Turkey: Security from NATO, ‘Bread’ from the Middle East

Article Summary
NATO has launched an information campaign in Turkey, where perceptions of the Western alliance have hit a low due to the alliance’s association with the US and its war in Iraq. Turkey’s low support for NATO can also be explained by the AKP party’s reorientation of the country’s domestic and foreign policies away from the West, writes Kadri Gursel.

This year, NATO is organizing information campaigns in two countries, one of which is Turkey. although the professed reason behind the campaign is the marking of the 60th anniversary of Turkey joining NATO, but in reality, the campaign is likely being launched to counteract diminishing Turkish support for the organization.

According to the “Transatlantic Trends” survey, a project carried out by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, only 37% of Turks think that NATO "is important for the defense of the country.” This low level of confidence and support can be traced back to the American occupation of Iraq: In 2004, when the survey was first carried out, 53% of Turks supported the Western alliance.

Although NATO did not play a role in the US occupation of Iraq, its image sustained severe damage as a consequence. The logic behind this effect is simple. For many Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, NATO means the United States only, rather than an international coalition.

The second country where NATO has launched an information campaign? Paradoxically, the US. Even though people in the Middle East equate NATO with the US, Americans are generally not as informed as they should be about the alliance.

The campaign in Turkey is to be low key. For example, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Ankara in mid-February to mark the 60th anniversary of Turkish participation in NATO, which was initially supposed to be an important part of the campaign. Instead, efforts were made to distance his visit from the upcoming campaign. There are two basic reasons for this approach:

The first reason has to do with Turkish domestic politics. The Justice and Development (AKP) party that is currently ruling the country is slowly steering Turkey away from modernism, a concept embraced by the West. Instead, it is trying to highlight Turkey’s own political culture with an emphasis on religion, traditions and history. When asked about their current relationship with NATO, Turkish officials now respond that, “We are fully involved in all of NATO’s political and security debates, and we have the means of blocking anything we don’t want.” Is it possible to deny the role that anti-western rhetoric and the attitudes of the ruling-party spokesman have played in the diminishing support for NATO among the Turkish population?

Second, one must consider the foreign-policy angle. One could certainly say that for the government to focus its attention, time and energy on the Middle East is an inevitable outcome of the Arab Spring uprisings. But Turkey’s interest in the Middle East is nothing new. It has a long-standing economic, political, ideological and historical interest in the region. The ruling AKP party and the business circles that support it have substantial hopes for Turkey’s relations with the region, and this is why Middle Eastern perceptions of Turkey's relationship with the West are important. A think tank recently conducted a survey titled “Perceptions of Turkey” over 16 Middle Eastern countries between October and December 2011, offering interesting findings.

According to the survey, the “Influence of the West and its presence in the region” is the third most important issue for Middle Easterners. With a 78% rating, Turkey is the most favored country. Thirty-two percent have favorable views about the US, 36% the UK, 46% France and 52% Germany. Another question was about actors with a positive influence on regional peace. Turkey led once again with 77%, the UN and the EU both followed with 58% and NATO came in last with 46%.

If the AKP's foreign-policy experts formulate a Middle Eastern policy that takes this data into account, will they be sure to maintain the perception of distance between Turkey and NATO? Will they recognize that the AKP and its supporting conservative capital risks being perceived as too chummy with a Western alliance that doesn’t enjoy good standing in the Middle East?

Turkey is surely pretending to be a "minimal" NATO member. It says the NATO radar station at Kurecik is not meant as an affront to Iran, although the station itself clearly is. What’s more, it pretends that it will not be able to share the intelligence from this radar with Israel, while in reality there is no technical impediment to this.

What would you do if your security came from NATO but your “bread” came from the Middle East?

Found in: turkish-nato relations, turkey, nato, missile shield, foreign policy, akp

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