Turkey's divorce with the West

December turned out to be “Merry sanctions” month for Turkey. Still, it is “business as usual” in Ankara. If the EU and the Biden administration are betting that Turkey will be “happily ever after” with the West, their hopes are likely to be dashed. The notion that the West has lost its relevance in the new world order prevails at both the grassroots and political levels.

December turned out to be “Merry sanctions” month for Turkey. Soon after the European Union announced it would enact sanctions against Turkey in the wake of a summit it held on Dec. 10-11, the outgoing Trump administration introduced the long-awaited CAATSA sanctions.

That's a lot of sanctions in one week! Still, it is “business as usual” in Turkey. Because while Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the US President Donald Trump differ on many fronts, they agree that Ankara should be sanctioned lightly.

With regards to the sanctions enacted by the EU, Brussels will adopt a “wait and see” approach until March 2021 and if by then, Turkey does not make overtures for positive dialogue, further sanctions may be enforced. What is more, the December Summit concluded that: “The EU would seek to coordinate with the United States on matters relating to Turkey and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

This was the single most important element of the conclusions regarding Turkey as it pegged EU-Turkey relations to those between Ankara and Washington under the incoming administration of Joe Biden. That was a last-minute hat trick by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. In order to convince France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel argued that the EU ought to wait for Joe Biden to take over on Jan. 20 prior to imposing more sanctions against Turkey.

Merkel’s approach of giving “diplomacy one more chance” already had Italy and Spain on board and NATO’s General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg provided his organizational support for Merkel ahead of the EU Summit declaring that: “We need to make sure that we realize the importance of Turkey as part of NATO and as part of the Western family.”

That appears to contain a message directed at the US with regards to its ties with Turkey, that is, that Ankara should pick sides between the West and the rest. And the EU, alongside the US and NATO, should ensure Turkey sides with the West. 

Had this happened a decade ago, perhaps even 5 or 6 years ago, Turkey may have been more in tune with such a call. Yet it seems like Turkey – at both a societal and governmental level - is convinced that the West has lost its relevance in today’s world.

I have recently conducted several field studies in order to investigate public sentiment towards the West in Turkey. Several issues stand out:

- High death rates due to the coronavirus pandemic in both the US and Europe have led to the perception that the West is not as strong and resilient as it used to be.

- Turkey’s economic woes lead the Turkish public, especially its youth to believe that life is better abroad. While it may believe that the West is in decline, the youth still wishes to live in Europe or North America due to the higher standards of living and more opportunities there. 

- Fewer and fewer people – around 5% of the public - support the political rhetoric according to which “foreign powers are conspiring against Turkey". 

- People believe it is the “natural order of international relations” that foreign powers seek their individual interests. They also regard the “conspiracy of foreign powers” rhetoric as a sign of Turkey’s weakness.

But what about the perception of Turkey’s president?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party retain a solid belief that the West is in decline and is doomed to fall. Back in April 2020, Erdoğan declared that “Nothing would be the same in the post-COVID 19 era”. He reiterated the same message commemorating December 10th Human Rights Day: “In Western societies, with the COVID-19 pandemic; we see that the obstacles against inalienable rights, especially with regards to freedom of belief and worship, have increased. We are faced with a dire picture in which holy values are humiliated and hate speech is promoted by the media and political leaders.”

This came only days after President Erdoğan stated “We see ourselves in Europe, not elsewhere, we envision building our future together with Europe. We intend to use our long and close alliance relations with America to solve all regional and global issues.”

If actions mean more than words, President Erdoğan was in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, celebrating the “military victory over Armenia”. And he was putting the blame for the protracted nature of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict on “Western Imperialists”. Saluting the Azeri troops, Erdoğan said that “One must acknowledge that nothing will be achieved with the crippling Western imperialists.”

Though Erdoğan also pointed out that he already has good relations with Biden (to the extent that Biden visited his house when Erdoğan was ill) prior to his departure to Baku, this appears to be a largely transactional message. Erdoğan wants to keep Turkey’s economy afloat and has underlined several times these days that “money has no religion and nationality.”

The stance of Turkey’s opposition, meanwhile, is even more ambiguous as it has yet to present a comprehensive foreign policy vision.

If the EU and the Biden Presidency are betting that Turkey will be “happily ever after” with the West, their hopes are likely to be dashed. The notion that the West has lost its relevance in the new world order prevails at both the grassroots and political levels. The popular and elite perceptions in that line may stem from a host of factors, but they all point to the same conclusion: that the West is over. However grounded this idea is, it is one that prevails and is likely to shape Turkey’s attitude towards both the U.S. and the EU.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey