Turkey announced this week it would freeze the financial assets of Syria, its southern neighbor, and prevent all weapons deliveries to the country until the regime of Bashar al-Assad ceases its assaults on civilians protesting autocratic rule and agrees to step down. This is also the same Turkey that has co-negotiated a deal with Iran on limiting nuclear weapons developments. This is the same Turkey who’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is beloved by Muslims around the world for his fiery language leveled toward Israel in the wake of diplomatic snafus and the flotilla incident last year. This is the same Turkey that has made the foreign policy choice to negotiate with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
How is the Western world to understand Turkey taking the lead with sanctions against Syria and the vehement Turkish defense of democracy?
Already well on its way to becoming a regional power, the Republic of Turkey was thrust into the global spotlight by the Arab Spring earlier this year. Its commitment to true democratic governance, its majority Muslim population, and its rapid economic growth have caused many to cite it as a model for struggling nations like Egypt and Libya. However, there are many in the Western world that view Turkey’s rise with suspicion and even scorn. These fears are misplaced, and governments all over the world should be seeking to partner with Turkey in reshaping a region long fraught with instability and violence.
After rising from ashes of a once proud Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Turkish Republic spent its first seven decades as a moderately industrialized nation but with hardly any major influence on any international platform. At the turn of the millennium, Turkey had just gone through a Japanese-style lost decade and was at the brink of economic collapse. Inflation was at 70 percent by 2001 (having hit a high of 116 percent in 1994) and GDP was at negative 5.7 percent.
The 1990s were also a time of severe political instability and democratic failure in Turkey. The government was crushed by a fourth military coup in four decades. Kurdish terrorism in Turkey’s southeastern region claiming thousands of civilian and military lives. And by 2001, the Istanbul Stock Exchange was in collapse, the banking system was leaning hard on the International Monetary Fund as a savior, and Turkey’s long-standing membership process to the European Union received scant attention in Brussels.
The general elections of November 2002 proved to be the starting point of a major overhaul in Turkey’s economy, political systems, democratic credentials and rising regional importance. A newly established party won a majority of seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly and began a program focused on liberalizing the economy – starting with the privatization of state owned enterprises – and eventually the introduction of the now famous “zero problems” foreign policy to make peace with all Turkey’s neighbors.
On the economic front, public finances have been improved substantially and private output has surged. The Turkish banking sector is one of the most stable in Europe and the world. Its economy has reached 17th largest on the planet. Even after the global financial crisis in 2008, Turkey has one of the fast growing economies in the world. Turkey’s government debt-to-GDP ratio – down from 76 percent in 2001 to 35 percent in 2010 – is not only better than its Greek neighbors (142 percent) but also European fiscal stalwart Germany (54 percent). And inflation has been brought down to around 8 percent.
At the same time, the domestic political clout of the military has been pealed back. This has sparked international concerns that the former guardians of secularism in Turkey were giving way to Islamic fundamentalism. However, while painful, the process to reducing military authority has led to a healthier real democracy, instead of a faux-democracy operating as a front for the wishes of generals and admirals.
Perhaps most importantly, the ruling party has substantially improved Turkey’s human rights record, including implementing European standards for criminal justice.
The biggest challenges ahead for Turkey are on the global political stage. Turkey’s international resurgence started with sincere attempts to improve its relations with all neighboring foreign interests. The so-called “zero problems with neighbors policy” was put in place with overtures made to countries ranging from Greece to Armenia. But good faith efforts to broker deals between Syria and Israel have been overshadowed by dealings with Iran, Hamas and the authoritarian Egyptian military ruling council. These and other efforts have earned Turkey the label of Islamist fundamentalist in some Western quarters.
Such “activism” is a new experience for Turkey and has involved a steep learning curve with mixed success as the process has depended on other parties’ willingness to engage. Turkey is carving a new place for itself in the world, and in many ways is growing up, requiring the world to adapt as Turkey finds its new footing.
Inside Turkey, the government is at times accused of only “looking west” for co-operating on security missions in Afghanistan and installing a U.S.-led missile defense system on Turkish soil. Outside Turkey, the Justice and Development Party is seen as “turning to the east” for choosing a foreign policy that negotiates with Iran and Hamas, and stands up to Israeli diplomatic bullying.
In reality, Turkey is rejecting the passivity that developed during the latter half of the 20th century with its global affairs, and developing a more balanced yet assertive approach. Such “tectonic” change is creating conflicting interpretations from different quarters, and thus the confusion over why the most recent popular critic of Israel is taking such a hardline with a supposed Islamic ally.
The rehabilitation of Turkey’s economy, political structures and global position is still ongoing, but substantially stronger in this new decade. Such changes in economic strength, policy and activism often will lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. But Turkey becoming a strong and stable economy, on its way to becoming a healthier democracy, is critical for regional stability and development. It can be a voice helping to guide the Arab Spring into a true period of reform, thereby transforming the region into one of prosperity, democracy and freedom. The West should not reject its international standing or assertiveness, but rather embrace a new, stronger friend, criticizing missteps when appropriate, but welcoming a partner in the process of global development.
Dr. Murat Yulek (firstname.lastname@example.org) is dean of the business department at THK University in Ankara and chairman of a Turkish investment bank. Anthony Randazzo (email@example.com) is a lecturer on Turkish politics at The King’s College New York and director of economic research at Reason Foundation in Washington D.C.