The possibility of Turkey joining the European Union has spurred heated debate within the EU, but it is also fascinating the entire Middle East. This interest is a clear signal that Turkey has emerged as a powerful regional actor. Indeed, Turkey’s new ruling elite is confident that their country can play an active peace-making role in the region. What has suddenly given formerly inward-looking Turkish politicians this newfound self-assurance that they can influence regional politics? What promise does Turkey hold for the region? Can Turkey really contribute to regional security and stability?
In order to prepare for EU accession, Turkey has undertaken vast and serious legal, political, and economic reforms. Turkey’s bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens united to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership and tolerated the pain of the IMF-directed structural-adjustment programs. The looming accession process will be even more painful, but Turkey’s people are firmly resolved to face this challenge.
Turkey’s transformation has already put an end to the Cold War-style security-state apparatus that ruled the country for half a century, and has changed the framework of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. By modernizing and democratizing at home, Turkey’s politicians gained self-confidence in their ability to conduct a successful regional policy. As a result, Turkeys leaders are now willing to pursue active diplomacy in the Middle East in an effort to minimize problems with neighboring countries.
Of prime importance is the fact that Turkey is emerging as a role model for those across the Middle East who are seeking reform and modernization. This influence does not imply a hegemonic relationship, but rather points to an alternative path for reform and economic development that other primarily Muslim countries might take. The EU is associated with peace, democracy, and economic development, while the Middle East is characterized by instability, authoritarianism, and economic backwardness. Turkey’s reform process shows that the latter is not an unavoidable destiny for the countries of the region.
In this respect, Syria and Iran appreciate Turkey’s EU membership process. They consider a European Turkey an opportunity to develop their own relations with the EU. Turkey also shows that the supposed clash between democracy and security – and, indeed, between democracy and Islam – can be reconciled. Other Muslim states seem to grasp this: recently, a Turk was chosen for the first time and by a majority vote to be Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Countries.
Turkey’s other major contribution comes through constructive diplomatic engagement in the region. The Turkish government has adopted an active role as a promoter of peace and has reconfigured its policies toward a number of regional problems.
For example, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan broke with tradition by displaying a critical attitude toward Israel’s more hawkish policies in the occupied territories, and did so without severing diplomatic relations with Israel. During a visit of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to Israel in early January, there was serious discussion about Turkey assuming a mediating role between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as in future Syrian-Israeli talks.
Turkey did not join the US-led occupation forces in Iraq, but it has put enormous effort into mobilizing regional support for a stable Iraqi state. Indeed, Turkish policymakers have, on a regular basis, brought the countries bordering Iraq together for discussions about the future of the region. The United Nations Security Council has taken these meetings seriously and has requested further regional cooperation on the Iraqi question.
Turkey’s constructive engagement with the EU creates a sense of trust in the West for its regional initiatives. Yet Turkey is also succeeding in keeping an equal distance between both the EU and the US. For example, Turkey is closer to the EU in its policies toward Iraq and Palestine, yet follows a line similar to that of the US in the Balkans and Cyprus.
In recent history, a variety of regional powers – the Shah’s Iran and Nasser’s Egypt – have arisen in the Middle East. Turkey’s arrival as a regional power is different in that its democratic structures make an active peacemaker, not a local bully.
This is both a necessary and a promising role, for the region needs a local dynamic force pushing for reform, transformation, and peace. Turkey’s experience shows that true security in the region requires demands internal stability and social peace. With luck, this model can be exported.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005