Türkiye has been facing many vital challenges since the end of the Cold War, especially in the last decade. Türkiye tried to overcome these challenges together with its allies. There was a high level of cooperation between Ankara and its Western allies during the first decade of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) governments.
During this period, Türkiye, the only Muslim member country of the NATO alliance, hosted the first NATO summit ever in 2004. The members decided to struggle against international terrorism worldwide, which was quite significant for Türkiye, one of the states most targeted by terrorism. Also, the alliance decided to extend its sphere of influence beyond Europe, namely to Afghanistan. These decisions indicated a turning point in the history of the alliance, especially for Türkiye. Furthermore, the European Union began accession negotiations with Türkiye in 2005, and 13 chapters were opened within five years.
A candidate country for full membership that established a customs union with the EU in 1995, most Western politicians and academicians considered Türkiye one of the most important strategic partners of the Western world. Many Turkish and Western academicians wrote about the “Turkish model” for democratizing the Middle East and the Muslim world. There was a highly positive perception of Türkiye during this decade.
However, relations between Türkiye and its Western allies dramatically changed after the transformations in the international system and recent regional developments. Some of the most important developments that negatively affected Turkish-Western relations were the rise of new challenges against the U.S. hegemony, the crises faced by the EU and the crises that erupted in the Middle East. While the rise of China and the return of Russia to international politics led to the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East, the crises faced by the EU caused an inward-looking perspective of the organization and alienation of Türkiye.
Especially after the eruption of the Arab insurgencies in 2011, most Western countries began to otherize and alienate Türkiye mainly due to differences in Turkish and Western perspectives of Middle Eastern developments. Changes within the Western world and in Türkiye required a redefinition of Turkish-Western relations. On the one hand, Western countries have rejected restructuring their relations with Türkiye. On the other hand, Türkiye has shown its determination to reshape its relations with the Western world.
After this political otherization, many Turkish and Western academicians began to otherize and alienate Türkiye as well. They have suddenly forgotten the “Turkish model” and started to count Türkiye as one of the most authoritarian countries in the world. Once again, many Turkish and Western academicians followed the footsteps of the Western politicians in their evaluations of Türkiye. Many academic platforms tried to provide reasoning for the Western otherization of Türkiye. Thus, a vicious circle was created and a self-fulfilling prophecy dominated their perception.
Many domestic and foreign observers try to interpret the last turn in Turkish foreign policy based on these premises. Many Western and Turkish academicians claim that Türkiye has been turning its back to the West. The same group also suggests that while Türkiye has been trying to increase its autonomy vis-a-vis the West, it has largely become dependent on the non-Western countries, namely Russia and China.
However, they base their claims mainly on the developments on the Turkish side and ignore the other (Western) side of the medallion. They do not want to hold the Western countries responsible for anti-Turkish policies. If they search the Western-Turkish relations from a truly academic perspective, they will see that most of the eastward steps taken by Türkiye are not the reason but the result of the anti-Turkish policies in the Western countries. For example, Türkiye’s purchase of S-400s from Russia came after the rejection of the U.S. and the Western European countries to provide air defense systems to Türkiye. In other words, Türkiye’s improved relations with the non-Western part of the world were a direct result of the otherization of Ankara by its Western allies.
Reasons for misunderstandings
It seems that there are two main reasons for this misunderstanding. First, Western observers do not know what is happening in Türkiye. They fail to follow domestic developments within the country since most Western politicians and academicians follow Türkiye from anti-government academic and media sources, which are heavily biased against their own government. The best example of this misinformation was witnessed during the 2023 election campaign. Dissident academic figures, some of whom pretend to be trolls, have misinformed Western circles by simply projecting their own wishes. They have increased hope in the West that the current government will lose elections.
The second reason is the deliberate misinterpretation of the latest turn in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, with the rise of ultra-nationalism, racism and anti-Islamism, most Western politicians and academicians were influenced by the radicalization of politics and accordingly otherized Türkiye for the short-period political expectations. As a Muslim country trying to follow a relatively independent foreign policy and to be active and effective in many parts of the world, Türkiye was put on the top of the list of the otherized states.
On the other hand, most Turkish academicians based in Western countries, most of whom strongly oppose the AK Party government, have been trying to please the host countries where they reside and misinterpret the political developments in Türkiye. Thousands of academicians, journalists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers are propagating anti-Turkish policies in Western countries. They often cooperate with traditional anti-Turkish circles such as the Armenian and Greek diasporas.
Considering the direction of current developments in the West and Türkiye, it seems that bilateral relations between the two sides will continue to be poisoned mainly by these politically driven academic analyses in the near future. Naturally, eliminating rationality in bilateral relations will lead to further misunderstandings between Türkiye and its Western allies. Needless to say, the cost of this misunderstanding will be high for both sides.