Friends and foes
The Turks has no friend but the Turk, makes no sense in international politics.
Awar of words has erupted over the Turkish government’s campaign for the constitutional referendum, with both sides accusing each other of populist pandering. The so-called “laptop ban” on direct flights from Ataturk Airport to the United States and Britain looks, on the surface, to be one of the consequences of this new state of affairs. Ilter Turan, professor emeritus at Bilgi University, picks apart the state of Turkey’s current relationships with its allies.
• How does the crisis in Turkey’s EU membership process affect Turkey’s relations with Europe?
There is no doubt that the EU has adopted a very different approach to Turkey’s membership process than it has for other candidates. Meanwhile, is Turkey’s perception of the EU merely framed by its bid for membership? Since successive governments in Turkey have often lacked the internal will to make the necessary reforms, external factors often were the reasons for internal change.
These external factors and security concerns played a major role in Turkey’s transformation into a multi-party democracy after 1946. Both in terms of economic prosperity and security, relations with Europe and the United States date back before the establishment of the EU and even to the Ottoman Empire. As a result, EU membership has long been viewed as the ultimate reward. But if our bid fails, we cannot say we have given up Europeanism and become something else. Europe is not only made up of EU member countries.
Moreover, the EU, beset by financial and political woes of its own, may not be able to sustain its existence in the near future. For our own security and economic prosperity, we have to maintain relations with European countries and keep EU membership on one side, not least because the EU is our biggest trading partner. NATO, the security system into which we are integrated, is a European and U.S. joint defense pact. An alternative system that will meet the needs of Turkey does not yet exist.
• What needs to be done by both Turkey and its allies to overcome the current diplomatic conflict?
Another problem created by the clash between Turkey and the EU is a feeling on both sides that we do not belong to the same community. Right-wing political movements are on the rise in the EU, partly due to internal crises, while an anti-EU, anti-West discourse is on the rise in Turkey. It may not be easy to build a good relationship in such an environment, but we should at least avoid factors that will worsen the relationship by maintaining basic institutional structures.
One dimension of the problem in Turkey is that it is accustomed to using foreign politics for shortterm domestic political gain. Insulting our allies and countries with whom we share a common fate will get us nowhere. We need to emphasize the importance of cooperation by softening our style and showing that we are not prone to continually transforming temporary problems into permanent ones.
As the anchor of the EU weakens in Turkey, there will less interest shown in economic relations with us. Also, we may not be able to take a role in any future security apparatus. This will send us on a path that does not suit Turkey’s interests in any way.
• How should we perceive the laptop ban?
Europe and the United States are determined in their actions while their wording is careful. Turkey, on the other hand, looks ineffectual in its discursive actions and is careless in its statements. The ban, which bars travelers from carrying laptops and tablets onto direct flights to the United States and Britain from 10 Middle Eastern airports, both protects U.S. and British airlines and is a response to Turkey’s attitude towards its two allies. If the ban covered all flights, irrespective of which country they originated from, we could be persuaded that it is for security reasons. However, naming individual airports implies the intention was to cause commercial harm.
The Economist magazine argues that the global reach of these Middle Eastern airlines, including Turkish Airlines and Emirates, upsets Europe and the United States, which are highly sensitive to the survival of their own airlines. Flag carriers are a source of soft power and important to national security. I believe this ban is an aggressive economic measure against Turkish Airlines, which has been fly- ing all over the world. The main message from the U.S. and British governments is that traveling with these airlines is dangerous.
• Does Turkey really have no friends?
As the saying goes: “The Turk has no friend but the Turk.” But this makes no sense when it comes to international politics, an area that depends on mutual interests. It is not right to conceptualize friendship as if it were outside mutual interests. Turkey has failed to maintain its alliances and faces a challenge building new ones. An alliance with Russia and China is often put forward as a replacement for our relations with the West. But joining a defense system led by Moscow and Beijing without improving relations with the West could lead our new partners to trample us with demands.
Have the Russians, with whom we already have developed relations, acted in accordance with our wishes in Syria despite our insistence? No. Then again, neither has the United States. The interest associations turn into policies through existing political structures in a country. When these policies are made, public opinion is taken into consideration, particularly in countries governed by democracy.
Negative public opinion also effects a country’s policies towards the other. What we call interest association is not something that everyone agrees on completely or something one can measure, but rather a matter of perception. Non-friendly relationships also create difficulties in forming associations. It is not easy to say that Turkey’s relations have recently developed in a friendly framework.