The Ukraine crisis has once again catapulted Turkey to the top of the global policymaking agenda. Seizing the moment, the Government of Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in line with the Montreux Convention preventing new Russian military vessels from entering the Black Sea, and has also managed to stay neutral enough to position itself as an honest broker for several key mediation attempts winning praise from Zelensky himself. This, in turn, has created considerable sympathy for Turkey on a global stage, especially among its Western allies. Many leaders, including the Dutch, German and Greek Prime Ministers, after many years, visited Turkey in a rare show of support.
Considering the difficult relations Turkey has recently suffered with the West, the country was presented with an historic opportunity to rebuild pivotal bridges that looked permanently burnt. Sadly, this unique momentum and historical opportunity was ultimately wasted trying to politically leverage foolish notions of a nefarious western agenda with regard to Turkey and a mistaken view of Ottoman history.
The irony is that Turkey’s pivot to the West started in the 18th century by Ottoman leaders who understood the need to reform the country and its institutions based on Western principles and innovations in matters ranging from the Ottoman military to the management of its economy, justice system and education. These reforms aimed at restoring the Empire that had weakened compared to the gradually developing western European states.
History of Turkey’s Westernization struggle
There are many examples of various moments in Ottoman history where concrete attempts were made to reform Ottoman society based on Western contemporary practices. Even Sultan Abdulmecit, who is one of the most popular Ottoman rulers in Turkey’s nationalist-conservative circles, issued an edict about equal rights for all citizens, the right to life, the security of private property and the necessity of reforms in the fields of tax as well as the military and the justice system.
While it is broadly accepted that the Republic of Turkey was founded under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with the explicit goal of becoming a modern Western country, it can be easily argued he was merely consolidating earlier Ottoman attempts. This is partly why Atatürk was able to implement his revolutions aimed at Westernization so quickly and effectively. The founding philosophy of the Republic of Turkey was based on embracing Westernization without losing the country’s historical and national values.
Atatürk’s entire Westernization policy was based on modern progress in the fields of civil rights, as well as modern notions on independence, equality, law and justice, science, pluralism and societal welfare. Inspired by such contemporary principles, Atatürk was able to capture the spirit of the time and even managed to place Turkey ahead of Western civilization in certain areas. A prominent example is that Turkish women obtained the right to vote and to be elected much earlier than most Western women. And it is for this reason that Turkey adopted secularism and democracy earlier than many of its neighbors and succeeded in becoming one of the world’s top 20 largest economies. We owe all these structural advantages and our achievements in the international political arena to Atatürk and to his unique way of grandfathering Westernization principles that prioritizes science and reason into Turkish society.
Westernization doesn’t mean accomodating the West
It is important to note that embracing western principles in the unique spirit of Atatürk does not translate into always accommodating every Western country and catering to their every need. Nor did it require us to obey them or to tolerate policies that contradict Turkey’s interests. Being a Westerner merely means “to be a person who respects and embraces the core principles of secularism, democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms and universal values”. These are essentially the main building blocks for any country to catch up with contemporary civilization and basic good governance.
Sadly, instead of accepting these basic truths, the current political leadership of Turkey is trying to rewrite history to justify their own mistakes. We are witnessing a conscious effort to strip away the gains we started enjoying 300 years ago while the institutional structure of the state is being dismantled. The justice system, as well as basic institutional demands of secular and democratic governance are under attack and we are suffering a decline in the implementation of fundamental rights and freedoms.
And while our political leaders themselves are questioning our historical alliance with the west, they become angry when analysts in the west inherently ask the same question. This, in turn, is causing us to be increasingly more isolated in the international arena and is undermining our ability to protect our rights and interests as we are now witnessing in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Local and National”
The fact that we have entered election season during a very dire economic recession is creating circumstances that are further aggravating already existing tensions. Anti-Western sentiment is now being fueled by short-term domestic political considerations causing negative externalities, especially on the economic front. While it is difficult to foresee how we will save ourselves from the current impasse, it is clear that this negative spiral is no longer sustainable.
While pro-government circles attack “the old Turkey”, AKP leaders have not offered a realistic and convincing definition of their proposed concept of “locality and nationality”, which they claim offers a real alternative to our centuries’ old Westernization efforts. But does it really?
Turkey’s economy and industry is still largely fueled by trade with the West and with Western-made machinery and equipment. At the same time, Turkish consumers are among the most ardent fans of Western popular culture and most insistent users of devices produced with Western technology. In this context, sound bites about “locality and nationality” mean little more than empty populist discourse and a poor attempt at branding political opponents as pro-Western “traitors”. It does however succeed in deepening the already existing polarization in society and fueling already dangerously high levels of xenophobia.
This environment not only threatens the already weakened equilibrium of societal peace, but dramatically drains the energy of the country in every possible field of policy. And while this hurricane is taking down the country, it is unlikely to distract voters – even the nationalist-conservative base – from the real economic hardships that they are facing and real issues such as terrorism and mass migration and refugee flows.
For all these reasons it is of crucial importance that the Government of Turkey reverses course before it is too late. While a new European security architecture is being shaped, and NATO enlargement is on the agenda, Turkey should be mending ties with the West; and not adding fuel to the fire. This by no way means that Turkey should compromise on legitimate interests or make compromises on its own national security. Quite the contrary, this author believes that Turkey can do much more to serve its national interest through silent diplomacy and rational bargaining. Regardless of domestic political preferences, policyholders have a responsibility to continue and build on 300 years of efforts by our real ancestors; not the imaginary ones.