Taner Akçam
Nov 21 2017

A NATO-Turkey crisis or Turkey's Western alliance problem?

Was the depiction of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as enemies at NATO exercises in Norway merely a 'coincidence' and an 'insignificant event’? Or was it part of an operation to expel Turkey from the Western alliance? We do not know the answer just yet.

We know that Erdoğan has been portrayed in the Western media as a 'dictator who is against Western values', especially since the events of the Arab Spring.

Followers of the Western press are familiar with an ideological-cultural atmosphere in which the West (and its vox populi) Western democracy and human rights advocates are on one side of the equation and the Erdoğan regime, moving towards authoritarianism and even fascism, is on the other.

It should be said that the Turkish government is also partially responsible for such an ideological-cultural atmosphere.

Now it almost looks like we are entering its final phase and that the Western message is maturing towards an attitude of "a regime where democratic values are blatantly derided has no place within the Western world".

It is possible to argue that this posture by Western countries is not due to the value they place on democracy ​​and human rights, but because they still have colonialist aspirations. The main reason for this attitude, which I define as "liberal imperialism", is the ongoing imperial wars of influence in the Middle East.

These are wars of power, influence, and control over the use of Middle Eastern energy resources and the "security issues" related to it. It is quite obvious that the sides in this war are not "those who want democracy and human rights" versus "those in favor of evil dictatorships".

The axes that are now starting to take shape are proof of this: Saudi Arabia and Israel – openly supported by the United States (and likely Egypt over time) – are forming one alliance; Russia, Iran, and Turkey are establishing another.

A tableau reminiscent of 1918 power blocs.

For this reason, the Turkish government's embrace of Atatürk's values and Kemalism is not a coincidence. Mustafa Kemal's post-1918 anti-imperialistic stance has significant symbolic value in today's Turkey. This significance is not limited only to Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), but to the broader Turkish public as well.

An anti-imperialistic stance is almost a genetic feature of the Turkish people. The belief that our national existence was won through a war of "existence or extinction" against the West is like the "noble blood flowing in our veins". This is a fact for Turkish people, regardless of their political stance; rightist or leftist, Islamist or secular.

It is not hard to guess that Erdoğan and the AKP will portray the recent NATO crisis within this context. The critical matter is that the opposition does not have anything different to contribute to this ideological-cultural framework.

I am talking about the existence of a sizeable ideological-cultural atmosphere in which a large segment of Turkish society is situated. It is a very complicated task to object to a "Turkey that fights against the imperialistic goals of the West" thesis in Turkey.

When the AKP and Erdoğan were fighting against the power of the military, the defenders of military tutelage often used the imagery of a "Second National Liberation War" and the "Turkish Revolutionaries".

According to these advocates, mostly clustered around the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey was under siege – both from the outside and inside – while the AKP was an extension of the United States and Western imperialism and wanted to overthrow the secular republic established by Atatürk to bring in sharia law.

The Turkish public was invited to take part in the 'Second National War', claiming the spirit of the 'Turkish Revolutionaries' against the dangers of sharia law.

With the Arab Spring, the same theme of "Turkey being under siege" was also adopted by the AKP.

It is worth remembering that leaks of secret talks between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders and the Turkish government, the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations of December 2013 were all considered to essential pillars/proof of this siege inside Turkey.

Meanwhile, the 2014 protests over the Islamic State’s siege of the Kurdish-held Syrian city of Kobane, the PKK’s declaration of liberated zones in Turkey in 2015 and U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish forces were seen to be other pillars/proof of this "international siege". The July 15, 2016 military coup attempt was the meeting point of these domestic and international siege operations against Turkey.

Turkey was once again facing a war of "existence and extinction". For this reason, it was necessary to organise a "Second War of Independence" by claiming a "Revolutionary Spirit." I suggest interpreting the AKP's embrace of Atatürk and Kemalist ideals in the light of this ideological-cultural atmosphere.

This picture is the main obstacle and the dilemma of Turkey right now. Both the government and the opposition are feeding on the same ideological-cultural discourse.

There seems to be no political body that can advocate Turkey's continued Western alliance and NATO membership.

This is the central dilemma of the Turkish left movements that owe their existence to their opposition to NATO.

Who will advocate for NATO and for staying in the Western Alliance?

It is a hard question worth contemplating.

The main issue is that there are "Kulturkampf" (cultural wars) in Turkey.

And in Turkey, it seems like one side is without any advocates.