A recurring theme of mine on this blog has been Turkey’s strange behavior for a country that purports to aspire to a full membership in the Western community of nations. Ankarra has frequently been a thorn in the side of its NATO allies and is simultaneously demanding entry into the EU and unwilling to modify its actions accordingly.


In my interview with him yesterday, Sweden’s two-time former Ambassador to Turkey, Henrik Liljegren, offered the first explanation for that that made sense:

In the view of leading Turks probably the advantages that Turkey can offer NATO and the EU outweigh what these institutions can offer Turkey in return.

Turkey is rapidly changing, sometimes at a faster pace than foreign observers can keep up with. The Turkish leadership of today does not feel closer to the member countries of these institutions than to, let us say, Iraq.  Opinion polls show that most Turks nowadays feel that being a Muslim counts for more than being a Turk. If Muslims are killed in distant countries Turks feel as if their close family has been attacked regardless of the circumstances.

This view is bolstered by an interesting feature in today’s Der Spiegel by Hans-Jürgen Schlamp, Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand entitled “Turkey Bets on Regional Influence as EU Hopes Fade.”

The Turks, who always used to complain to their Western allies about their rough neighborhood, apparently no longer have any enemies in the east. Turkey’s old rival Russia has since become its most important energy and trading partner. Syria and Iraq, two countries with which Ankara has in the past been on the brink of war, are now friends of Turkey, and relations are even improving with Armenia. The Arabs, who never truly took to the successors of the Ottomans, now look with admiration to what they call the “Turkish model,” a dynamic, open country that has a better handle on its problems than they do. But what caused the transformation?

Europe is to blame. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed office in 2003, he planned to lead Turkey into the European Union. But Europe was unmoved by this vision, and it has also lost much of its appeal within Turkey. According to Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank linked to the center-left Social Democratic Party, as the Europeans have become weary of expansion, Turkey has lost interest in joining the EU. Indeed, what Erdogan meant when he spoke of Turkey’s “alternative” to becoming an EU member is becoming increasingly clear.

Critics and supporters alike describe this new course as “neo-Ottomanism.” Ankara remains formally committed to its European ambitions. However, frustrated by the open rejection with which it has long been met in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, and which it has been facing once again during the EU election campaign, Turkey is focusing increasingly on its role as a peacekeeping power in a region it either ruled or dominated for centuries.

There’s much, much more to the story, which is reading in full.  The bottom line seems to be this:  I’ve been misreading Turkey’s strategic goals.  While they clearly wouldn’t mind being a part of the EU and having warmer relations with the West, it’s clearly not theoverarching priority. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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