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Book Review: Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War, Philip Robins

Article by Ceren Coskun

September 15, 2006

As the awkward neighbour straddled between East and West, Turkey is once again standing at the threshold of Europe. Can it face yet another humiliating retreat in its long and turbulent road to the gate of western civilisation? The stakes are higher than ever since the EEC Council of Ministers accepted Ankara’s application for associate membership in 1959. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept into power to form the first single party government since 1987, they have determinedly pursued the reforms needed to meet the Copenhagen political criteria. These include the abolition of the death penalty, introduction of cultural rights for ethnic minorities (especially Kurds), expansion of democratic freedoms, introduction of laws to curb torture, institutional arrangements to reduce the influence of the military in politics, and the adoption of the Annan Plan in Cyprus to name but a few. Another rebuff would surely slow current reforms, both by sanctioning the more extreme but vocal groups, Islamist or nationalist, and bolstering Turkey’s sense of isolation.

The virtuous circle of positive negotiations encouraging reform will be broken and, in the eyes of many unequivocally pro-European Turks, membership will lose its status as a catalyst for change. Much to the bewilderment of sceptical European leaders, the European project has been more successful in exporting democratisation then any of them could have imagined. European ‘soft’ power alone has achieved more in Turkey than American might has ever done in the Middle East. The question now therefore is can Europe face the challenge?

In the lead up to the European Union decision in December, Philip Robins’ Suits and Uniforms, Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War is required reading. There are three arguments. Firstly that ‘in the arena of foreign affairs, Turkey is a status quo power … wedded to the sanctity of borders, states, multilateral institutions and norms of conduct’ (p.6). Secondly, that Turkey is ‘firmly oriented westwards in terms of its foreign relations’ (p.7), seen in its earnest pursuit of the EU; and thirdly that it is an overly cautious actor (p.7). The author lays out his argument by initially examining the Turkish position within the international arena in the aftermath of the Cold War and pointing to its rise in prominence as a central actor. He then turns to the structural framework of foreign policy by arguing that the main players are comprised of the government, presidency, foreign ministry and the security establishment, with political parties, parliament, media, interest groups and public opinion as secondary players.

Given the shortage of studies which tackle the basis of the rationale behind Turkish foreign policy, the main strength of the book lies in Robins’ analysis of domestic motivators of foreign policy in terms of history, ideology, security and economics and how the relative importance of these factors have evolved over time. Robins rightly notes the pervasive influence of the experiences of the late Ottoman Empire and the early Republican period within the collective psyche of the nation. ‘History is a key determinant of perception in that it helps to form an identikit picture as to the make-up of others’ (p.94). The foremost case of historical memory is the ‘Sevres syndrome’, rooted in the plan of the victors of WWI to carve up the Empire, which remains an important reference point for the key players. Similarly, the author observes that the minority issue is ‘combustible’ (p.124), particularly because it was repeatedly used by the Europeans in dismembering the Ottoman Empire by stoking ‘the enemy from within’ (p.172); manifested in the support of the Armenians by the Russians, the Maronites by the French and the Arabs in Hijaz by the British. Robins comments that the lessons of these past encounters have been re-emphasised in the eyes of Turks by recent experiences and perceptions, from Stalin’s expansionism; Syrian territorialism; American unreliability best exemplified during the Cuban missile crisis and by the Johnson letter; Greek and Syrian cooperation on defence; European insistence on minority rights particularly with regards to the Kurds; and the acceptance of the Armenian historical narrative. The author correctly points out therefore that security has been an overriding concern in foreign policy given this prevailing sense of insecurity and encirclement; ‘history tells Turks to be suspicious, especially of their neighbours, who covet their territory or seek to erode the greatness of the nation through devious means’. In fact, even the commitment to the EU is juxtaposed with a deep distrust, with most Turks doubtful of their neighbours’ sincerity in negotiations (and as Andrew Mango points out, this is succinctly expressed by the Turkish recourse to the saying ‘the Turk has no friends except for other Turks’).

Robins places much of the European consternation over Turkey on its failure to emulate ‘liberal norms’. It is questionable however, to what extent the West has internalised these values itself in the era of the War on Terrorism, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, and to the endorsement by liberal circles of violations of civil liberties in the name of national security, or rather accepting the ‘lesser evil’ (Michael Ignatieff). On the other hand, Ataturk remains its visionary father, in his abandonment of the ancien regime and embracing of democracy when many of its richer neighbours were in the throes of fascism. Ataturk is thus a key part of the common identity of the Turks; they are united by the fact that they are all the children of his revolution. In that sense, as Mango comments, ‘Turkey can no more repudiate Ataturk today than France can repudiate the French Revolution’. It is an ironic twist of history therefore that it has been the Islamist AKP government which has worked harder to consolidate Ataturk’s revolution and the process of westernisation in the face of liberal procrastination over fears of increasing Islamisation. Alienated by what they see as a degeneration of their cultural identity many are constructing their own modernity, a process that is not mutually exclusive with a secular order. Despite the worst civilizational fears in the EU, studies have consistently shown that although they are pious, most Turks nevertheless believe religion to be a solely private matter; while 92.2 percent of people fast during Ramadan and 46 percent pray five times a day, only 10.2 percent expressed a desire to change the present secular order, though many of them were unsure once they realised what an Islamic order would entail (see Professor Binnaz Toprak and Ali Carkoglu’s latest survey). Most Turks do embrace the secular order, wanting to wear the headscarf or fasting does not necessarily mean otherwise. The AKP’s persistence over imam-hatips (religious schools) is resolvable via open debate and compromise, without posing a challenge to the fundamentals of the secular order. A prominent AKP MP and previous advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan, Turhan Conmez, has been making the case for reforming imam-hatips, particularly by restricting their role to the training of imams, and also introducing optional as opposed to compulsory religious education in schools. The vehemently secularist Alevis, making up to twenty percent of the population, is also a factor often overlooked. It is one of those idiosyncrasies of Turkey that it is on the path of ‘its own Third Way, an accommodation between secularists and Islamists within the framework of a fully democratic system’ (Marvin Howe); a valuable lesson to its European neighbours then, that should not go unheeded. The consequences on democratisation of a rejection in December will be far more wide reaching than has been contemplated with reverberations beyond Turkey’s borders.

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