I have come to Turkey at a time when discussions of a “shift in the axis” of Turkey’s foreign policy have reached their peak. The term “axis shift” was coined by some members of the mainstream Turkish media a couple of years ago to imply that Turkey was moving away from the secular West toward the Muslim Middle East. This term has been revived recently after the flotilla incident with Israel, Turkey’s “no” vote to UN Security Council’s sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, and the 2nd Turkish-Arab Economic Forum.
Many Western commentators and journalists have appropriated this term (or variations of it). One of the most prominent of these is Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, who has recently penned a two-part op-ed piece, titled “Letter from Istanbul”.
Friedman’s general observations in this piece are adequate, but they are short of subtlety. Also, his tone is quite alarmist. Coming to Turkey five years after his last visit, Friedman is shocked to “find Turkey’s Islamist government seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League—no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.” Friedman admits that he exaggerates, yet he insists on his claim that Turkey has shifted “away from its balance point between East and West.”
I find claims of an “axis shift” in Turkey’s foreign relations unproductive for several reasons. First of all, it is too naïve to expect Turkey’s foreign policy to be oriented exclusively toward the West. It is true that, after World War II, Turkey has allied itself with the Western world led by the U.S. However, Turkey started to feel alienated from the non-Western world in the 60’s and onwards. It is only very recently that Turkey has realized its potential leadership role in the region as well as its importance to world politics at large. Turkish parliament speaker Mehmet Ali Şahin claims that Turkey is now “a locomotive country” rather than one of the freight cars. Many Turkish politicians adamantly deny the claims of a shift in Turkish foreign policy. Stating that Turkey is still dedicated to its EU membership venture, President Abdullah Gül highlighted Turkey’s reconciliatory role by pointing to both sides of the Bosphorus: “This side is Europe, that side is Asia, and here is the bridge [between the two]”
Second, it is too simplistic to define world politics within the framework of an East/West axis in a globalizing, post-Cold War world. Maybe Friedman is implying that it is rather the alliances and clashes between cultures and religions (à la Huntington) that has played an important role in determining Turkey’s foreign policy:
[T]he E.U. leadership has now said to Turkey: “Oh, you mean nobody told you? We’re a Christian club. No Muslims allowed.” The E.U.’s rejection of Turkey, a hugely bad move, has been a key factor prompting Turkey to move closer to Iran and the Arab world.
This perspective overlooks the fact that Iran and Turkey have historically acted as rivals in the region, and their struggle for hegemony could be traced back to the clashes between the Sunni Ottoman and the Shiite Safavid dynasties. Also, many Arabs are quite skeptical about Turkey’s revived relationship with the Arab world, and see it as resurgence of imperialism/Ottomanism. Today, world politics is no longer defined by static axes based on civilizational and/or geographical divides, but by dynamic relations defined by pragmatic concerns. That is probably why Turkey has partnered with Brazil (instead of a European or an Arab neighbor) in brokering a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran.
Finally, I find Friedman’s definition of the current government as “Islamist” problematic. It is true that the AK Party was established by the former members of the Islamist Virtue Party. However, it has resolutely portrayed itself as a moderate, conservative party that advocates a liberal market economy and membership into the E.U.
To me, the question is not whether Turkey is becoming an Islamic country that allies itself with its Muslim neighbors against the secular West, but rather whether the new political climate will allow for novel strategic partnerships formed around pragmatic concerns rather than cultural and civilizational alliances.