“The West is winning” was the title of the speech by the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Munich Security Conference. Pompeo’s speech on February 15 was partly in response to Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s speech the previous day, which argued that, alongside Russia and China, the United States is rendering the world “more dangerous.” Steinmeier’s speech mirrored the Germans’ perception that U.S. President Donald Trump is a greater threat to world peace than other top world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In December 2019, a poll from YouGov, commissioned by German news agency DPA, found out that 41 percent of Germans regarded Trump as the most dangerous of five powerful leaders.
Though Pompeo seemingly sought to tone down Trump’s ambivalence about the NATO alliance and European tariffs and reassure Europe that the transatlantic alliance is stronger than ever, he actually seemed to reiterate the “America first” message through other means. In that sense, Pompeo’s speech was nothing but “old wine in new bottles” as it represented Trump’s political lines. Just Trump always does about the U.S., Pompeo bragged about the cultural, ethical, economic and military supremacy of the West, as the rest of the world simply desires to be more like it, be present in it, be a part of it. Pompeo also echoed Francis Fukuyama’s obsolete argument about the “end of history” by asserting that “Western values would prevail over Russian and Chinese desires for ‘empire.’”
“The West is winning, and we’re winning together,” Pompeo said, praising U.S. steps to protect liberal democracies.
Nevertheless, there were some in the “Western camp” who thought otherwise. France’s President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the scene in Munich to once again call for reform of the European Union, emphasizing that this was the only way to save the West from weakening further. Macron’s warnings were not just about reforming the EU internally, but also envisioning a new European foreign policy. He argued that Europe should develop its own diplomatic philosophy when dealing with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and not follow the U.S. policies reinforcing another Cold War. “There is a second choice, which is to be demanding and restart a strategic dialogue because today we talk less and less, conflicts multiply and we aren’t able to resolve them,” Macron said.
Ironically, Macron’s statements emphasizing the importance of dialogue come at a time when Turkey and France are communicating much less, opting instead for a war of words. At the end of January, relations between two countries faced new lows when Ankara blamed France for being the main actor “responsible for instability in Libya.” Prior to Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy’s aforementioned spat with France, Macron claimed that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed to keep his word, which he gave at the Berlin conference on January 19, about not interfering with the Libyan war. Macron’s accusations were all the more significant because they were uttered at a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on January 28: “...we have seen Turkish warships accompanied by Syrian mercenaries arrive on Libyan soil. This is a serious and explicit infringement of what was agreed upon in Berlin," Macron said, adding that this was a failure of keeping “his word.” With that statement, Greece found the backing that it had sought but failed to receive from Trump earlier in January. As I have written before, Mitsotakis traveled to the U.S. to visit Trump and lobbied to squeeze out a solid statement from Trump condemning “Turkey’s aggressive policies.” Trump sang Greece’s praises, but refrained from criticizing Erdoğan or Turkey’s foreign policy stance towards Greece.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey; the third was China. In this poll conducted in January 2020, Japan ranked as the second-most trusted country by the Turkish public. To an extent, Turkish trust in Japan is no surprise: the country always had a unique place in Turkey’s psyche as a unique model of “non-Western modernization.” Japan is also always exalted as a supreme example of ethics, hard work and success. Hungary turned out to be the fourth-most trusted country: just like Japan, Hungary does curry historical sympathies in Turkey due to “common Central European ancestry.” But the recent warmth of the Viktor Orbán government towards Turkey and Hungary’s confrontational stances against the European Union might have also garnered Turkish sympathies.
While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey. Relations with Russia were already lukewarm due to the Libya and Syrian wars and as confrontation between Ankara and Moscow became more evident in January when the poll was conducted. But still, Russia managed to feature as the most trusted country, verifying once again similar perception trends pointing to increasingly positive stances towards Russia in Turkey. Sympathy towards China seems to be increasing, as well: this also manifested itself through Turkish social media support to the Chinese “to stay strong” vis-à-vis the COVID-19 virus. Although there were also “anti-China” social media chants citing the issue of Uighurs, I believe support for the U.S. in the event of a similar situation would have been rather unthinkable in contemporary Turkey. In MetroPOLL’s aforementioned survey, the U.S. ranked at the bottom of the list of “most trusted countries,” together with the Assad regime of Syria. Almost 90 percent of the Turkish public trusted neither. France is also almost as distrusted, with the trust of 87 percent of the Turkish public going awry. Britain and Germany have distrust levels hovering around 84 percent.
The West is clearly not winning in Turkey.