Fears of a shift away from the West have grown in 2009. Turkey's condemnation of Israel's attack on Gaza in January was followed by Prime Minister Erdogan's walk-out during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres in March, and a Turkish veto of Israel's participation in a joint air-force exercise, again citing its conduct in Gaza.
Before a recent visit to Iran in which he signed a gas deal and several economic agreements, Mr Erdogan defended Iran's right to nuclear energy and accused those countries which oppose Tehran's atomic program of hypocrisy. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was understandably delighted, leaving pundits in the West shaken.
However, the evidence that Brussels and Washington are ‘losing Turkey' is disjointed and selective. On Israel, for instance, this argument assumes that Turkey's fury over Gaza is in some way manufactured, and designed entirely to win support in the Muslim world. Although Turkey's leaders are not blind to the credit that this will earn them in the Middle East and at home, the anger is genuine. Turkey saw the fragile gains it has made as an Arab-Israeli peacemaker destroyed during Operation Cast Lead, and sees Israel as responsible.
It is also odd to link Turkish anger at Israel with turning away from the EU. For all its links with Brussels and Washington, the Jewish state is not an integral part of ‘the West', geographically or politically. Ankara is quite capable of opposing Israel's actions without abandoning its EU membership application. And although the reputation of that process is heavily tarnished, and many Turks are increasingly cynical, EU integration remains a priority of the Turkish Government.
Senior Turkish officials have made this plain, and have also poured cold water on the whole idea that Turkey is turning East - "Is it so easy to change direction?" asked President Abdullah Gul rhetorically.
This statement hints at the heart of the matter. Complex states do not have a single geopolitical ‘direction'. President Gul visited Serbia in October, but Ankara is not seeking to re-establish Ottoman influence in the Balkans, as some believe it is doing in the Middle East. Ankara's ‘zero problems with neighbours' policy, and Turkey's unique position at the confluence of so many different regions, inevitably leads the country to work with states whom the West distrusts.
Expecting Turkey to suspend cooperation with Tehran is an easy judgement to make in Washington or Brussels, but not so in Ankara. Turkey needs Iran to cooperate: on energy, trade, and on containing Kurdish militants.
In any case, Turkey has absolutely no interest in a nuclear Iran, and recently ordered advanced Patriot missile batteries from the US. Although Turkey was keen to insist otherwise, the move is a response to Iran's strategic missile programme. Mr Erdogan's praise of President Ahmadinejad was, given this context, simple diplomacy, made before a business-focused trip. It would have been surprising, and counterproductive, to have prepared for his visit by thundering against the country's nuclear program.
Assuming that Turkey is somehow moving away from the West, towards the Middle East, or towards some kind of pact with Iran, is misguided. It ignores historic rivalries, fails to recognise Turkish fears of an Iranian nuclear weapon (whatever Mr Erdogan might say in public), and conflates Israel with the EU or NATO. Most importantly, it underestimates Ankara's foreign policy. Turkey is smart enough to be able to look East and West at the same time.
Brussels and Washington should acknowledge this, and acknowledge that treating every controversial action as a betrayal of the West is counterproductive. We should work with Turkey as a bridge with the Muslim world, and Russia, in ‘hard' diplomacy as well as ‘soft' culture. Allowing it to play a bigger role in the talks on Iran's nuclear programme would be an encouraging start, but Ankara also has a vital role to play in disputes ranging from Palestine to Georgia to Afghanistan. We must recognise Turkey's status as an essential partner and a regional powerhouse, and we must not slam shut the door on Turkish EU membership.
Alex Jackson is a Policy Analyst at the International Council on Security and Development. He is also an an Editorial Assistant at the Caucasian Review of International Affairs, where he writes a weekly analysis of regional developments, the Caucasus Update. The above article is edited from Issue 53 of the Caucasus Update, entitled ‘Is Turkey Turning East?', available here.
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