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Has Obama forgotten Turkey? May 28, 2011

Posted by Yilan in America, Turkey, USA.
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As the aging regimes of the Middle East fall one by one in the face of the political tsunami that has washed across the region, there can be little doubt that Turkey’s foreign policy position lately has managed to attract much attention across the world.

Turkey is like a star that can talk to both the East and the West, as it manages relations with the European Union and normal ties with Israel. Just a few signs of this generally shining tableau include support by 151 nations for Turkey’s candidacy for a spot on the UN Security Council, ongoing EU membership accession talks, the holding of the position of General Secretary for the Islamic Conference Organization, and Turkey’s appearance and actions on a wide variety and breadth of international platforms. Some of these platforms include the Arab League, the African Union, the Gulf Union, and the Conference of Undeveloped Countries.

When Turkey — which had for many years followed more of a “wait and see” set of policies — started taking active steps not only towards solving its own Cyprus, Armenian, and Kurdish problems, but also in trying to find solutions to giant international problems involving Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iran, it was inevitable that all eyes would turn to Turkey.

Despite the good intentions driving these efforts on both domestic and international fronts, no real concrete results have been achieved. And there have been questions posed as to why it is Turkey who is getting so involved in issues that outsize it. Perhaps the lack of results from the efforts made on the Iran, Syria-Israel and Lebanon fronts has helped Turkey to see the limitations of its own influence.

But just as these efforts — some of which have inspired jealousy, others of which have sparked competition — have brought about concrete economic profit, they have also allowed Turkey to really perceive its own soft strength, of which it was not aware until now. And thanks to all this, the image of a passive Turkey in the region and in the world has changed.

Turkey has turned into a global actor whose actions and whose leaders’ speeches are eagerly awaited and closely watched. Some of the greatest contributions made to this process — a process in which factors from the nation’s dynamic civilian society to its economic performance, from its historical depth to its experiences of democracy — have been made by the trio President Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. The most concrete leg of the new set of policies being followed by Turkey — which cover everything from foreign trade to tourism figures — has been the “zero problems with neighbors” policy. The results brought about by this particular policy are clear enough when one observes that in 2008, Russia became Turkey’s biggest foreign trade partner, or that Turkey increased trade levels with its neighbors sevenfold. Up until now though, we have really just judged by rule of thumb how Turkey’s neighbors view the new Turkey, and how they perceive the changes here.

In order to bring clarity to this issue, a piece of research into the perceptions of Turkey by intellectuals from seven of our nation’s neighboring countries has been very helpful. The study was overseen by Professor Savaş Genç of Fatih University.

The details from this study were reflected in yesterday’s Turkish media; the results appear striking and call for thought by politicians throughout Turkey. The vast majority of intellectuals from Turkey’s neighboring countries do believe that Turkey has been very active of late in foreign policy, and that Turkey has increased its weightiness on the global stage. They attribute this positive change in foreign policy to three basic factors: the AK Party rule, the EU accession process and liberalization of the economy. The most underscored aspect of Turkey’s changed foreign policy is its balanced approach to both the East and the West. Among those who believe that Turkey has edged closer to the Islamic world, especially among those neighboring countries which are not majority Muslim, there is doubt about the sustainability of this set of politics. It is very meaningful not only that a strengthened and democratized Turkey sees opportunity even in Armenia, but that Turkey is perceived by so many as a port in any disastrous storm.

In the research carried out by Fatih University, one of the most striking results was the fact that 62% of the respondents said they saw Turkey as a model for the rest of the Middle East. What makes this particular result even more meaningful is that it completely dovetails with results from research done in 2010 in Arab countries by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). In the TESEV research, 66% of respondents said they saw Turkey as a regional model.

What is strange is that these realities — which are visible to the naked eye and which are verified by so much detailed research — do not seem evident in Turkish society itself. Also, there is the fact that despite all this, the West seems resolute in ignoring the new Turkey. While Europe’s rough and rude barriers to Turkey are already evident and clear, how is it that when US President Obama describes his Middle East vision, he could talk about Indonesia, India, and even Brazil, but not mention Turkey? Why is it that the same Obama — who made his first diplomatic visit a visit to Ankara — seems now to have forgotten Turkey? In light of the critical and new developments in places like Libya, Iran and Syria, Turkey needs to think about how to not only maintain, but also develop the valuable credit it has gained on the global stage.

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