Turkey has a chance to “return to normalcy” and revitalize its faltering ties with the U.S. if both sides can come to terms with complex new realities of international relations, a top foreign-affairs scholar from the country said in Atlanta Jan. 13.
Many have fretted over what they see as Turkey’s devolution from a steadfast NATO ally into an increasingly problematic actor willing to court Western adversaries like Russia and Iran at the expense of American goals.
Turkey has indeed used “flexible alliances” at the expense of its commitment to “rules-based multilateralism” — but the shift need not be permanent, or even all that detrimental in the long run, argued Fuat Keyman in a lecture focused on these two seemingly contradictory systems.
Dr. Keyman, director of the Istanbul Policy Center and professor of international affairs at the prestigious Sabancı University in Istanbul, said education could be the foundation for a revitalization of relations.
For now, though, the “profound crisis” in Turkey’s relations with the West is creating “human tragedy” in a region racked by instability.
“The future of Syria is being shaped by Russia more than other actors. This has been accelerated by the decision of the U.S. to withdraw troops from Syria,” said Dr. Keyman during a packed lecture hosted by the Atlanta Council on International Relations. “People are suffering because of this and the decline of rules-based multilateralism.”
Turkey was already hosting more than 3.7 million refugees, most of them having fled the five-year conflict that has plowed on even as Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has clung to power, aided by Russia and Iran.
Both countries, who along with Turkey make up the so-called “Astana Process,” have grown their influence in the region with Turkey’s approval, despite its own stated objective to see Assad ousted.
Turkey is driven in part by its enmity with Kurdish militias that it says are aligned with the PKK terrorist group; the U.S., meanwhile, has fought with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria to repel the Islamic State.
Turkey has also seen its share of internal challenges, including a 2016 coup attempt and series of bombings organized allegedly by an organization known as the Gulen movement. The government responded with a state of emergency and a purge of the judiciary and police forces, along with a crackdown on media and academia.
The response has led to handwringing in the West about Turkey’s commitment to civil and human rights under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is approaching two decades in power. Mr. Erdogan served two terms as prime minister before taking up a presidency newly strengthened through constitutional reform.
Lessons from Ataturk
But Dr. Keyman argued that it’s wrong to see U.S.-Turkey relations originating with NATO or limited in scope to security alone.
“I think we should actually enlarge our view of Turkish-US relations,” he said.
The trend toward flexible alliances has been encouraged by countries that have seen themselves as outside the post-war order. China and Russia, for instance, prioritize their own vision of security over high-minded ideals.
Still, Dr. Keyman said there is precedent in history for a Turkey turning back toward the West even as its ties with Russia warm.
When the Ottoman Empire fell at the end of the first World War, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the subsequent war for Turkish independence with help from Vladimir Lenin, the Russian leader after the Bolshevik Revolution.
“Ataturk knew that at a time when he was militarily engaging in war with Western imperial powers, the future of Turkey lay in its anchor with the West, which is modernity, globalization, democracy and institutional arrangements,” Dr. Keyman said. “Ataturk developed relations with Russia in order to leverage itself vis-a-vis the West.”
Dr. Keyman called for a similar “golden balance” today, where Turkey reinvests in its ties with the West even as it hedges its bets by working outside institutions when reality dictate it.
That’s all the more important with the rise of nationalism, democracy’s slow momentum and negotiations on Syria, which have proven that nation states are still the primary actors in the realm of national security. Indeed, something like this idea seemed to be on the mind of French President Emmanuel Macron, when he ruffled feathers by calling NATO a “brain-dead” alliance in a November interview with The Economist.
John Dewey’s Pragmatism
Dr. Keyman suggested that Turkey’s embattled education sector could be the key to reinvigorating ties with the U.S. He urged more scholarly and research exchanges between universities, as well as the restoration of links between civil organizations and think tanks, to improve understanding.
Again, Dr. Keyman hearkened back to history, theorizing that Ataturk’s pragmatism was in part influenced by American thinker and reformer John Dewey. In 1924, Ataturk invited Mr. Dewey to newly independent Turkey to help set up a national educational strategy for the fledgling republic.
In two month visit that includes marathon brainstorming sessions with Ataturk, Mr. Dewey urged a focus on nationwide, secular public education that prioritized teacher training and basic health and hygiene. When he visited Turkey’s Village Institutes years later, he found what he said should be a model for global reform.
It might seem a strange place to start, but Dr. Keyman said the alliance needs more to discuss than thorny security issues. He believes Turkey can be coaxed back into the multilateral fold, even as it pursues relationships of convenience on some issues.
“Security concerns create what I call tactical, strategic, vision-based divergence between the two actors at a time when we need convergence,” he said.
He acknowledged that in an environment where scholars are being prosecuted by the government for allegedly supporting terrorist groups, focusing on education can be challenging. But he feels there is a chance to return to normalcy if Europe and the U.S. will do their part in drawing Turkey back.
Dr. Keyman was doing his part to change the conversation: He was in Atlanta visiting Georgia State University’s Center for International Business Education and Research, or CIBER. Joining him were Cuneyt Evirgen, director of executive education at Sabancı, and Nihat Kasap, dean of the Sabancı School of Business.
Dr. Keyman’s talk came weeks before Emory University continues its annual Turkish Lecture Series hosted Feb. 4 by the Halle Institute for Global Research.
That event will feature Elif Batuman, author of books such as The Idiot and The Possessed, “which explore her identity as a Turkish-American woman, intentionality about the precision of language, and befuddlement in the early age of email.”
Living in Istanbul during the turbulent period of 2009-15, she began to see Turkish nationalism in light of what she knew about Russian literature, finding unexpected similarities between Russian fiction legend Dostoevsky’s work and the philosophies of Ataturk. More about that event here.