Is Turkey Lost?

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Is Turkey Lost?

Steven Lagerfeld

To understand Turkey's new assertiveness, look at how its growing power has changed its perception of its national interests. 

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Foreign policy was not the focus of Michael Thumann’s optimistic assessment of Turkey under the rule of the Muslim-oriented Justice and Development Party in our new issue (“Turkey’s Role Reversals,” Summer ’10), but the subject exploded into the news as we went to press when Israel’s interception of a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza went tragically awry. A recent New York Times story supplied further evidence that members of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergodan’s government were well aware of (and in sympathy with) the flotilla before it sailed. And even before the May imbroglio, Ankara’s efforts in concert with Brazil to broker a nuclear deal with Iran that could have derailed Western efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program with tougher sanctions, as well as Ergodan’s newly confrontational approach to Israel, had critics in a fury.  Turkey, they charged, had turned its back on the United States and the West.
 
In an email, Thumann brushes off such criticisms:
 
"The whole discussion about Turkey building an alliance with Iran and Syria is quite misleading. Instead of building new alliances, Turkey is rediscovering that its neighbors are Syria and Bulgaria, the EU and Iran, Israel and Russia. It is trying to find a suitable place in this contradictory neighborhood. And it has become an expanding industrial and trading power the Middle East and beyond. Its growing trade relations with Russia, Middle Eastern countries, Asia, and Africa have added to its traditional role as NATO’s eastern flank. Despite this change, recent polls show membership in the EU is very popular again in Turkey.
 
In fact, Turkey and Iran are not allies but competitors.  Because no Arab country is in a position to assume a leading role in the Muslim Middle East, Turkey and Iran are in a race for this position in the mid-term perspective, and businesses from the two countries compete fiercely for customers in the Middle East and Africa. A very good assessment of Turkey’s foreign policy is the Transatlantic Academy’s report, “Getting to Zero: Turkey, Its Neighbors, and the West.

For the United States, this means that a once reliable but economically weak ally will be an assertive economic power with its own interests in the region and beyond. But given the growing Iranian threat and the missing Iraqi counterweight to Tehran since 2003, Turkey’s importance in U.S. foreign policy may even grow in the future."


 
What about Israel? Its long partnership with Turkey is now in critical condition, and it is hard to see how it can quickly repaired. As former Wilson Center scholar Soli Ozel writes, Turkey’s stance toward Israel is driven not only by domestic political and religious forces but also by the sort of fundamental rethinking of Turkish national interests Thumann describes.