Featuring Soner Cagaptay, Ross Wilson, and James F. Jeffrey

On January 14, 2013, Soner Cagaptay, Ross Wilson, and James F. Jeffrey addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute.

Dr. Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Institute. Mr. Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2005-2008) and Azerbaijan (2000-2003). Mr. Jeffrey is a visiting fellow at the Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2008-2010) and Iraq (2010-2012). The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.


Much has changed in Turkey after eleven years of rule under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Previously, fragile governing coalitions had been the norm, usually collapsing after a few years. The AKP’s rule has been long and steady, however, allowing the party to transform the country politically and socially. Turkey is no longer secular in the way its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, envisaged: religion has now permeated government, politics, and education. The AKP has also remolded the country’s global political identity. In the past, Turks regarded themselves as Europeans who happened to live next to the Middle East. Today, they have reimagined themselves as members of the Middle Eastern world, though with connections to Europe.

These drastic changes have also split Turks into polarized camps. About 35 percent of the population staunchly opposes the AKP, and another serious split exists between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists.

Yet there is much good news for Turkey as well. Its economy has trebled in size over the past decade and is catching up with many European economies. This growth has been driven in part by trade diversification. Turkish firms have ventured beyond their traditional markets in Europe to attain a truly global reach, and the worldwide economic downturn and Eurozone crisis have only highlighted the advantages of this approach.

Political stability has been another key driver of economic growth. For example, many wealthy moguls in unstable neighboring states use Turkey as a haven for their assets. Thus, Turkey is growing because it is more stable than other countries in the area, and the AKP wins elections because Turkey is growing. The downside is that Turkey’s large account deficit and high unemployment could foreshadow a sharp and disorderly bust in the coming years; for now, though, the economy is humming.Turkey has also managed to build soft power abroad. Its businesses have grown in international recognition, and its “Gulen school” movement has exported Turkish culture worldwide. Similarly, the Foreign Ministry has vastly expanded its diplomatic representation, and Ankara has joined numerous regional and international forums.

Yet Turkey realizes that this soft power is not readily transferable into hard power, and this realization has prompted Ankara’s foreign policy pivot over the past two years. The crisis in Syria and rivalry with Iran have reminded Turkey of the importance of having a strong NATO partner for defensive purposes. To borrow a comparison from Ambassador Jeffrey, Turkey resembles Japan in this respect: both countries have large economies and soft power, yet they cannot do without a robust external security framework. This fact, coupled with a long history of Westernization, show why Turkey cannot simply tear off its Western overlay like a Band-Aid.

To sustain its rise, Turkey must resolve its internal conflicts. It can do so in part by drafting a truly liberal democratic constitution that makes room for all groups, using religion-blind language that welcomes Jews and Christians as equal citizens. Ankara must also relearn how to leverage its Western credentials. If it wants to truly lead in the Arab and Muslim worlds, it needs to prove that it is more than a “wealthy Yemen” (i.e., a large, prosperous Muslim nation that adds no real value to regional security). Turkey’s Western ties — in particular, its access to NATO hardware and security frameworks — can facilitate such efforts.

This is good news for Washington. In past years, U.S. policymakers lamented that Washington needed Turkey more than the other way around. This is no longer true; the foundations for a truly interdependent relationship are recognizable in the current geopolitical configuration.

Yet Washington should also be aware that the Syrian conflict has shown signs of becoming a stress test for U.S.-Turkish relations. If worst-case scenarios prevail next door, Turkey’s internal security and economic stability could be in danger. Spillover from Syria could also dent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to become president after reshaping the post’s powers. Consequently, Ankara wants to address the Syria conflagration now, while Washington favors a more prudent policy.

* Read Dr. Cagaptay’s new Institute report “The New Turkey and U.S. Policy”: