By THO Contributor, Tarik Oğuzlu
The dynamics of security relationship between the European Union and Turkey have been closely informed by the dynamics of security relationship each has with the United States. The role that the United States might potentially play in the context of EU-Turkey relations is strongly informed by the nature and quality of transatlantic relations. The historical records show that whenever the transatlantic relations were in good shape, the lobbying efforts of American administrations across European capitals on behalf of Turkey’s prospective EU membership struck a sympathetic chord. No matter the current Trump administration views the liberal international order and its quintessential institutional platforms, such as the European Union and NATO, through skeptical eyes, the United States has continued to view Turkey’s eventual transformation in the image of European norms and values, let alone its full membership in the EU, in its national interests. A Turkey, that turns its face towards the European Union and adopts European practices in its internal and external politics, would not only shun assertive and aggressive policies in the name of becoming a regional hegemon but also adopt a more rational and predictable foreign policy stance. Such a Turkey would align its national interests with those of the European Union and contribute to peace and security in the larger Middle East and North Africa region. Besides, the ability of the United States to have leverage on Turkey’s policies would likely increase should the latter adopt a pro-European/western national outlook. Such a Turkey would also act as a role model for the European/western transformation of predominantly Muslim nations across the wider Middle East. This is surely in American national interests.
Supporting Turkey’s European transformation and potential EU membership is the United States’ dominant strategy, no matter Washington views Brussels and leading European capitals as partners or rivals/challengers. In case the United States views the EU as a rival and challenge, Turkey’s membership in the EU would help weaken the union from within as Turkey’s strong state identity and realpolitik security culture would put a brake on EU’s transformation into a single-voice powerful international actor. Turkey’s presence inside the Union would help the Americans play the time-tested divide-and-rule game. On the other hand, should the United States view the European Union as a strong partner, Turkey’s eventual accession to the Union would fast transform the Union into a strong international actor that could undertake more responsibility in maintaining peace and security in its neighborhood so that the Americans could channel their limited capabilities to other locations where threats to American security interests are more visible and imminent, such as the Indo-Pacific region.
Looking to this trilateral relationship from the perspective of the European Union members, one comes to a similar conclusion. Turkey’s transformation in European image, let alone its eventual accession to the Union sometime in future, seems to be EU’s dominant strategy. In case, the EU views the United States as acting against the letter and spirit of the liberal international order by transforming into a global rouge state, then strengthening of Turkey’s European credentials as well as Turkey’s coming closer to the European Union in defining its national foreign and security policy interests would likely add up to European Union’s leverage over the United States. With Turkey coming much closer to the European Union each passing day, the chances of the European Union to become a powerful international actor with a strategic mindset will certainly increase. Should the European Union see the United States as its number one ally and strategic partner, then Turkey’s European transformation will be a gift to the United States, for a strong trilateral relationship between the United States, European Union and Turkey will tremendously strengthen the resolve of the transatlantic community to deal with the Chinese challenge in the emerging post-western multipolar international order.
Even though Turkey’s European transformation and coming closer to the transatlantic community seems to be the dominant strategy of Europeans and Americans, the picture from Turkey’s perspective is a little bit more complicated than meets the eye. Conventionally speaking, developing closer relations with westerners in general and Europeans in particular and transforming into a more European polity each passing day has long been among Turkey’s key national interests. There are two important causes of this. First, located at a very critical geographical location and feeling exposed to various conventional and non-conventional security challenges to all directions, Turkey’s own ability to deal with them successfully is quite limited. Seeking western/European help against non-western/non-European threats and challenges had pushed Turkey to join NATO and seek membership in key western international organizations in the past. This logic still applies today. Second, Turkey’s western/European transformation is also a hedge against the possibility of westerners/Europeans viewing Turkey as a threat and doing everything they can to help contain the so-called Turkey challenge. Given that the Ottoman Empire came to the end at the hands of colonial European nations and that the Republic of Turkey gained its independence during the wars waged against European states, the founding fathers of the new Republic thought that unless Turkey’s western/European identity were recognized as such by westerners/Europeans themselves, the latter might easily view the former as a potential threat to its security and well-being. That said, the Europeanization/westernization process has been seen from the very beginning first and foremost as a security strategy. A more western/European Turkey would not only be able to deal with non-western/European challenges more successfully but also feel itself more secure and comfortable in its relations with westerners/Europeans.
The risk for Turkey arises from the fact that whereas Americans and Europeans do generally view Turkey from an instrumental and technical perspective, a tool to be utilized in meeting core security interests in and around Turkey, Turkey’s approach towards the West//Europe is predominantly psychological. Status-seeking efforts do still manifest themselves in Turkey’s interactions with western/European countries. Another fundamentally important point is that whenever Turkish rulers do intensify their efforts to help lessen the psychological imprint in their relations with westerners/Europeans and adopt a more technical and strategic approach towards them, questions about Turkey’s strategic choices and foreign policy orientation pop up instantly across western/European capitals. One cannot help but come to the conclusion that westerners/Europeans would be quite happy to see Turkey’s psychological need to be recognized as a western/European nation continue unabated.
Whereas the rise of challenges emanating from Russia and China might help rejuvenate the trilateral strategic cooperation among the United States, European Union and Turkey, one would do well to recognize that the psychological dimension of this relationship also matters, maybe more than strategic-security considerations. The confluence of four important developments in recent years appears to have psychologically aggravated this trilateral relationship. First, the transatlantic rift between the United States and its European allies has widened over the last decade as the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean have somehow diverged from each other as to how to define western identity and the core tenets of the liberal international order. The cohesion of the so-called western international community has weakened as liberal-democratic credentials of its identity have come under existential challenges across the Atlantic. Looking from Turkey, the question of who remains the gatekeeper of liberal democracy has become difficult to answer.
Second, Turkey’s penchant for further liberal democracy has further decreased as not only liberal democracy has moved from one crisis to another in its homes countries but also Turkey’s liberal democratic reforms alongside the EU accession process have not been positively reciprocated by Europeans. Paradoxically, while Turkey has institutionally come closer to the European Union since the beginning of the formal accession negotiations in 2005 the psychological distance between the two has spectacularly widened with an increasing number of Europeans arguing that this process should be defined as open-ended and Europeans should most offer Turkey a privileged membership.
Third, Turkey has adopted a more nationalist and illiberal turn since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. The fact that neither the United States nor key European Union members took as much a pro-government position as adopted by Russia, Iran and many other non-western nations seems to have aggravated the fears of Turkey’s ruling elite that promotion of liberal democracy abroad is more a strategic weapon at the hands westerners than reflecting their sincere commitment to such values wherever they are abused.
Finally, the growing clout of China, Russia and other non-western countries in global politics in recent years appears to have strengthened realpolitik security considerations and material power calculations at the expense of value-oriented normative underpinnings of international order. While such a tectonic shift in international relations seems to have triggered a crisis of trust in Turkey’s relations with western/European nations on one hand, it has improved Turkey’s ability to develop strategic, pragmatic and interest-based relations with non-western powers on the other.
I am of the view that the continuation of the trilateral cooperation between the United States, European Union and Turkey is in their common interests, yet unless the parties build their relationship on a solid psychological and normative basis, then the years ahead might see more crises arise.