Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West – Global Focus

By over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself on a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any summer in recent history. Usually, during the long summer months, a sort of informal moratorium appears between Greece and Turkey so that there would be no particular spike in tensions between them, as the inflow of ever-growing number of tourists with their greenbacks on both sides of the Aegean was deemed too important for the economies of both countries. This summer, when the coronavirus has been wreaking havoc and tourist revenues have been negligible, the action has shifted to gunboat diplomacy and the search for leverage in an increasingly complex and unsteady European security architecture. Yet there is no novelty here, as this has been the state of relations between the two countries – both NATO members since 1952 while Turkey is still formally negotiating its accession to the European Union since 2003 – for a long time. It reflects the surreal pragmatism in both Turkey’s relationship with the West, to which it still belongs but doubts whether it does, as well as the transactional reflexes of both Greece and Turkey regarding their relations with each other, given the ambiguous positions of their partners and allies. Should there have been no NATO or EU, a good argument could be made that relations between the two countries would mirror Turkey’s relations with some of its other neighbours, such as Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Armenia.

Yet apart from this surreal state of play between Greece and Turkey, which most of their western allies do not understand or do not want to understand or pretend does not exist, this summer has been different because a number of other paradoxes are coming to the fore. Most stem from ideological imperatives and domestic cleavages within Turkey proper that have rapidly acquired an external or foreign policy dimension. Here the broader implications of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque come into play, although barely six weeks after the 10 July decision to do so, the issue no longer seems to dominate the headlines anymore.

‘It’s the domestic politics, stupid’

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was primarily motivated by domestic considerations and the deep dividing lines within Turkish society, which undoubtedly have political characteristics. The current Turkish government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seem to favour the implementation of a civilisational discourse into a civilisational state reality, primarily for reasons of political expediency. This is particularly relevant in the perennial battle between Kemalists and Islamists that has shaped Turkish politics for decades. This does not imply that the emergence of a ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse does not have deep seated roots within both the governing party and its electorate, in particular as a revindication of the Kemalist turn toward modernisation, Westernisation and secularism upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, away from the virtues of Islam as the dominant ideology of the Empire. Nevertheless, a level of political expediency is very much in evidence, especially since the 2010s when the synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey today. According to political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, the decision represents an example of the assumption of moral superiority over Kemalism without necessarily impacting upon the nature of the relationship between the state and religion since Turkish secularism or “laicism, as the continuation of a Byzantine-era practice, is inherently dependent upon the state’s control and guidance of religion in line with the state’s interests and objectives.” As to the effect on Turkish multiculturalism, its practice is already problematic, as the inherent and privileged correlation between Turkishness and Sunni Islam has been a way of life throughout the 97 years of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The troubled history of the country’s Greek orthodox minority, as well as that of its Armenian, Kurdish, and Alevi populations, among others, are a testament to this sad state of affairs. Though successive polls since the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia do no show that it has had a significant impact in the government’s sagging poll numbers, the mitigated reaction by the Kemalist opposition reflects an acceptance that its ability to influence the country’s ideological direction has been further limited. What emerges is a very real existential dilemma for the country’s secular population as to what this gradual, overt promotion of political Islam means for their way of life.

The synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey since the 2010s.

For the Greek Orthodox minority and Bartholomew I, the embattled Ecumenical Patriarchate and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christian worldwide, the reaction of the Patriarch encapsulates the reality: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.” As his close associates have told me, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived 567 years without the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, and can continue to do so.

Promoting an Islamic agenda

A second dimension has to do with the perception within the Muslim world as to which leader is defending or promoting an Islamic agenda. Although many predominantly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are at odds with Turkey’s perceived infringement upon the global Islamic discourse (and their geopolitical interests), the battle is actually for the hearts and minds of Sunnis around the world. Erdoğan’s reference on 10 July that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem is a case in point.

An increasingly coercive posture

The third facet linked to the conversion of Hagia Sophia is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context which capitals around the world have been grappling with, given the consensus that the regional and global security architecture, and as a consequence the international liberal multilateral order in place since the end of the Second World War, has been faltering. With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities. While for the European Union and its member states, this implies a painful conceptual and material transition into a more geopolitical union, Turkey’s methodology has involved the promotion and implementation of a more transactional approach where assertive and coercive diplomacy predominates. Here the attempt is both to rationalise the vacuum that a less strategic United States leaves both within the wider European space and in the Mediterranean, and to ensure that consensual national strategies – such as the country’s place as a regional energy transit hub, and, by extension, as a regional power with global reach – do not get sidetracked. While for the European Union and its member states, some form of multilateralism and its normative framework are a sine qua non for addressing regional and global challenges, for Turkey the militarisation of foreign policy instruments as evidenced in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the challenge to international forums and institutions and their norms and rules to which Turkey is a party to, will be an acceptable means of conduct if these limit its ability to extend its Lebensraum and its ability to manifest itself as an indispensable regional actor. For example, the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a case in point, as Turkey went through the process without prior consultation, for example with UNESCO, as it was bound to do given the monument’s World Heritage Site status.

The instrumentalisation of religion as a foreign policy tool, in this case, promotes the simplistic perception of a ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ turn in Turkish foreign policy where Ankara leads the fight against the West. In other words, as Nicholas Danforth notes, “[w]hen it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb.”

More of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability 

Despite the aforementioned instrumentalisation of religion and the militarisation of foreign policy, Ankara has not made a move to either withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance or to break totally with the European Union. Yet the tell-tale signs are many, starting in particular with the overt attempt to couple greater strategic autonomy from the West with its growing relationship with the Russian Federation since 2016. Alarm bells were raised by the 2019 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Washington as well as NATO as a whole. Its recent and ongoing strong-arm tactics against Greece and France, among others, have led many to suggest willy-nilly that Turkey has become the Alliance’s ‘elephant in the room’ with a proliferation of strategic divides on a variety of fronts, with implications regarding NATO’s already problematic reach in the Black Sea region and the Middle East.

An argument could be made that Turkish actions imply the implementation of a security doctrine based on the concepts of forward defence and self help, given its assessment of the regional security concept as well as the synthesis domestically of political Islam, nationalism, and anti-Westernism. Yet the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy, and its possible self-entrapment due to an overestimation of its influence or an acceptance of the manner in which it tries to enforce it, make it more of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability in the wider European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eurasian spaces. In other words, by over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself heading for a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities.

As long as Turkey’s break with the West does not become more permanent and the transition away from Kemalist tenets is slow and contained, the wider European regional context implies one of balancing and rebalancing, action and reaction between the region’s powers. The US’s ambivalence and ambiguities have led regional states to seek different ways to augment their security, many (especially the European countries) within the confines of international law and multilateral institutions, while others test the system’s limits. The pace of change is rapid, with the verdict still out as to whether the frayed relationship between Turkey and its partners and allies does remain a Gordian knot. The options on the table now are between limited strategic autonomy for Ankara or strategic independence. Both of these choices or developments can be managed, provided the methodology Ankara uses to promote either choice does not become excessively heavy-handed, putting at risk the interests, sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU and NATO member states, and by extension, the organisations they belong to. Although there is not much room for optimism at this point in time, a more permanent, long-lasting, value-laden binding agreement with Turkey is necessary. There is a need to move beyond the stopgap triptych of ‘solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue’ as Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, suggested after the video conference meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU Member States on 14 August. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International and European Studies (CIES) at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Source: Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West – GlobalFocus