What fuels anti-Americanism in Turkey?

For experienced American policy makers, domestic problems in Turkey and downturns in the U.S.–Turkish bilateral relationship are not new.

In their eyes, Turkey has always presented major challenges and great opportunities. The old joke “Brazil is the country of the future, and will always be” seems to apply for Turkey even more aptly.

Compared to Brazil, however, Turkey is in a geo-strategically much more challenging part of the world. The stakes are higher because Turkey has also additional symbolic significance in this age of a worsening “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

Turkey represents the most institutionally Westernized Muslim country in the world as a Muslim member of NATO and an “eternal” candidate to the European Union.

Despite all its human rights violations and growing illiberalism, Turkey is also still the most democratic and secular country in the Islamic world. (This should tell us something important about the state of the Islamic world.)

Turkey, after all, has a track record of elections that have led to peaceful changes of political power more than a dozen times since the inception of multi-party elections in 1946.

With its vibrant entrepreneurial capitalist system based on export-led growth, a young 80 million population, and a growing middle class, Turkey has also a seat at the G-20, the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) and the transatlantic community of Western nations.

It is also a generous country when it comes to opening its borders to refugees, as the 3 million Syrians who fled the civil war in their country and came to Turkey would attest.

All these dynamics prove Turkey to be a study in paradox. Great potential is combined with equally far-reaching dysfunction.

Turkish politics never fails to disappoint American administrations with high expectations of cooperation.

The George W. Bush administration discovered this the hard way in 2003. As the only NATO neighbour of Iraq with a major American military base, Turkish cooperation was crucial for war plans to invade Iraq.

Yet, after almost a year of contentious negotiations and billions of dollars of financial incentives, Turkish legislators rejected at the last minute the motion opening their territory to American military forces.

Then, as now, overwhelmingly negative Turkish public opinion about the United States played a critical role.

The Turkish public regularly displays one of the highest levels of resentment towards the United States. Recently, anti-Americanism in Turkey went from bad to worse due to the Trump administration’s decision to arm Syrian Kurdish forces.

As of July 2017, an overwhelming 72 percent of the Turkish population considers the United States their country’s number one security threat.

Such opinion poll numbers greatly matter. Unlike most parts of the Middle East, Turkey has a political system where elections determine who gets to rule the country.  

What makes mass resentment against the United States highly consequential is this combination of electoral politics with raw populism. Given the current authoritarian trend in the country, it is sometime easy to forget that elections and polls actually matter in Turkey.

What people think, who they blame for problems is therefore critically important for the strong man of the country who is a master at winning elections.  

Erdogan is a Machiavellian populist. He often fuels anti-Americanism and enjoys exploiting it while complaining to U.S. politician about the consequences of their policies.

Most recently, on April 16, 2017 Erdoğan narrowly won a crucial referendum by mobilizing his supporters with an aggressively anti-EU and anti-American nationalist discourse.

Given these dynamics, American policy makers often wonder how to fight anti-Americanism in Turkey. The answer to this question requires a diagnosis of the problem.

In my opinion, Turkish anti-Americanism has more to do with Turkey’s own identity problems than with American foreign policy. Turkey has two major identity problems – the Kurdish question and Islam –  and both fuel tremendous amount of conspiracy theories about the U.S.

Most Turks believe Washington wants an independent Kurdistan in the Middle East and therefore supports Kurdish nationalism. Most Turks, especially secularists, also believe the U.S. supports Islamism in Turkey (usually moderately Islamist figures such as Fethullah Gülen or in the past Erdoğan) at the expense of Kemalism.

In both of these cases it is clear that Turks are misinformed and ideologically biased. Clearly, the US does not support Kurdish independence, as we have seen in Iraq. And helping Kurds fight ISIL in Syria does not amount to supporting their independence.

When it comes to political Islam, the idea that Washington supports Erdoğan or Gülen is laughable, since America will pragmatically work with whoever is in power in Turkey. 

As a result, it is safe to conclude that more than what America does it is Turkey’s inability to find a democratic solution to its own ethnic and religious identity that fuels anti-Americanism.  

This can also be tested by the fact that most Turks still want to send their kids to America for education or even to immigrate there if there is an opportunity. This is why green card applications are usually as high as levels of anti-Americanism in Turkey.

This is why to really understand what fuels Turkish resentment against America, I would suggest psychoanalysing the slogan, “Yankee go home, but take me with you!”