Analyzing the causes of Turkey’s gradual estrangement from the West in recent years would be incomplete if one didn't discuss the reasons why Turkish decision-makers feel quite comfortable in their interactions with their Chinese, Russian and Iranian counterparts. In addition to emerging ruptures in Turkey’s strategic cooperation with the United States during the Barack Obama and Donald Trump presidencies, as well as the declining appeal of European Union membership in Turkish eyes over the last decade, the allure of the East should be factored into the analysis of Turkey’s recent strategic orientation.
When the decreasing western imprint on Turkey’s strategic posturing is combined with the growing attractiveness of the Eastern option, one can better understand why Turkey has of late found itself in opposition to western powers in the wider Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean regions. Despite the lack of a uniform western position on Turkey’s strategic preferences in such regions, it would not be an overestimation to argue that the strategic gap between Turkey and key western powers seems to have widened in recent years. The ongoing confrontation between Turkey and Greece over the contours of the continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean region; the emergence of an anti-Turkey block comprising Greece, the Greek Cypriot administration, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); and the French and American support for this block from the outside all attest to the fact that Turkey's strategic priorities do not find receptive ears in many western countries and the traditional western allies in the wider Middle East.
While Turkey’s relations with Western countries have worsened in the past decade, its relations with rising Eurasian powers, notably China, Russia and Iran, in political, economic and strategic realms have dramatically improved simultaneously. Despite historical roots of animosity and structural and ideological causes of rivalry between Turkey and these three countries, Turkish leaders have succeeded in compartmentalizing their relations with them. Worth underlining here is that while the latest national security and national defense strategies of Trump’s America characterized these three countries as major challengers and rivals of the U.S., Turkey’s cooperation with them over the last three years has further deepened.
Similar to these three countries, Turkey also comes from an imperial legacy and an imperial geopolitical vision has occupied Turkey’s political agenda from time to time. Turkish ruling elites have increasingly redefined their country in an imperial fashion in that Turkey deserves to have influence in the post-Ottoman geographies. The primacy of state elites in defining national preferences, security interests and the strategies to be adopted to deal with them in a top-down fashion is common to all of them. The state is deemed sacred and omnipotent in all of these societies. Defining national interests and security policies from the perspective of the state is a practice shared by them all.
These societies are also conservative, seeking to preserve traditional societal, political and cultural values against liberal, postmodern and hedonistic Western values. State and society are defined as constitutive of each other. If policies being adopted in the name of strengthening liberal democratic transformation were to imperil the cohesive and harmonious nature of the society, then such policies should be abandoned immediately. It is no wonder that in all these countries, a mixture of ethnic nationalism and religious conservatism has increasingly shaped national identities in recent years.
Ruling elites in these countries tend to interpret strong Western support for further liberalization and democratization in their neighborhood as part of larger geopolitical designs concocted in Western capitals to contain their growing geopolitical influence. Just as Russia has been extremely against the so-called color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, Chinese leaders interpret the Western calls for improvement of human rights in Tibet and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as an intervention in China’s internal affairs. While the regime in Tehran thinks that Western nations never miss any opportunity to stir chaos in the country, Turkey has adopted a skeptical attitude toward Western attempts at regime change whenever it felt this would damage its own territorial integrity. It can be argued that Turkey’s ruling elites interpreted the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013 as a Western ploy against the ruling government and therefore adopted sharp measures to suppress them. Their common perception of exclusion from the West seems also to have brought Turkey and these countries much closer to each other in recent times
Societies in these countries seem to provide fertile ground for strong and charismatic leaders to flourish. Holding strong executive powers in their hands, mobilizing their societies behind national grandeur, defining their nations as living organisms that need wealth, power and space to exist and survive, claiming to represent the national will against the corrupt elites detached from the society, and offering simple and mostly emotional solutions to the complex and multifaceted problems of their societies in a globalizing and shrinking world are common leadership traits of Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and China's Xi Jinping. Strong personal chemistry also exists among these leaders, and they have met each other numerous times in the recent past.
All these countries also believe that the U.S.-led liberal international order has long been in terminal decline and that the emerging international order should be defined in a multipolar fashion whereby non-Western powers are in a much better position to determine the constitutive rules and norms. Claims to cosmopolitan morality and universal human rights face strong criticism in these countries.
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