ISTANBUL — Turkey has long been the bridge between Europe and the East, between the Christian and Muslim worlds. This was largely due to its location, the fortune — or, some might say, the misfortune — of geography.
For much of the past century, Turkish leaders have equated the East with backwardness and the West with modernity. While this attitude has allowed Western leaders to sleep comfortably, assured of a cultural, political and physical "bridge" that promotes what they see as moderate values in a geo-strategically important country, it has led Arab countries to regard Turkey with something between wariness and resentment.
But times, it seems, are a changing. Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has been sending emissaries throughout the region, cultivating close ties with Iran, Syria, Sudan and the Gulf countries, as well as with Russia. Trade with the country’s eight nearest neighbors — including Syria, Iran and Iraq — nearly doubled between 2005 and 2008, from $7.3 billion to $14.3 billion.
"In Washington there has long been a debate over whether Turkey was moving away from the West," said Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. "Recently, however, that debate has shifted from 'Is Turkey moving away?' to 'Yes, they are, and what can we do about it.'"
Many interpret this reorientation of Turkish policy as a return to the country's Ottoman history — a policy of "neo-Ottomanism," as some are calling it. In February, Asharq Alawsat, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, highlighted these changes in a widely circulated column, "The Return of the Ottoman Empire?"
Others argue that such a perspective masks the true force behind Turkey’s shift in policy, pointing out that Turkey is asserting itself exclusively in the Muslim Middle East while ignoring the other areas of the Ottoman realm.
“Rather than Ottoman instincts, it is a religious view of the world and financial interests that seem to be shaping the AKP’s foreign policy,” Cagaptay argued in a recent article published in The Turkey Analyst.
Whatever the nomenclature, the concerns of the West seem to be growing not simply due to strengthening ties between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world, but in large part due to a perceived lack of political will for the process of accession into the European Union. While the AKP rose to power on a platform that strongly supported EU accession, since membership talks actually began in 2005 the party’s energy for the process seems to have faded.
In the five years since negotiations over Turkey's accession to the EU began, Ankara has fulfilled only one of the necessary 35 "chapters," or steps to membership of the 27-member bloc.
It is not all Turkey's fault that the process has been so slow: Strong resistance from member states within the EU has regularly stalled the process and, within Turkey itself, left many feeling like the unpopular neighbor who will never get invited to the party.
In a recent opinion piece in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, Dominique Moisi, a visiting professor at Harvard University in Massachusetts, played the blame game, throwing culpability eastward, westward and somewhere in between in an attempt to answer the question “Who lost Turkey?”
“The EU's growing reservations about Turkey's membership have been expressed unambiguously by French President Nicolas Sarkozy," Moisi argued.
He continued: "In the U.S., former President George W. Bush gets some of the blame because of the war in Iraq,” adding that Israel shared responsibility for Turkey's alienation as a result of the Lebanon war of 2006 and its recent military operations in Gaza.
That’s not to say that Turkey’s secular, pro-Western elites don’t still consider the EU and the U.S. vital allies — they do. (Many of the same people still consider Islamic fundamentalist Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as potential threats.) Yet they are also left with the feeling of having been used, picked up by the West at times of strategic importance and diplomatically dumped soon after.
Turks, too, have demonstrated their waning desire to join the EU. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, titled “Transatlantic Trends,” the percentage of Turks who think Turkey’s membership in the European Union would be “a good thing” steadily declined between 2004 and 2008 — from 73 percent to 40 percent. European respondents to the study also were more favorable toward Turkey’s EU accession in 2004 (36 percent) than they were in 2007 (23 percent).
The danger in “losing Turkey” is that doing so could push the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire back onto an Asian, Muslim and Middle Eastern historical trajectory. At a time when dialogue with the Islamic world is one of the West’s key challenges, it seems important to ask the costs of losing such a key translator.
Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute, pointed to a growing realization within the U.S. of the need to nurture the Western elements of the Turkish identity — a point driven home by the recent visits to Turkey by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Turkey is moving away, yes, and it’s causing a series of responses. For the U.S. the response is: We need to engage Turkey with a big bear hug and a little Western squeeze,” Cagaptay said.
More on Turkey's search for identity:
Healing a populist rift with Turkey
Young Turks: a question of identity
Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa