly
bust in the coming years; for now, though, the economy is humming.
has also managed to build soft power abroad. Its businesses have grown in
international recognition, and its “Gulen school” movement has exported Turkish
Similarly the Foreign Ministry has vastly expanded its
diplomatic representation, and Ankara has joined numerous regional and
Yet Turkey realizes that this soft power is not
readily transferable into hard power, and this realization has prompted Ankara’s
foreign policy pivot over the past two years. The crisis in Syria and rivalry
with Iran have reminded Turkey of the • THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST
POLICY Turkey rising Challenges and prospects for the new administration
importance of having a strong NATO partner for defensive purposes. To borrow a
comparison from Ambassador Jeffrey, Turkey resembles Japan in this respect: Both
countries have large economies and soft power, yet they cannot do without a
robust external security framework. This fact, coupled with a long history of
Westernization, shows why Turkey cannot simply tear off its Western overlay like
To sustain its rise, Turkey must resolve its internal
conflicts. It can do so in part by drafting a truly liberal democratic
constitution that makes room for all groups, using religionblind language that
welcomes Jews and Christians as equal citizens. Ankara must also relearn how to
leverage its Western credentials.
If it wants to truly lead in the Arab
and Muslim worlds, it needs to prove that it is more than a “wealthy Yemen”
(i.e., a large, prosperous Muslim nation that adds no real value to regional
security). Turkey’s Western ties – in particular, its access to NATO hardware
and security frameworks – can facilitate such efforts.
This is good news
for Washington. In past years, US policymakers lamented that Washington needed
Turkey more than the other way around.
This is no longer true; the
foundations for a truly interdependent relationship are recognizable in the
current geopolitical configuration.
Yet Washington should also be aware
that the Syrian conflict has shown signs of becoming a stress test for US-Turkish
relations. If worst-case scenarios prevail next door, Turkey’s internal security
and economic stability could be in danger. Spillover from Syria could also dent
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to become president after
reshaping the post’s powers. Consequently Ankara wants to address the Syria
conflagration now, while Washington favors a more prudent policy.
In the course of a generation, Turkey has grown from a $70 billion economy to
over $700b. The drastic economic changes have brought demographic and social
transformation as well, including greatly accelerated urbanization. The AKP has
been the main political beneficiary of these transformations, because it is the
only party with an agenda that speaks to the new Turkey.
To be sure,
these transformations have their limits. Turkey’s economic growth has not
reduced unemployment, and its education system is still outdated. The Kurdish
issue remains a problem, as does the status of women. These qualifications
temper the notion of a transformed country.
Nevertheless, Turkey is more
confident today than it has been for centuries, and the public now insists on a
greater role abroad. But this exuberance comes with an important corollary:
Turkey’s aspirations often outstrip its capacities. This is why Ankara is once
again relying on its traditional relationships. In particular, USTurkish
relations are better than ever.
Previously, military-to-military ties
were the mainstay of the relationship, complicating efforts to facilitate
dialogue between mid-level civilian officials.
Today, bilateral ties are
based on a more modern diplomatic framework, not just military
Going forward, Turkey has a prevailing interest in promoting
stability in the region, and this imperative necessitates interdependence with
the United States. In order to realize this mutual goal, Washington must sustain
dialogue with the Turks on Syria and other regional matters. Such coordination
is currently functioning well, but personnel changes during the postelection
transition in Washington could prove disruptive. Senior leaders in the new
administration should make it a priority to safeguard the depth of this
Jeffrey: Turkey’s rise in the region comes with two
qualifications. First, Ankara’s foreign policy transformation should not be
overstated, given the considerable degree of continuity seen in its approach to
the region over the years. Second, Turkey’s aspiration to become a regional
power will mean grappling with many of the same exceedingly difficult dilemmas
that former aspirants have faced.
Accordingly Ankara will likely restrict
its focus to the immediate south.
Turkey’s growing profile is the
culmination of decades of economic and political development. Much of what we
regard as “new” in Turkey today actually comes from former leader Turgut Ozal’s
reform agenda during the 1980s. In the same sense, the country’s Middle East
agenda predates current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In fact, Turkey has
always had a deep interest in its near-abroad, based primarily on promoting
security and access to petroleum resources.
For its part, the United
States has long sought out regional powers as custodians of the global order,
but this formula has often been elusive. Succeeding as a regional power is
difficult because neighboring countries tend to grow wary of such actors and
work to thwart their ambitions. Serbia discovered this in the 1990s, and Iran is
discovering it today. Now Turkey is trying to assume that role, but its task is
all the more problematic because its ties with the Middle East are relatively
tenuous compared to its extensive links with the West.
In the coming
months, Turkey’s likely focus on its near-abroad gives the United States
opportunities for direct engagement. On Iraq, Washington should watch Turkey’s
growing ties with the Kurdish region closely in order to minimize conflicts over
petroleum ownership. And on Syria, Washington should pay close attention to the
particular modalities of greater involvement in the crisis. This requires a
better understanding of the areas of convergence and divergence in Ankara and
Washington’s visions for Syria’s future.
This rapporteur’s summary was
prepared by Tyler Evans.