PARIS: “Who lost Turkey? That question, often raised in the past, has been heating up in the aftermath of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s emotional outburst during the recent World Economic Forum 2009 in Davos, when he abruptly left a panel he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres. And the Turkish question matters greatly, because it touches on some of the most unstable and unsettling of the world’s diplomatic disputes.
If Turkey has indeed been “lost, those responsible include the European Union, the United States, Israel, and Turkey itself. The EU’s growing reservations about Turkey’s membership have been expressed unambiguously by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In the US, former President George W. Bush gets some of the blame because of the war in Iraq. Israel, too, has played its part in Turkey’s alienation from the West, as a result of the Lebanon war of 2006 and its recent military operations in Gaza.
All of these events have disturbed and disoriented Turkey, and are magnified by the domestic impact of the worst global economic crisis since the 1930’s.
Of course, Turkey’s secular, pro-Western elites may still consider the EU and the US important, if not indispensable, allies and partners, and they may consider Islamic fundamentalism, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran real or at least potential threats. Yet they are also convinced that Europe has behaved improperly toward Turkey, through a combination of short-term populist reflexes and the absence of a long-term strategic vision.
The Turkish question is, of course, complex. Turkey’s geography is predominantly Asian, Turkey’s emotions are increasingly Middle Eastern, ie, Muslim on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and yet Turkey’s elites remain resolutely pro-Western and pro-European. But for how long?
At the beginning of the 21st century, when dialogue with the Islamic world is one of the Western world’s key challenges, Europe would commit a historic strategic blunder if it were to close its doors to Turkey. To do so would push back the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire back onto an Asian, Muslim, and Middle Eastern historical trajectory.
In the question of Turkish accession to the EU, the journey matters more than the destination. The reforms that Turkey has already implemented in a very short period of time, thanks to its EU candidate status, are impressive.
Should we in Europe really put at risk that progress by expressing an all-too-audible “no ?
The EU desperately needs a strategic and diplomatic partner that can significantly reinforce its clout in the Middle East. Europe also needs the dynamism of a youthful Turkey. Above all, it needs the message of reconciliation sent to Islam that Turkey’s entrance into the Union would represent.
Of course, to want Turkey “in is an act of will, if not an act of faith that is in many ways counterintuitive. Most Europeans do not perceive Turkey as a “European Other but as a “non-European Other. Even in Istanbul, the most Westernized of Turkish cities, as soon as one leaves the main arteries, one seems to be immersed in a Middle Eastern or Asian culture.
Israel is not in the European Union, but it, too, is in great danger of losing Turkey. Far from reinforcing Israel’s security, its last two military adventures, in Lebanon and now in Gaza, have caused further self-isolation and loss of world sympathy. Nowhere has this phenomenon been stronger than in Turkey, where those military escapades have strained the two countries’ strategic alliance almost to the breaking point.
It is too early to speak of Obama’s policy towards Turkey; suffice it to say that in his willingness to open a respectful dialogue with Islam, he is the only Western leader to move in the right direction. But can positive American gestures towards Turkey, a key NATO member, be sufficient to offset Israel’s insensitive, if not reckless, policies? The answer is unclear.
Turkey, too shares some of the responsibility for this mounting process of estrangement. Erdogan’s behavior in Davos was, at the very least, irresponsible. He may have gained popularity back home, but in today’s difficult economic times, the temptations of cheap populism are more dangerous than ever. One does not play lightly with matches next to a pile of dry wood.
Dominique Moisi is a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and the author of The Geopolitics of Emotions. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).