To say that the EU and U.S.’s alliance with Turkey is one of the most important in the world would be an understatement. At a security level, Turkey provides the West with a significant strategic advantage over its other allies in the region given its developed military infrastructure and proximity to crucial zones of interest such as Iraq and Syria. But perhaps more importantly, Turkey has served as an important ideological ally to the West. First, unlike most of the U.S.’s other allies in the region, Turkey is arguably a stable, constitutionally secular democracy. Second, unlike the U.S.’s other democratic ally in the region, Israel, Turkey retains its regional legitimacy by virtue of being a predominantly Muslim nation. The belief that Turkey’s behaviour can be influenced by its reliance on U.S.-NATO military infrastructure, and its desire to join the EU, has served to optimistically reinforce the West’s efforts to posture Turkey as a model democracy in the region. However, recent developments in the regression of Turkey’s democratic and secular foundation could undermine this relationship, potentially instigating greater insecurity in a famously unstable region.
From the beginning of the Republic of Turkey’s existence, its ideological affinity with the West was declared with the institutionalisation of rule of law, social equality, democracy and secularism in its constitution. Although its commitment to these principles has wavered - requiring five coups to restore constitutional order - it nonetheless provided the U.S. with a crucial geopolitical advantage; facilitating the containment and nuclear deterrence of the USSR throughout the Cold War as a NATO ally, and more recently through its provision of military training sites, NATO artillery and missile defence sites, and military airbases for use in the fight against IS.
But a number of troubling domestic developments within Turkey threaten to uproot the comfortable status quo. Since its election in 2001, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been undermining Turkey’s secular democracy. Attempts to ban adultery, restrict the sale of alcohol, Islamise both schools and the judiciary, and appoint Islamists to senior bureaucratic positions marked the start of attempts to bring religion back into the realm of the state. Mass anti-authoritarian protests in Gezi Park in 2013 were suppressed with disproportionate force and provided a basis for the government’s continued efforts to centralise power to defend the state from the ‘enemies within’.
But Turkey’s actions should not be seen as an entirely domestic concern. They’re symptomatic of a broader project of regional destabilisation. Turkey’s recent self-awareness of its regional power has led it to more actively pursue its interests in defining the post-Syria regional order. Importantly, Turkey has been willing to engage in the region’s broader sectarian struggle as a means of legitimising itself in the eyes of its regional allies - openly funding Sunni extremists in Syria, and wilfully neglecting to police supply routes used by IS in its efforts to undermine the standing of its Shia competitors.
The reason for Turkey’s newfound confidence is the precarious position of its allies. First there is the U.S. - highly dependent on Turkey for its strategic position in the fight against IS and hopeful that it can influence Turkey to set a better example for the region. More importantly there is Europe - highly reliant on Turkey to alleviate the pressures of the Syrian refugee crisis both economically and politically. Indeed, the EU’s capitulation to Turkey’s demands to double the amount asked in the recent ‘one in one out’ refugee deal brokered earlier this year is a testament to the sense of desperation within Europe.
The West’s hands are tied when it comes to Turkey. The EU is both unwilling and unable to pressure Turkey out of fear that it will act on its threats to abandon the refugee deal should conditions not be met. The U.S., having determined the threat in Syria to be the greater evil, has also acquiesced, ramping up its commitments to Turkey in an effort to contain IS without questioning its actions. But by permitting this rise of authoritarianism in Turkey, and by allowing for its increasingly aggressive strategic posturing in the region, the West may have created its next major regional challenge.
As a result of the West’s negligent and shortsighted vision of Turkey as a bastion of democratic stability in the region, the political order within Turkey has been supplanted by the type of ascendent illiberal regime that has plagued the region for decades. An unpredictable and unreliable Turkey seeking to exert its influence and stake its sectarian claims undermines the interests of the West at a time of great political vulnerability.
Alexander Galitsky is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (NSW) and Assistant to the Permanent Representative of Nagorno-Karabakh in Australia.
Image credit: United Nations Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)