Turkish public sees no friends in the West

Despite Turkey’s dependence on the West, political leaders and the public are likely to maintain anti-Western stances for ideological reasons.

A majority (56%) of Turkish respondents said they viewed Turkey as mainly an Islamic country and 19% said they saw it as a European country, a survey by Kadir Has University’s Centre for Turkish Studies indicated.

Another 19% said they considered Turkey as primarily a Middle Eastern country. Thus, three out of four Turks view their country as mainly Islamic or Middle Eastern.

Another striking result of Kadir Has’ “Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy” survey, conducted last year, is that those asked said they recognise only one country — Azerbaijan — as a close friend of Turkey. Azerbaijan was named as a “close friend” by 59% of respondents; Russia came in a distant second at 4%.

Just 0.1% said they considered Germany as a close friend. The United States, which supported Turkey throughout the Cold War, is seen as a close friend by 0.6% of those surveyed — almost no one at all.

Reflecting their critical view of the West, most Turks asked said Turkey should be close to countries such as Azerbaijan, Islamic countries, the Turkic states of Central Asia and Russia. Most Turkish participants in the survey said they wanted to see the country conduct its foreign policy without close coordination with Western countries.

The survey results could be interpreted in this way:

1. The Turkish public has a Eurasian outlook on foreign policy.

2. Ideology, not economy, shapes most Turks’ understanding of foreign policy. For example, Turks do not see Germany as a close friend, even though it is one of Turkey’s biggest trading partners and it is home to more people of Turkish origin than any other country outside Turkey. Even China was viewed more favourably than Germany.

3. Turkish people favour an Islamist and anti-Western foreign policy. Their Islamism is observed on issues such as Israel and the Palestinians and their anti-Westernism in their demand for close relations with Russia and China.

Given the importance of Western countries to the Turkish economy and security, there would be real costs to pivoting the country’s foreign policy in the way Turkish people appear to prefer.

Despite Turkey’s dependence on the West, political leaders and the public are likely to maintain anti-Western stances for ideological reasons. While the country manages its economy and security mostly via its relations with the West, pro-Westernism is labelled shameful or even treacherous.

The survey results stated that 60% of Turks questioned said the United States was a threat and 26% said the European Union was a threat. The United States, Israel and the European Union were the top three threats listed in the survey’s finding.

The survey confirmed that Turkey is an extremely inward-looking country and it is very hard to expect it to conduct liberal, economic or pro-Western foreign policies. The results strongly suggest that those who want better contacts with the West, such as business people and academics, should realise they have next to no public support.

Conversely, it appears that any sort of anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism would secure huge popular backing. Similarly, any sort of military operation abroad would gain political support at home. More than 55% of Turks said they supported military operations abroad.

These results suggest that political leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who stir up tensions with the West, stress connections with the Muslim world and promote military operations outside Turkey, are likely to receive considerable backing.

Gokhan Bacik teaches political science at Palacky University.

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