Global Support for Turkey Thrown Further into Question

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to the press as he is welcomed by United States President Donald Trump to the White House. Washington, DC, May 16, 2017. (Michael Reynolds/Associated Press)

There was a lack of significant policy outcomes for either side following last week’s visit to Washington, DC, by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This frustrated United States-based opponents of Turkey’s authoritarian slide, institutionalized in its April referendum, who had been seeking more pressure on Ankara. Supporters of Erdoğan back home, meanwhile, wanted concessions from Washington such as extradition of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen—whom Turkey blames for last summer’s failed coup—and an end to US support of Syrian Kurdish forces—whom Turkey considers to be terrorists—in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Erdoğan’s meeting with US President Donald Trump was largely overshadowed by yet another display of violent behavior. The Turkish president’s bodyguards beat up a small group of protesters gathered outside the residence of the country’s ambassador, to the point of hospitalization.

The reaction follows a pattern of Erdoğan responding to criticisms of state behavior and international political setbacks by focusing on what he portrays as foreign actors’ ill will toward Turkey, rather than any shortcomings in his own administration. This helps to whip up nationalist sentiment and support domestically, but threatens to harm his personal reputation, as well as that of his government, on the global stage.

For example, the fallout from his bodyguards’ most recent episode comes on the heels of the so-called “Tulip Crisis” in the run-up to the April referendum. A dispute arose between Turkey and the Netherlands over whether Ankara’s officials should be allowed to campaign for “Yes” votes among Turkish voters in the Netherlands. This soon devolved into Erdoğan calling the Dutch “Nazi remnants” and “fascists,” which appeared to play well to some nationalist voters back home. Referendum supporters calling themselves “the Captain’s [i.e., Erdoğan’s] Youth” made a public display of stabbing oranges, meant to represent the color most associated with the Dutch people; Erdoğan himself warned that Europeans “will not walk safely” if they do not begin to respect Turkey.

In addition to such bilateral tensions, Turkey’s relationship with the wider European continent continues to be subject to complications arising from the Turkish president’s inflammatory rhetoric and erratic behavior. Although Erdoğan still claims to be committed to negotiations on joining the European Union, he simultaneously demonstrates increasing disinclination towards the process. Summing up his attitude in a recent interview, Erdoğan said of Brussels: “If they are not acting sincerely, we have to find a way out. Why should we wait any longer?” Further, he has spoken repeatedly about reinstating the death penalty, which is officially banned within the EU bloc, and ignored European concerns about Turkey’s authoritarian turn under his rule. Just hours after winning the referendum—which was reportedly riddled with electoral manipulation and intimidation, in a process heavily criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—Erdoğan renewed the state of emergency put in place following the coup attempt last July; on Sunday he announced he will extend the decree indefinitely.

While such behavior indicates Turkey’s president feels little need to adhere to EU standards of democratization, it is important to note that even had Turkey fulfilled all the accession criteria, there would still be significant obstacles in its way. Some EU leaders have long been vocally opposed to Turkey’s full membership. As early as 2007, then French President Nicholas Sarkozy placed significant barriers on Turkey’s accession path and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has continued to question its suitability as a member. Cyprus and Greece have also threatened to veto its accession.

However, Erdoğan’s laying of blame on Europe is an attempt to absolve his own country of any responsibility for the failure to make progress in the negotiations. On the contrary, the main reason for Turkey being blocked from the EU negotiation table is its failure to open ports and airports to trade from Cyprus. As political science scholar and Turkey expert Dr. Tozun Bahcheli told us, Erdoğan “has assumed a hard line on the key issues of territory and security” in the recent negotiations over the status of island nation, which is currently divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This has made the prospects for a solution to the Cyprus issue “very slim,” and is affecting the level of European good will over accession.

On top of these challenges, European leaders have continually expressed concern over Turkey’s human rights violations. The deaths and injuries sustained during the brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrators during the 2013 Gezi Park protest represented a major flash point in this respect. Turkish security forces’ disproportionate use of violence with teargas, water cannons, and police batons was coupled with the government’s shaming of EU and US concern as foreign meddling in Turkey’s domestic affairs. As in the cases of the Tulip Crisis and the beatings of opposition demonstrators last week, Erdoğan placed responsibility for the violence in Gezi Park on external provocateurs, naming the US, Israel, and an unspecified but nefarious-sounding “interest rate lobby” that was seeking to destabilize Turkey’s economy.

Based on the actions of its leaders at home and abroad, the extent to which Turkey can sustain its role as relevant international interlocutor in areas including the fight against ISIS and the Syrian refugee crisis is in serious doubt. The precariousness of its role will only increase if its president continues to offend the public and blame officials in other countries for violations carried out by his security forces, either domestically or internationally.

It is already likely that, at least in the US case, Erdoğan has worn out his welcome as a speaker with prominent organizations such as the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution. The latter likely learned its lesson last year when US-based Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman was beaten to the ground by a Turkish bodyguard at an event where Erdoğan was speaking. Writing in response to the events in Washington last week, Zaman noted how Erdoğan still needs to learn his own lesson: that he and his entourage cannot act abroad as they do at home, with violence backed by impunity. While the authoritarian-embracing Trump has fallen short of condemning the actions in this case, it is unlikely that the US public or other populations with which Turkey engages will continue to tolerate it exporting its domestic methods for too long.

Dr. Lisel Hintz is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University and soon to be an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. Asya Sağnak is a junior at Barnard College, where she has studied Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy.