Topographic map - Europe and Turkey

Turkey: from Bridge to Bridge Guard

Asia Europe

In recent years, Turkey has taken on a stronger international role. Turkey has simply begun to act more on the basis of its own interests in the international arena. Where the country used to do more or less as the United States wanted, and thus was quite predictable, Turkey now prioritises differently. These are priorities that are difficult to get an overview of – not least because they have long been neglected in Turkish foreign policy.

  • How is Turkey now changing its foreign policy?
  • What happens to the relationship with the West?
  • How does Turkey relate to the Muslim world?

The changes do not mean that the West is about to “lose Turkey” to Iran or other countries, as many now claim. The key is that Turkey acts more on its own terms and interests than before. Western interests and priorities thus come second, and thus Turkish foreign policy becomes more difficult to recognize.

2: Disappointment with the EU

The relationship between Turkey and the EU means a lot to both parties. The attempt to achieve EU membership has brought out the best in Turkish politics. The human rights situation has improved, the country is more democratic than before and the economy seems more robust than in neighboring countries. But Turkey is also very important for what the EU will be in the future. Turkish membership gives the EU the opportunity to build a bridge to the Muslim world, and the country also has a young population and a vibrant economy.

Europeans’ wavering and insecurity are making Turkey the largest no-EU country. The EU has long told Turkey that the country can become a member if it implements and complies with the criteria of democracy, market and human rights (the Copenhagen criteria). Turkey has done this for a long time. Along the way, the Turks have seen Bulgaria and Romania be admitted as members, and Croatia pass them in the search queue.

And none of these countries is a paradise when it comes to democracy and human rights. When key European leaders now still saying that Turkey anyway will never become EU member, emerges EU for Turks as a major power they can not be trusted, and who, moreover, is looking to weaken Turkey.

3: Strengthens Turkish EU opponents

When European politicians flatly reject Turkish EU membership, as both French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have recently done, they touch on what has long been Turkey’s most tender point: the fear of not being accepted as a full-fledged European. By conducting double communication, Sarkozy and Merkel – consciously or unconsciously – make the Turks insecure, and play the ball over to the Turkish EU opponents’ half of the field.

Turkish nationalists like to present the EU as a threat. The question of what the country has to gain from the reforms is becoming increasingly important for the Turks. Turks increasingly see European ideals of human rights and democracy as tools used by Europeans to prevent Turkey from becoming a strong state. If the adaptation does not lead to membership, the Turks will feel cheated.

The Turks have long had Europe as their ideal, and they have created their nation state according to the European model. By creating a secular state and modernizing with a heavy hand, the father of the country, Kemal Atatürk, wanted to lead the country into “contemporary civilization”. This line of adaptation has continued to this day, with varying degrees of success. EU membership is considered the very culmination of the Turkish Westernization project, because it will be understood as a recognition that Turkey is equal.

The EU has consistently presented Turkish EU membership as a technical issue, and something that depended solely on whether Turkey underwent the necessary reforms and thus met the Copenhagen criteria (see facts). Belief in a possible EU membership contributed to the AKP’s landslide victory in the Turkish elections in 2002. One of the party’s most important issues was EU membership, and the new government quickly embarked on comprehensive reforms.

What the EU has not communicated is that Turkish membership is a political issue that is decided by the member states. Although Turkey is now close to meeting the reform requirements, leading EU countries show little willingness to keep the promise of membership. This creates great dissatisfaction, and the Turks are therefore looking for more reliable partners.

4: Splitting

Turkey’s worldview is colored by the First World War and the great power game in its wake. The memory of the European colonial powers trying to divide Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, is still kept alive by Turkish politicians. This empire was allied with Germany and thus ended up on the losing side in the First World War. As a result of the war, the Western Powers established the Sèvres Agreement in 1920.

The agreement was based on US President Woodrow Wilson’s principles of nations’ right to self-determination. According to the agreement, the kingdom was to be divided into smaller pieces based on the ethnic and religious minorities in the kingdom. Each ethnic group had its protector among the great powers.

Although the great powers assured that the agreement and the division were about modern and liberal values ​​such as democracy and the right of nations to self-determination, the Turks perceived it as an extension of the 19th century’s great power game. From 1919 to 1922, the Turks fought against this division, and eventually got what they wanted. In 1922, the British left Istanbul and gave up the project of dividing Turkey.

For the Turks, the “lesson” from Sèvres is that behind every European ideal lies a European interest. Turkey as a nation-state arose in precisely this struggle against being forced on the ideals of the Europeans. Therefore, the lesson of Sèvres is, so to speak, in the backbone of the entire Turkish people. Because many Turks are so skeptical of European ideals – they believe it hides a power agenda – EU demands for reform (see facts) face strong opposition in Turkish public opinion.

This opposition entails great costs for Turkish governments when they implement legal reforms in line with the EU’s requirements for new members. Nevertheless, this is going relatively well because most Turks until now have had a strong desire to be accepted as equal Europeans. As the hope of membership fades, the uncertainty about Europeans’ motives will become stronger and cooperation more difficult. The EU will also lose its most important tool to Turkey, the demands for reform. The Turks will hardly see any reason to follow the EU’s wishes if the promises of membership are just a bluff anyway.

5: Turkey and NATO

Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the organization has been the cornerstone of Turkish security policy. During the Cold War, NATO was a stable stronghold, and the West could rely on Turkey in thick and thin. But after the fall of the Wall, journalists and state leaders have questioned whether the West is losing Turkey as a partner and ally. Without the danger of the Soviet Union, the fear of invasion is no longer so great that the Turks do as the United States commands.

In addition, the United States has trampled on Turkey’s toes a number of times in recent years. The invasion of Iraq in particular is a sore point. In Turkish eyes, it looked like a colonial project where the Americans were only looking for oil and economic profit. Many Turks had difficulty swallowing an alliance with such a country. And the most conspiratorial wondered if Turkey was the next country the United States would attack.

Many Turks no longer trust their main ally. Many, including key politicians and officers, believe that the United States wants to weaken and dominate Turkey, and in the worst case, invade and divide the country. These got water on the mill during the American invasion of Iraq, when more and more people talked about drawing new borders in the Middle East. One of the key projects was to give the Kurds – who are a stateless minority in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq – a separate state.

Some in the Bush administration (Bush jr.) Spoke loudly about redistributing the region and giving parts of Turkey to such a state. Some will say that these were pure thoughts and fantasies, and that they would never happen. But it was real enough that the plan was presented at the NATO Defense College in Rome in 2006. It is hardly surprising that the Turkish officers in the hall were upset by what they heard there. Turkey’s main ally proposed a division of Turkish territory. And that in the alliance’s own arena! Although few Americans are aware that this happened at all, this case has created a lot of mistrust in the Turkish population.

6: Turkey and Israel

Turkey is the only Muslim member of NATO and Israel’s only ally in the Middle East. But relations with Israel are becoming more acidic. In January 2009, the Turkish Prime Minister had an argument with the Israeli President on live television during the Davos Economic Summit . The Prime Minister was outraged that Israel at that time was at war in the Gaza Strip without facing particular criticism from the West. The friendship between the two allies seemed to be in danger, but the diplomats still managed to save the relationship. However, the Turkish Prime Minister became a hero in the Arab countries, because he did something their own leaders never dare, namely to challenge Israel in an open forum.

In May 2010, the relationship broke down again, when Israel boarded a Turkish ship with aid shipments to Gaza. In the operation, nine Turks were killed – one of them with US citizenship – by Israeli special forces. These had attacked the ship in international waters, and for Israel it all developed into a propaganda disaster. Turkey recalled its ambassador, Israel refused to fly over Turkish airspace and began canceling contracts for Israeli weapons.

According to the Turkish Foreign Minister, this was means to get Israel to either let an international commission investigate the incidents, or to apologize, as well as pay compensation to the bereaved. In the summer of 2010, it seemed that the Turks managed to get their will through. The UN then set up a commission of inquiry with one Israeli, one Turkish and two outside representatives. It is not often that Israel gives in to diplomatic pressure from others than the United States, but here Turkey seems to have managed the impossible. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether the commission will work, and what will come out of its work.

According to, Israel is in a vulnerable position in the Middle East, especially when the friendship with Turkey is now at stake. These contracts are very important for the Israeli economy; The value of Turkish-Israeli economic cooperation is estimated at about $ 20 billion. And without the ability to fly over Turkey, Israeli military aircraft will have to take long detours whether they are going to Europe or Russia.

Although relations with the Arab countries are not as strained as they once were, Israel is completely dependent on friendly countries in the Middle East. Turkey fulfilled this function, but it is not certain that they will continue with this much longer.

7: Turkey – a bridge builder to the Middle East?

With a Europe that does not want them and a United States they can not trust, the Turks are looking for new partners, such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Although they do not necessarily like these countries, Turkey is treated as their equal. Iran does not engage in Turkish domestic policy, as the EU countries and the United States do. By having equal partners, Turkey can do more as it pleases and is no longer as dependent on the West. But it is important to point out that these are partners who come in addition to European partners, not instead.

When Turkey now becomes more involved in the Middle East, this happens through actions we often associate with Europe. They make peace agreements, trade agreements and visa-free travel agreements. The Turks, of course, use the procedure to promote their own interests, as do the Europeans. Nevertheless, it is not significantly different for Turkey to try to get the role of peace mediator than for Norway to do so. The Turks are now engaging their neighbors in dialogue, in the same way as West Germany did after the fall of the Wall . Turkey’s progress is no longer as predictable as during the Cold War. And the West lacks knowledge and understanding of the policies that are now being pursued. Turkey’s demand to be treated as an equal partner in international politics is nothing new. What is new is that the country is able to do something about it.

Topographic map - Europe and Turkey