The Americanisation of Turkey

Turkey's international profile and domestic politics have long been oriented towards the European Union. Now, both the Arab awakening and the internal momentum of AKP rule are pushing Ankara closer to the United States.  

Turkey's international profile and domestic politics have long been oriented towards the European Union. Now, both the Arab awakening and the internal momentum of AKP rule are pushing Ankara closer to the United States.


There was a time when people in Turkey wishfully called their country küçük Amerika (“the little America”). The phrase reflected a strong, even intimate relationship between the two countries. During the cold-war years, Turkey's centre-right leaders – from Adnan Menderes in the 1950s to Turgut Özal in the 1980s – extolled the virtues of the American dream to a receptive public; the Nato alliance was the alpha and omega of Ankara’s security doctrine; Turkey's elite sent its offspring to colleges across the United States; and Turkish audiences lapped up the latest pop-culture imports such as the TV soap Dallas.

Then, for much of the two subsequent decades, it looked as if Turkey was following a predominantly European path. It has turned out, however, that this was but a detour. In post-Kemalist Turkey, the earlier American vision is coming to full fruition. Europe’s evident failure to accomplish its transformative mission means that Turkish politics is coming under the sway, not of Europeanisation but of Americanisation.

There are many manifestations of the trend. Perhaps the clearest is Turkey's foreign relations. Before the Arab spring of 2011, Turkey had confidently pursued what it called a “zero-problems” regional approach (its own version of Brussels's “European neighbourhood policy” that promotes functional integration with states on the European Union's periphery).

But the violent upheavals in Libya and Syria effectively derailed the “zero-problems” principle. Instead, the region's new turmoil reinforced Ankara's bonds with Washington as they forged a common front on the Syrian crisis (while agreeing to disagree on Israel). Turkey shifted towards projecting the notion of a “Turkish model” as something the awakened Arabs could emulate – whose traces of a “freedom agenda” had resemblances to the outlook of neocons in the George W Bush administration.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has even spoken of a “golden era” in US-Turkish relations (which suggests she may be unaware of how close the states were in the 1950s). The contrast with Europe is stark, as Turkey’s relations with EU heavyweights such as France and Germany over its stalled membership negotiations have become poisoned. From Ankara's perspective, the shift towards Washington is natural: after all, what security assets does crisis-stricken Europe have to help Turkey fend off threats emanating from an imploding Syria, an expansionist Iran or an unstable Iraq?

A domestic dynamic

But the connection runs much deeper than the convergence of strategic interests at a critical juncture – for Turkey is also Americanising domestically.

The ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) may have responded to the weakening of the EU's reformist pressure by succumbing further to an authoritarian temptation in the wake of its third successive electoral victory in June 2011. But even before then, the accommodation of religious conservatism that underpins the AKP's democratic imaginaire closely mirrors a US-style framework while being at increasing variance with Europe’s post-Christian polities.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his followers, in seeking to bolster the case for Turkey’s accession to the EU, used to cite European-style Christian democracy as a source of inspiration for their moderate form of Islamic politics. In 2012, however, the AKP's social-conservative line on “family values” or the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools if far more in harmony with attitudes in America’s “red” (Republican) states than in European metropoles.

Turkey has its own “culture wars” which are surely intelligible to the median US citizen. A controversy over proposed reforms that would introduce a middle-school level for 10-14 year-olds who can be enrolled in an imam hatip (religious institution) or be taught at home is a case in point. The AKP maintains that this would broaden girls' access to schooling; critics see it as perpetuating social conservatism.  

The influential religious thinker Fethullah Gülen may have a conflictual relationship with Erdoğan, but he remains an influential fellow-traveller of the AKP – and significantly, he resides in Pennsylvania. None other than the New York Times portrayed the “Gülenists” as “the Islamic equivalent of Christian movements appealing to business and the professions.”

Both Gülen's movement and the pious entrepreneurs supporting the AKP have embraced the fusion of market-friendly (or neo-liberal) economics and God once popularised by Turgut Özal, perhaps Turkey’s most distinguished Americaniser. Some critics would argue that the religious worldview shared by the AKP and the Gülenists dismisses social rights and redistribution and sees welfare (again similarly to US conservatives) in paternalistic terms as a matter of charity, though in fairness social reforms in key areas such as healthcare have greatly expanded opportunities for Turkey's lower-income groups.

In institutional terms, the AKP’s decade-long ascendancy has resulted in a transition from coalition rule to majoritarian politics. The party governs alone, unimpeded either by the need to share power with other political forces (as its predecessors in the 1990s faced) or by Turkey's so-called “deep state”.

The measures sanctioned by the constitutional referendum of 2010 is a prime example of how the AKP's majoritarianism works: it embodied the growing power of a definition of democracy as governing by the will of the (conservative) majority rather than involving coalition-building, sharing power, reassuring and co-opting sceptical minorities. Erdoğan’s intermittent calls to replace the parliamentary regime with presidential rule (with the three-term prime minister presumably at the helm) charts the next step. The inevitable result is to polarise public opinion and raise concerns that a Turkish form of “Putinisation” may be in prospect.

Whether such concerns are warranted or overblown, it is certain that a strong presidency at the heart of Turkey's decision-making system would inaugurate a winner-takes-all political model far removed from the consensual modes of government characteristic of continental Europe. Here is a departure from United States norms, since US presidentialism is part of a functioning checks-and-balances system that includes a powerful legislature and assertive judiciary. This, however, is one area where the US, often blamed for its arrogance, has no particular mechanism to export its constitutional acquis, in contrast with the EU's reliance on membership conditionality.

An international lodestar

But if Turkey is embracing Americanisation rather than Europeanisation, could this process provide a (better) answer to Turkey's burning questions of citizenship and national identity? Again, the European Union long thought that it had the competence and leverage to make a difference in Turkey. But it now appears that Brussels’s standards tended to reinforce Turkey's post-1920s Kemalist order, which was already informed by the French republican ideal of a single and indivisible political community (and often cast, as also in Germany and much of central and eastern Europe, in exclusively ethno-cultural terms).

The retreat of EU influence in Turkey increasingly makes the alternative to Kemalism not one of EU-inspired minority rights, let alone ethnic power-sharing as demanded by Kurdish nationalists, but rather the AKP brand of identity politics which (unlike Kemalism) recognises the multiplicity of ethnic identities while embracing nationalism and the cult of the state. Here, (Sunni) Islam is the overarching, supra-ethnic glue that reconciles the commitment to a strong, sovereign and fiercely patriotic Turkey with cultural-linguistic particularisms. Again, this is a pattern recognisable in the US.

Moreover, the AKP’s nationalism – in contrast to the insular and xenophobic nationalisms of today's Europe – resembles the US's in being defined by a sort of mission civilisatrice in the Arab world, which draws inspiration from the glorious Ottoman era. Hence, Turkey's aforementioned shift from “zero problems” to a “freedom agenda” in the middle east.

True, this effort to recast nationhood along the mildly Islamist worldview to which Turkey’s current rulers subscribe is but a “project in the making”, and it is contested from multiple quarters, not least by nationalist Kurds. Its chances of completion hinge on the possibility that civic norms can be enshrined as the core of citizenship. And as long as the new civilian constitution promised by the authorities is nowhere in sight, the project remains out of sync with crude political realities.

So there are also obstacles to Turkey's Americanisation. Turkey’s new establishment has very few knee-jerk Americanophiles (similar to the old secular one, whose attitude to the US was highly instrumental). Turkey's public opinion has traditionally been, as elsewhere in southern Europe, a hotbed of anti-Americanism. The German Marshall Fund’s “transatlantic trends” poll in 2011 finds out that 62% of Turks hold negative views of the US, the highest percentage of all countries surveyed. There is no causal relationship between Turkey’s internal Americanisation and the country’s behaviour vis-à-vis the US, which is essentially a balancing act between the pursuit of security in a turbulent environment and the quest for autonomy.

The EU remains by far the most important trade and investment partner for Turkey, even if membership talks have ground to a halt. If the extensive human links between the two are factored in, it becomes clear that the union will remain the biggest external stakeholder in Turkey’s internal transformation for the foreseeable future – whatever the weather.

It is also true, however, that the US offers a more intelligible and eye-catching model for a country and society that views itself as rising and believes tomorrow will be better than today. Neither the Europe of supranational institutions and liberal values nor the populist Europe of Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen is a credible or attractive competitor. Europhilia seems to survive in Turkey only in a handful of enclaves in downtown Istanbul and along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts – as well as in Anatolia’s farthest corners inhabited by Kurds. The majority of Turks, having cast in their lot with the AKP, watch Europe’s eurozone crisis with Schadenfreude.

Europe's loss of symbolic capital in Turkey is a significant development in a longer chain of events. The Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century sought to transplant European modernity onto Ottoman soil. The Kemalists’ quest to bring “contemporary civilisation” to Turkey was equally informed by Eurocentric ideas. To a great degree, Turkey's semi-integration into the EU (even without full membership) has made the country increasingly prosperous and, despite more recent backsliding, more democratic. But it is by looking to America rather than Europe that the new Turkey might obtain a clearer sense of direction.

This article first appeared on opendemocracy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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