By Anna Wood
Over the past decade, as Turkey’s prominence on the world stage has increased, its role in global alliances has shifted dramatically. The recently re-elected AKP administration has carved out a new space for the country to express its own views on international matters, even when those views clash with those of their allies.
Public opinion has followed suit, with polls registering increased skepticsm regarding NATO and the EU.
A report compiled by researchers at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University earlier this year found that only 41% of those surveyed regarded NATO membership as essential for national security. By contrast, 67% held that view in 2004.
“It can be observed that compared to the people of the other countries, Turks were the most skeptical of NATO’s essentialness,” the researchers said.
A 2010 study conducted by Transatlantic Trends reveals similar findings: “Compared to last year, Turks were less convinced that NATO is essential, less interested in joining the EU, and less likely to say their country shares values with the West.”
Mustafa Kemal, a taxi driver in Istanbul whose parents named him after the founder of Turkey, holds a view shared by a considerable segment of the Turkish public. “They’re exploiting us,” he said. “Turkey is a strong country, but it is being managed by other countries.”
Policymakers and the country’s military take a different view, however. They continue to see NATO and relations with the EU as crucial for the country’s interests.
“Going it alone is not an option,” warns US-Turkey relations expert Mustafa Aydin. Turkey’s increasing global prominence, he said, means it has to play by the rules and accept burdens.
At the same time, he added, it is time for all sides to adjust their perceptions and expectations. “The US needs to make room for Turkey’s growing power and shouldn’t see it as a challenge,” Aydin said at a June Middle East Institute conference on Turkey in Washington.
For many Turks, views of the Alliance and of the United States are intertwined, according to SOAS Professor Emeritus William Hale.
“Attitudes towards NATO are probably mainly determined by Turkish attitudes towards the United States, which have been at rock-bottom since the invasion of Iraq,” he told SETimes.
In general, analysts say, Turkish policymakers face the challenge of persuading the public – many of whom grew up after the Cold War ended — of the Alliance’s importance to Turkey.
“In a world with two poles, NATO membership was a symbol of belonging to the Atlantic side,” said Professor Basak Zeynep Alpan of Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “In the wake of the Cold War, in a multi-polar world, it became relevant only on definite and specific topics, and this of course is reflected in the public’s perception.”
Convincing Kemal, the Istanbul driver, will be no easy task. “Today’s treaties were signed forty years ago. They aren’t appropriate for the current generation,” he told SETimes.