Commentary / World

Can Turkey fulfill its trans-Atlantic promise?

WASHINGTON — The Turkey that German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits this week is a very different place from the Turkey that began European Union accession talks five years ago. For, with those talks seemingly going nowhere, Turkey has begun to broaden its international horizons. Indeed, Turkish foreign policy is now far more proactive and multidimensional than at any period since Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey is now a major player in its own right, in the Middle East and far beyond. This has caused consternation in both the United States and Europe, leading to growing concern that the West is somehow “losing” Turkey.

Yet Turkey’s “distinctiveness” in the Middle East is not necessarily detrimental to the West. On the contrary, Turkey could represent an important asset to its European and American partners.

But this does not mean that Turkey’s potential influence in the Middle East is automatically of benefit to the West. Turkey’s promise in the region hinges on its consistent pursuit of democratization at home and a rules-based foreign policy. Moreover, the benefits of Turkey’s influence in its immediate neighborhood can be realized only if the EU proceeds in a more honest and robust way with the accession process, and if the U.S. begins to treat Turkey as an indispensable partner in the region.

Turkey is belatedly engaging with the Middle East by mediating conflicts, developing economic relations and liberalizing the movement of people, all initiatives aimed at promoting regional peace, prosperity and openness. This is exactly what Turkey had been doing in its relations with the ex-Soviet world since the 1990s without attracting much attention from the West.

By contributing to the integration of the Middle East into the global system, Turkey’s democracy and market economy are having a positive spillover on its southern neighbors, however modest. Developing channels of cooperation with Turkey in order to tap into Turkey’s potential to contribute to regional peace and stability in the Middle East is thus imperative for both the U.S. and the EU.

But Turkish democracy itself is not yet consolidated, and this is a precondition for Turkish foreign policy to become an asset for the EU and the U.S. Reforms driven by the EU have changed the political landscape in Turkey dramatically, but the transformation toward liberal democracy is far from complete, as the country’s current bout of political instability and its prime minister’s not infrequent populist outbursts suggest.

Domestic shortcomings and political polarization have fed a temptation to drift away from a foreign policy driven by universal values. This is where continued engagement by Turkey’s trans-Atlantic partners remains vital.

A survey in July 2009 found that 64 percent of respondents in seven Arab countries believe that Turkey’s EU membership prospects make Turkey an attractive partner for reform in the Arab world, underscoring the direct link between Turkey’s foreign-policy potential and its EU accession course.

The Obama administration’s approach to Turkey has been constructive. There has also been effective practical cooperation on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, Arab-Israeli relations and Lebanon. Even on Iran, the differences are more about means than objectives. Turkey’s improved standing in the Middle East can also help the U.S. with democracy assistance in the region. The U.S. must consider partnering with Turkish civil society in this regard, serving the cause of strengthening democracy both in Turkey and its neighborhood.

The EU’s role is even more critical. Having engaged Turkey in the accession process, the EU appears to have abandoned Turkey, failing to live up to its decades-old commitment — made by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer — to negotiate Turkish membership in the Union in good faith.

The Turkish political system needs the sense of confidence that comes with EU engagement and the real prospect of membership in order to pursue the systemic political reforms that are still needed. Revitalizing EU membership talks is the only way to reconstitute trust between the government, liberals and the secular establishment, and in turn reinvigorate the reform process in the country.

If the accession process resumes and its credibility is restored this would allow Turkey to continue acting as an economic, cultural, political and social hub in its neighborhood, benefiting the EU, the neighborhood and itself.

Turkey’s new regional prominence has transformed a static Cold War barrier into a potential catalyst for regional peace, prosperity and stability. But this change cannot be taken for granted and requires support from the EU and the U.S. The West has never owned Turkey, so debating who “lost” it is pointless. What is needed, instead, is a serious debate about the conditions that will allow Turkey to fulfill its trans-Atlantic promise.

Kemal Kirisci, Nathalie Tocci and Joshua Walker are fellows at the Transatlantic Academy and coauthored “A Neighborhood Rediscovered: Turkey’s Transatlantic Value in the Middle East,” available at www.brusselsforum.org. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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