Turkey's delusions of grandeur at root of U.S. crisis

Turkey has delusions that it is a superpower have led to a deepening crisis with the United States, said Simon Waldman, head of the Turkish Studies Research Group at King’s College London.

This false impression of its power is one of the root causes of problems with the United States, which also include a weak Turkish state and increasing authoritarianism in the country, Waldman wrote for his blog, simonwaldman.org.

“Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power,” he said. “Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced reciprocal measures against senior U.S. officials on Saturday after Washington sanctions two of his ministers for their role in the arrest and internment of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. The lira has hit a record low against the dollar as a result.

Waldman said Turkey, which does not see itself as part of the Western or the Russian orbit, sometimes needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality.

“This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace,” he said. “Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!!”

The nature of the Turkish state, which is weak and fragile, is also misunderstood by Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey can be characterised as such because internal threats to its security are greater than external ones, Waldman said. Also, many Turks see the primary threat to their security as the state itself, which is the case for Kurds in the southeast and those affected by the purge following a failed coup in July 2016, he said.

“Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdoğan and his government,” Waldman said. “There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.”

Increasing authoritarianism is also a root cause of worsening ties with the United States, Waldman said.

“Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdoğan,” he said. “This gives the U.S. a firm address to point the finger.”

A fourth factor is that times have changed and Turkey no longer sees itself as having the same interests as the Unites States and the West, and does not identify with the West as much as it used to, he said.  

“This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen,” Waldman said.

“It is time for a new paradigm in U.S.-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.“

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