Beyond S-400s, the Turkish consensus against the West

Much of the discussion of Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles focuses on whether it will cause a rift with the West. There is no doubt the delivery of the air defence system that began last week will have political and economic costs, but one point is often overlooked – there is a national consensus in Turkey that the country should disengage from the West.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a clear stance on the West. Its traditional Islamist ideology leads to radical anti-Westernism on key issues of global politics. Besides, Turkish Islamists also see the West as a threat to their survival.

The AKP’s junior coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is also historically anti-Western. The MHP sees the West as the enemy of Turks and Western organisations such as the European Union as hostile, due in large part to the party’s perception that the bloc supports the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s southeast since 1984.

There is also a new dynamic that compels the AKP-MHP coalition towards a more aggressive anti-Western foreign policy; economic bankruptcy. Having no effective economic programme, the AKP-MHP coalition employs authoritarian means. Given the economic crisis is not likely to go away, the coalition is clever enough to realise that ruling Turkey through authoritarian means and statist economics requires a new foreign policy orientation. The AKP-MHP coalition dreams of an alternative global alignment, which it expects to mean less commitment to complex issues such as the rule of law, the free market and democracy.

The opposition is no different. When Turkey received the first shipment of S-400 components, the leading Kemalist daily, Sözcü, carried the headline: “We have not yielded to threats!” The word “we” indicates the secular opposition shares the same perspective as the ruling AKP. There is no difference between nationalists, Islamists and secularists when it comes to defying the West.

The secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has declared its support for the government on the S-400 issue. Neither the CHP, nor the moderate nationalist opposition Good Party appears to be alarmed by Turkey’s detachment from the West. 

Why are secular and leftist groups not alarmed? The answer lies with the ideological transformation of the Turkish left since the 1960s. Kemalism, the official secular modernising ideology of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, previously had no particular leftist agenda. But from the 1960s, Ataturk’s party, the CHP, declared itself to be leftist, became more critical of the West and backed a national brand of secularisation and modernisation.

Today, many leading Turkish leftist/socialist journalists and intellectuals seem to approve of the government’s drift away from the West, despite their vehement criticism of the Islamists in every other policy area.

Anti-Western sentiments are also common amongst ordinary people. A recent survey by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University shows that most Turks see countries such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Qatar, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, India and China as friendly countries. According to the same study, Turks see countries like the United States, France, Britain and Germany as a threat.

The survey points to a hatred of the West. Thus arguments on the potential costs of the S-400s miss a point. The question should rather be, is it possible to keep Turkey in its traditional pro-Western position today as long as the public, elites and the state are so anti-Western?

Turkey already has a new reality that the S-400 crisis is simply making more visible. Turkey is poised for a paradigm shift in its foreign policy, so if it were not the S-400 crisis, another issue or incident would bring this reality to the fore.

Since the Republic of Turkey was created in 1923, certain big issues have dominated politics. The struggle between Islam and secularism is the most studied one, but the issue of nationalism and Westernisation is often overlooked. The irony is that when it comes to a clash between nationalism and Westernisation, nationalism is able to unite both secularists and Islamists, the two groups bitterly divided over the role of religion in politics and public life.