Turkey - Caught between Brussels and Washington:Struggling with a strategic dilemma - written exclusively for WSN

Posted in Europe | 10-Jun-04 | Author: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Andrea K Riemer

A brief introductory sketch

Due to its history and its geopolitical position, Turkey has always played a special role in considerations of the United States and of Europe. Some assessed Turkey as ‘pivotal state’, others named it the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Bosporus - bridging Europe and Asia.
Bosporus - bridging Europe and Asia.
Turkey is located at a very particular geostrategic choke-point. It is surrounded by three seas and it links the European with the Asian continent. Therefore, Turkey simultaneously belongs to many geographical and cultural regions. It is a European, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Black Sea country. Turkey is not only a member of the western world but also a member of the Islamic world and it is deeply rooted in Central Asia. In short, Turkey is a Euro-Asian nation. This brief description explains the challenging position of Turkey and underpins its political, ideological and geopolitical disintegration.

The dramatic changes that occurred in Europe in the late 1980’s and early 1990s brought the East-West rivalry and the bipolar system to an end. New threats to security (e.g. ethnic nationalism, xenophobia, irredentism, religious fundamentalism and international terrorism), caused regional instability. Turkey found itself in the center of a large landscape, Eurasia, stretching from Europe to Central Asia. It became involved in a multi-level repositioning process.

At the beginning of the 21st century Turkey still is in search of its regional position. Actions are sometimes contradictory and counterproductive. A coherent and long-term strategy is still missing (despite opposing official claims). This deficit is reflected in the torn and vexed position towards the European Union and the United States. Moreover, domestic troubles made Turkey a shaky bridge and a puppet between Europe and the United States. Pleasing the Europeans usually led to dissatisfaction among the United States and vice versa. Turkey’s position has become a very uneasy one. A way out of this dilemma is still not visible, yet.

Turkey and the European Union: Between suspicion and ambiguity

On the edge of the 21st century, the EU is in a fundamentally changed environment and in an internal renewal and reshaping process. The Union is facing one of its greatest challenges in its existence. Many Europeans are anxious of Turkey’s membership (not only because of political, economic and cultural reasons), because of a possible drag of Europe into the complex Middle Eastern case. Turkey was confronted with a multiple dilemma: internal tensions, economic roller coasting, an increased involvement of the army into operative politics, and a permanent questioning of Turkey’s historical entitlement to be part of Europe and of Turkey’s Western orientation as part of its identity.

Since 1963 Turkey has been an associated partner, since 1996 it is connected with Europe via a customs union. Promises and setbacks characterized the 1990s. 1999 was a crucial year in Euro-Turkish relations. The Helsinki Summit in December brought a closer rapprochement between Turkey and the EU. EU made this rapprochement depending on the fulfillment of the Copenhagen Criteria, a solution of the disputes with Greece over the Aegean und a solution of the Cyprus question. With the active support of Athens, the Helsinki-decision to accept Turkey as a candidate state for accession was made possible. Helsinki led to a boost in Euro-Turkish relationship (and in Greco-Turkish relations, too). It should be clear, that the EU’s acceptance of Turkey’s membership bid did not eliminate all Turkey’s problems with the EU – but it showed that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the not very promising views, Turkey continued to fulfill EU-standards – slowly and sometimes reluctantly, but steadily.

Turkey’s special role for Europe has been obvious in the past fifteen years, since Turkey has been one of the most outspoken and ambitious countries in entering the European Union. Historical burdens and the multiple interface position have created a suspicious and hesitating European position towards an inclusion of Turkey in the EU. 2004 will be a crucial year for Turkey and the EU. The final effort to solve the Cyprus problem failed in late March 2004 and in the double-referendum in late April 2004. Turkey played a surprisingly supportive role in the diplomatic talks under UN aegis. Nevertheless, Kofi Annan’s plan was neither adopted by politicians and the people on island. On the EU-front, Turkey could gain some ground and merits. The AKP-government has been very approachable for EU-requests and contributed far more than the predecessor governments to the ‘Europeanness of Turkey’.

The current mood among the big players (Great Britain, Germany) is mainly positive towards a Turkish EU-membership, provided Turkey will fullfill the Copenhagen criteria. Other EU-members are relunctant with regards to a Turkish membership – even in the longterm perspective. It remains open, whether the mood will change after the elections to the EU-Parliament. After an evaluation in fall 2004, EU will decide whether membership negotiations will be started. Presently, a vivid discussion on an optional membership and possible alternatives is already under way, thereby dividing Europe into two.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Turkey was overshadowed by bomb explosions overnight in front of the branches of…
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Turkey was overshadowed by bomb explosions overnight in front of the branches of British bank HSBC in Turkey's biggest city Istanbul and capital Ankara, which caused minor damage and no casualties.
The latest Progress Report (Fall 2003) submitted by the EU-Commission created mixed feeling in Turkey. A number of positive remarks were overshadowed by few, but very important very critical remarks. The aftershock can still be felt and will certainly affect Turkish-European relations. Additionally, EU-Turkish relations may also affect U.S.-Turkish relations, which have become rather strained after the Turkish withdrawal from the troop mandate in Iraq. Turkey might perceive itself as ‘being not appreciated at all and being left alone’. This may lead to unexpected Turkish turns which could be of disfavor for Europe and the U.S. (but, of course, also for Turkey).

The Report covers an intensive analysis, thereby acknowledging the following items:

  1. Despite numerous and remarkable efforts, Turkey most likely will not fulfill the political criteria until the next Report in Fall 2004. The political criteria (democracy, human rights) have to be accomplished when full-membership negotiations will start. Economic criteria have to be materialized at the moment of becoming full-member. This has been always the case until the latest enlargement round. A deviation from the principle would have far-reaching consequences, would soften the whole full-membership procedure. Finally, such a step would devaluate the Copenhagen criteria, and, possibly, a framework of ‘European values’. Turkey does not lack laws, but lacks the operationalisation of its laws. Only very few of the required changes and laws (not matter to which area they belong) have been put into practice so far. This deficit has become a ‘Turkish trademark’. As the Union hardly will water down its own standards, long negotiations have to be expected. Mostly likely, those negotiations will take more time than in case of the previous enlargement rounds, particularly the CEE-round. In the CEE-round, basic agreement on fundamental European values and societal structures were available (despite decades of Communist regimes). Turkey will not accept delayed talks and the Union cannot afford such talks. For reason, very tough negotiations can be expected (in case they will be resumed after the Commission Report in fall 2004).

  2. The fulfillment of economic criteria will take a considerable number of years, too. Despite a positive economic development in Turkey the existing gap between its status and the European status will continue to remain. A time span of at least 10 years has to be taken into account in an economic assessment process. Given that Turkey will not suffer another major economic crisis and given the continuation of drastic structural reforms plus a far reaching external support (IMF), Turkey could be in a position to comply with EU-standards in some 15 years from now. This would affect transitional regulations, the point of time for full-membership (with a tendency of further delays), and the modalities (special regulations for the integration into EU-policies).
Turkey and the US: Old, new strategic partners

Relations with the United States played only a marginal role during the period of the Ottoman Empire. Two World Wars led to a limited change in U.S. interests in Turkey. The breakthrough happened in the wake of World War II. Turkey played an important role in the containment of Soviet ambitions. Turkey became a fixed player in US foreign considerations for decades. Based on the Truman Doctrine (1947) and NATO membership of Turkey (1952), relations changed fundamentally. During the Cold War years, security aspects became more pronounced. The U.S. supported the consolidation of Turkey and the strengthening of strategic, bilateral relations. Those bilateral relations have always been characterized by ups and downs. One could observe that Washington did not have a pronounced and clear policy towards Ankara per se. From the Turkish point of view, the U.S. performed a ‘by-product policy’. Postures towards the Soviet Union, Greece, the Balkans, the Caspian and the Middle East were of dominant importance. Turkey was a derivative of ‘higher U.S. political considerations’.

The Second Gulf War marked a watershed in U.S.-Turkish relations. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkey was intended to play a more active role in the region. Özal had on his mind to lead Turkey into the position of a regional player. The Gulf War offered a unique window of opportunity to achieve this goal very quickly. Turkey could assert its geopolitical importance and reset its strategic relations with the U.S. Turkish public was less enthusiastic about an active engagement in the war. Already in the wake of the war, Özal looked at the post-war situation and at a possible stake in oil business. Turkey’s contribution to anti-Saddam coalition was considerable. At the same time, it had to pay a high political and economic price. The Gulf War left a lasting stamp on bilateral relations. The Gulf war coincided with the end of the Cold War. It affected Turkey’s role and posture profoundly. Many Turks feared that their country’s role would be diminished by the changed geopolitical conditions. These fears proved wrong. Turkey’s role had changed in terms of contents and quality, but the country had not lost strategic importance. Today, Turkey’s focus is primarily on the Middle East, the Caspian region, and the Balkans. This shift had given Turkish-American relations a new and important dimension. At the same time, Turkey experienced deterioration in its ties with Europe. This made well-functioning relations with the U.S. even more important.

At the beginning of the 21st century, situation changed again. Despite various ons and offs, bilateral relations are still of strategic importance for both sides, but emphases have altered. The U.S. does not put all efforts to bolster Turkey’s strategic importance. Turkey has emancipated (though forced) from the U.S. and looks into different directions. Nevertheless, there are non-debatable pillars, such as the NATO security guarantee (to counter Russia). The NATO nuclear guarantee is an essential figure in the game. Turkey has proven as a key partner in the fight of WMD and in countering ballistic missile risks. The defense connection between the two countries has remained very strong. For reason, Turkey is very reluctant to accept out-of-NATO security and defense structures, because it would be excluded. Additionally, Turkey is not in favor of a progressive disengagement of the U.S. in NATO, because it would diminish NATO’s importance and impact, and, therefore, curtail Turkey’s influence in strategic security and defense matters.

A second pillar is the pivotal role of the U.S. as a security guarantee in adjacent regions (i. e. beyond the containment of Russia). Cooperation between the two countries guarantees Turkey a relatively high level of security and keeps it out of areas of chronic upheavals and unrest (such as the acre from the Balkans to the Middle East).

Turkish troops stand guard at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, Turkey, protecting his legacy.
Turkish troops stand guard at the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara, Turkey, protecting his legacy.
A third pillar in the cooperation is the access to U.S. military equipment, training capabilities, and defense-industrial co-operations. U.S. has been the top-supplier of military-related goods and services. The well-working relations are supported by the preference of U.S.-systems by the Turkish military. Finally, the U.S. supports Turkish ambitions in gaining a foothold in the oil and gas business, thereby limiting the influence of Russia and Iran (who are the leaders for Caspian oil transport).

Despite numerous commonalties, there are some fields where both players have different perceptions. One area is the Middle East in general, and Iran and Iraq in particular. Ankara has been inclined towards a ‘policy of engagement’, while Washington put a clear emphasis on isolation and containment. Turkey feared that the regime change in Baghdad could promote the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, border to border with Turkey. This would have severe influence on Turkey’s internal struggle against Kurdish separatism.

Turkish position towards Iran has become cooperation-oriented. Ankara needs Tehran’s support to fight Kurdish separatists. Additionally, Iran is an important source of energies. Alternatives are rare (Russian, Algeria) and would bring Turkey in a crunch and into security problems. For reason, Ankara kept very silent when it came to join U.S.-sponsored efforts to isolate Iran. The position on Syria is rather vexed. Turkey is not interested in a deployment of Syrian troops along the Turkish-Syrian border or on any discussion with Syria over water (particularly the Asi/Orontes-water). It is unlikely, that Turkey will permit the U.S. to use facilities in Middle East contingencies, except Turkish national interests are jeopardized. This could clearly be seen in early spring 2003 in the course of the preparations for operation Iraqi freedom. Israeli-Turkish relations, which are also important for U.S.-Turkish relations, are of strategic value. Despite a certain cooling-down in the past few months (in the wake of the killings of Yassin and Rantisi), relations are of crucial importance for the future and stabilization of the Greater Middle East.

The war against Iraq in Spring 2003 led to a profound change in U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey was very reluctant to engage in a possible war against Saddam Hussein from the very first moment. Experiences from the beginning of the 1990s still were very much present among Turkish politicians and the Turkish public. It was clear that Turkey would be a tough negotiation partner for the U.S. regarding the use of military and the move NATO equipment such as AWACS radar surveillance planes, Patriot missiles, and chemical and biological defense units to Turkey. Before, the alliance was in an impasse and faced one of its harshest disputes. The U.S. as the lead nation within NATO and in the Operation Iraqi Freedom hoped to be able to open up the Northern Front from Turkey, the only NATO country bordering Iraq. Originally, it was planned to station some 60.000 troops. Later on, the request was downsized to 20.000 troops.

Turkey insisted on a clear specification of the Turkish troops in Iraq. Additionally, it insisted on a very generous package of financial compensations for economic losses due to the war. Turkey required a comprehensive guarantee by the U.S. congress, which should comprise direct economic aid, credit lines, credit guarantees and trade relieves. Moreover, it required security guarantees by NATO in case of war. The framework of conditions made negotiations very tough. Finally, it led to a tough-of war between the different fractions within NATO and with the EU. With or without Turkey, the war was inevitable. A damage of U.S.-Turkish relations seemed inevitable, too.

The immediate days before the start of operation Iraqi Freedom were characterized by frozen bilateral relations between Turkey and the U.S. and a down-turning parliamentary vote on a mandate for U.S. troops to pass through Turkey to the Northern front. Relations definitely reach a kind of ‘all-time low’. Ankara started a hectic phase of crisis management. The government even discussed a new effort of vote in the parliament. The situation was tensed and insecure. Domestic issues and the question of the position of the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq (the Turks consider themselves as a protective power of the Turkmens who lived in an area which is Kurdish) overlaid power-political considerations. Finally, the reluctant attitude proved as disadvantageous for Turkey. The situation proved rather costly for both sides.

After the end of the war, a slow bilateral detention emerged. The U.S. had easily found substitutes for Turkey (e. g. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Turkey had been tamed by the U.S. and put into a re-arranged place. The relations had reached a new quality. Turkey gambled too much and too high – and finally, lost support, image and its regional importance. Temporarily, it might have gained sympathy by the war-opposing Europeans. It remains to be seen, whether Turkey can use it in possible membership negotiations.

Views ahead: Strategic options for a Turkish Grand Strategy

Particularly after the war against Iraq and the enlargement of EU, Turkey has to reshape its foreign and security policy. Additionally, domestic questions will have a strong emphasis on a possible strategy.

Which are the strategic options (aside the EU-full membership), Turkey may take into considerations in the medium and long-term future?

  1. Semi-European Option: Turkey would give up the full-membership aspiration in favor of a ‘special partnership with the EU’, which will be based on selected strategic and political elements (e. g. the European Defense Policy, which cannot be separated from NATO in reality). Additionally, Turkey would accept the Customs Union as economic maximum. This would be a deviation from the Ankara-Agreement and from all promises given so far. Based on the Helsinki decision it will be difficult to put this option into practice. Both sides would lose face. Nevertheless, it remains an option which might turn up after tough negotiations and which could be useful for both sides. This result should be based on hard facts and not on ‘mingling the talks-tactics’. It would be smallest step towards Turkey after years of not kept promises, of unclear policies and of a certain European cowardliness. EU should take into account that such a solution might create a case of precedence for other interested states (e.g. .Moldova, Ukraine etc.). The Union’s members have to ask themselves whether this option will be supportive for the spirit, the project Europe and for its workability. One should ask whether 25 states created already a very heterogeneous Union, which has been occupied with self-administration. Actively set landmarks on the stage of international politics have become very rare. This option might even lead to questions on ‚EU-Overstretch’, erosion of the Union and finally, to its decay. Additionally, one might ask about the original purpose of the Project Europe, which was intended to be a peace project. Finally, the members have to be strongly convinced of a possible member-to-be before they will enter into talks. This condition obviously is not given right now.

  2. Strategic Partnership with the United States: The core of this option would be a strategic alliance with the U.S. under the heading of ‘fighting together terrorism’. So far, Turkey was only a half-hearted supporter of U.S. effort to fight terrorism. Currently, U.S.-Turkish relations are in a transitional phase. Much will depend on the developments in Iraq, particularly on the phase of handing over power to the Iraqis (most likely in late June 2004). It remains to be seen, whether Iraq’s territorial integrity will stay in tact or whether it will be split up into the three old provinces. This would mean that the Kurds will have their long-desired autonomous state. Turkish reactions to this optional development seem to be clear: Turkey will not accept it. The case has to be related to Turkey’s EU-ambitions and the possibility of turning down talks in fall 2004. Based on past experiences, Turkey could claim the right of self-defense and reactivate its old claims of the oil-rich provinces Kirkuk and Mosul. The US would be in a very difficult position: They would have to stick to their demand of a unified Iraq and deal with Kurdish claims to be rewarded for the multiple support in Gulf War II and III. Additionally, they would have to deal with a decades-lasting ally. If Turkey would invade Northern-Iraq/autonomous Kurdish state it would have multiple consequences, such as in inner-NATO-conflict, which might end up in an exclusion of Turkey; additionally, Turkey’s behavior could be interpreted as an action of aggression with occupation and annexation (like in the case of Cyprus after the second intervention in August 1974). International community will not accept this and would interpret it as a ‘Kuwait-like case’. Turkey would be branded as aggressor. All efforts to approach EU would be finished and destroyed. The U.S., too, would have to rethink its relationship with Turkey. Most likely, a strategic partnership would be out of any reach.

  3. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) accompanies Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat (R) following their meeting at his…
    Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) accompanies Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat (R) following their meeting at his apartment in Uskudar district in Istanbul June 6, 2004.
    Middle Eastern and Eurasian Option:
    This option would include an emphasis of the Islamic heritage. Turkey would try to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern and Eurasian countries. The option would – most likely – face severe resistance of the Turkish military, who consider themselves as the guardian of Atatürk’s principles and of secularism. Additionally, the Turkish military has considerable influence on Turkish foreign policy. Finally, Turkey has a very particular role among Islamic countries (due to laicism and secularism) and due to its past (Ottoman Empire). The role model Turkey does not exist in the Islamic world. Turkey lacks capital, economic power and political backup to be accepted as a regional power. Additionally, Turkey would clearly focus all efforts on broadening contacts and co-operations with the newly independent states in Central Asia and the Caucasus. It would define itself as a Eurasian power. Turkey would become a clear counterpart to Russia, which has been a century-lasting rival (together with Persia/Iran and China) in the region. Finally, Turkish resources could be overstretched. At the beginning of the 1990s Turkey tried to gain already a major foothold in the region, but lacked capital and investment capabilities. The energy card was not successful yet in Central Asia and the Caucasus – and it will take some considerable time until it will display positive effects. Despite all counter-arguments the option is alive, but difficult to be achieved. If Turkey could be successful in fulfilling the role of a lead-nation, of a stable, democratic pole in a crises-shattered area its chances are intact. It would require strong support from the U.S. and Europe and additional Turkey diplomatic initiatives to succeed. Currently, it seems that the required support is not available. Additionally, Russia has always been suspicious of every Turkish effort to gain a foothold in the areas. Overall, the option is a possibility but shows a low likeliness.

  4. Playing a regional power and approaching Russia and China: Turkey would try to perform the role of regional player, thereby strongly orienting itself along its national interests. It seeks to exploit all support it can get. Cooperation will be sought only if it serves national interests. Turkey would try to play a counter-weight to the U.S. The Greater Middle East would become a play-ground for powers. Russia, China, India and Pakistan would battle together with the U.S. and Turkey for the arc. The area, which has been unstable for decades, would most likely end up in a comprehensive break-down, because of a struggle for hegemony by one or the named states. All efforts to pacify this area would be destroyed. Conflicts between regional powers would have a strong spill-over effect. Additionally, India and Pakistan have nuclear capacities, which they are ready to employ (as several incidents in the past showed). Turkey does not possess nuclear capacities, but has a strong army. The combination of those factors seems a very dangerous one. Past remarks show that this option is one possibility.