by Bulent Aras
Does Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defense system mean that its geopolitical orientation is shifting? Will Ankara drift away from its historic transatlantic security structure in favor of a partnership with Moscow? Should NATO members now question Turkey’s membership in the alliance? Ankara’s decision to buy the S-400 over the concerns and warnings of the U.S., European Union, and NATO has raised these questions and many others regarding Turkey’s foreign policy and domestic political preferences.
There is no question that anti-Western feelings are on the rise in Turkey, whose domestic politics suffer from persistent concerns about executive power concentration, polarization, de-institutionalization, and threats to the rule of law and essential freedoms. Although it is possible to view the S-400 deal as the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s relationship with the West, this is not necessarily so.
Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 system is about Ankara’s struggle to adapt to a changing regional and international environment as well as its domestic political challenges. The ongoing upheaval in Western politics, amid the rise of populist leaders and a decline in the role of democratic institutions and democracy promotion, has created a confusing geopolitical context for nations like Turkey. Turkey has had a long tradition of anchoring its foreign policy orientation and domestic reforms to Western models. In this sense, Turkey’s ties to Europe go back to the interaction of the Ottoman state with its counterparts in Europe for more than 300 years.
The critical period in this long term interaction was the Ottoman state’s transformation from the 17th-19th centuries. Europe’s 1648 Westphalian order was echoed in the Köprülü reforms of the 17th century, and the 1815 Congress of Vienna and the Napoleonic Wars led to the Imperial Edict of Reorganization (Tanzimat) in the Ottoman state. There was also a strong connection between the 1856 Paris Congress and the Ottoman Imperial Edict of Reformation (Islahat) of the same year.
The systemic change in Ottoman diplomacy came as a result of a changing international environment that forced the Ottoman state to be a part of the European order, instead of challenging it. This was a critical period, as the Ottoman state moved from reclaiming the empire to adopting a new survival strategy within the European state system. It was also the start of a tension in Turkish diplomacy, as it aimed to reconcile the state’s role in its cultural and historical hinterlands with the requirements of being part of the European order.
In more recent times, there has been a close connection between the European situation and Turkey’s domestic political reforms. Turkey’s EU membership process is an example of this, since it exemplifies the way that Western values find expression in Turkish politics and changes in state structure. In this line of reasoning, Turkey has a well-established place in European history and its political, economic and social modernization has been guided by European-oriented ideas. The influence of the major transformations and developments in Europe on the late Ottoman elites and the founding fathers of modern Turkey is obvious, as it shaped their revolutionary idea to create a modern nation-state.
The historical connection between European and Ottoman/Turkish history has left a permanent European trace in the style and preferences of Turkish foreign policy. Because of this, Turkey’s past efforts to distance itself from the West have been limited, in particular at times of regional or systemic crisis that force Turkish policy makers to rethink the ethical and practical dimensions of Turkish foreign policy. The end of the Cold War and September 11 were previous tectonic shifts in the international order that made Turkey re-evaluate its policies in regional and international terms.
Turkey is now at a similar crossroads, where it must re-evaluate its domestic and foreign policy to address regional and international challenges and to solve political and state crises at home. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s losses in recent municipal elections showed that Turkey’s authoritarian slide is not at a point of no return. All the calls after the elections made by the ruling party and opposition represents measures associated with reform, defying polarization, reconciliation, and developing a unifying ethos in Turkish politics. Turkey’s current tension with the West does not necessarily represent a departure from the West, but could merely be symptoms of this transformative process.
The crux of the issue is for Turkish leaders to recognize the limits of distancing from the West, which would mean swimming against the historic tide and putting Turkey into a cycle of crisis. It may seem overly optimistic, but the critical role that Western influence has played in crafting Turkish foreign policy and the intrinsic character of Turkish politics strongly suggests that Turkey must ultimately return to a Western orientation. The S-400 crisis may result in a re-discovery of the historical precedents that show clearly that Turkey’s future lies with the West.
Bulent Aras is a senior fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center in Istanbul, Turkey and a visiting professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Twitter: @arasbulent.