On January 17, 2011, in an article published in Newsweek magazine, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a scathing attack on the European Union (EU), which Turkey has applied to join. He described the EU as “near geriatric” with “stagnant” economies and “comatose” labor markets and social security systems.

Will Turkey Turn To Europe Or The Middle East?

On January 17, 2011, in an article published in Newsweek magazine, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a scathing attack on the European Union (EU), which Turkey has applied to join. He described the EU as “near geriatric” with “stagnant” economies and “comatose” labor markets and social security systems. In contrast, he said, Turkey was “bursting with vigor”, a “global and regional power” which was seeking to create a “haven of non-dogmatic stability” in its region and was “active in all the major areas of global politics”. Turkey’s case for EU membership was, said Erdogan, “self-evident and requires little explanation”. He berated the EU for the slow pace of Turkey’s accession negotiations, claiming that “18 out of 22 negotiation chapters” had been “blocked on political grounds” in a “sort of byzantine intrigue”. He threatened that Turkey-EU relations were “fast approaching a turning point” and warned that ultimately the EU needed Turkey much more than Turkey needed the EU.

Erdogan’s tirade in Newsweek came less than a week after a speech in Kuwait on January 11, 2011, in which he left no doubt about where in the world he believes Turkey really belongs.

 “The Muslim world has no need for anyone else,” announced Erdogan. “The Arabs are our brothers. We are the brothers of the Arabs. Our friendship, brotherhood and cooperation will increase.”

Erdogan declared that Turkey could continue its accession negotiations with the EU but made it clear that his priority was the Middle East. “We shall never turn our backs on the region with which we share a common history and culture. Our togetherness is political, it is economic, it is commercial and it is cultural. We are members of the same civilization. We are members of the same history. We wrote history together.”

When asked by a Turkish journalist whether he was advocating Turkish leadership of the Muslim world, Erdogan replied: “We are not concerned about anything like that.” He then quoted from the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (reigned 1512-1520), who is reported to have said: “We are not the lords of the Islamic Holy Places, but their servant.”

Dreams and Dissimulation

Taken together, Erdogan’s article in Newsweek and his speech in Kuwait provide a startling insight not only into the direction in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to take Turkey but also into the dissimulation and self-deception on which its dreams of pre-eminence are based. In recent months, particularly since September 2010 when it pushed through a series of constitutional reforms to tighten its control over the judiciary, the AKP in general and Erdogan in particular have become self-confident to the point of hubris; so convinced of their own worth that reality becomes an irrelevance.

For example, the “political grounds” which Erdogan cites as being the reason for the blocking of chapters in the EU accession process are the EU’s response to Turkey’s failure to honor an agreement signed in 2005 without any preconditions to extend its 1996 Customs Union to the Republic of Cyprus (ROC). Whether or not Turkey should have made such a commitment can be debated; the fact that it signed such an undertaking without any preconditions cannot.

More revealing is Erdogan’s apparent ignorance of – or perhaps indifference to – the realities of the EU accession process. European critics of the AKP would doubtless argue that, since the negotiations were inaugurated in October 2005, the Turkish government has made virtually no attempt to push through the reforms necessary to bring the country into line with EU norms and standards. However, regardless of whether these criticisms are justified, what is not open to debate is the number of chapters in the process. When Turkey opened accession negotiations, the EU ruled that Turkey had already fulfilled two of the 35 chapters of the process, leaving 33 to be discussed. To date, 13 chapters have been opened, of which one has been closed. Of the remaining 20 chapters, 17 have been blocked because of Turkey’s refusal to extend the Customs Union to the ROC, leaving three that can be opened. Erdogan’s reference to “18 out of 22” chapters being blocked suggests that the AKP lacks a grasp even of the most basic facts.

Equally alarming is the contradiction between Erdogan’s description in Newsweek of the AKP’s efforts to create a “haven of non-dogmatic stability” and his statements in Kuwait, which make it clear that the AKP is attempting to create a political, economic and commercial bloc which is based on religion. No AKP politician ever refers to non-Muslims – whether they are Turkish nationals or citizens of neighboring states such as Greece, Bulgaria and Armenia – as “brothers”. Despite the AKP’s purported commitment to EU membership, Erdogan’s statement in Kuwait leaves no doubt that he regards Turkey’s place as being in a distinct “civilization”, which he defines through religion; and which is in manifest apposition – though not necessarily opposition – to the EU.

The Limits of Neo-Ottomanism

Even the most ardent advocates of the AKP’s vision of a neo-Ottoman realm of the Turkish influence in the Middle East admit that, for the time being, economic realities require continued relations with the EU. For example, during the first 11 months of 2010, the EU accounted for 56 percent of Turkey’s exports and 55 percent of its imports. In contrast, the Middle East accounted for 26 percent of the country’s exports and 11 percent of its imports. Even in energy, the one resource which the Middle East has in abundance, Turkey’s main trading partner is Russia, which supplies Turkey with nearly two thirds of its annual consumption of natural gas and almost one third of its oil.

The main reason for Erdogan’s visit to Kuwait was to try to persuade the Gulf States to invest in Turkey, both portfolio investments and foreign direct investment (FDI). Given that the cash-strapped countries in the West are still struggling to emerge from recession, Erdogan’s trip to the one region of the world with a surplus of cash made good sense. However, what the Gulf States do not have – and what Turkey needs if it is ever to become the economic powerhouse of the AKP’s dreams – is technology.

Erdogan inadvertently highlighted this shortfall during conversations with Turkish journalists in Kuwait. Flushed with his vision of impending national pre-eminence, Erdogan excitedly cited the recent impressive growth of the Turkish automobile industry, which is now one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency. However, all of the vehicles being exported from Turkey are manufactured under licenses from foreign companies, such as Renault of France and Fiat of Italy. Undeterred, Erdogan predicted that by 2023 Turkey would be producing its own planes, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). He even claimed that Turkey was “quickly acquiring nuclear experience.”

In fact, although it is possible that planes, helicopters and UAVs will be manufactured in Turkey in 2023, it will not be with Turkish technology but through technology transfers from foreign – almost certainly European and US – firms. Even more extraordinary was Erdogan’s claim that Turkey is acquiring nuclear experience. In fact, Turkey does not even have a nuclear power plant although it has signed an agreement with Russia to build one in Mersin on the country’s Mediterranean coast. Plans to build a second nuclear plant – this time with South Korean technology at Sinop on the Black Sea coast – collapsed in November 2010 when the South Koreans refused to bow to the AKP’s demands that they provide Turkey with the nuclear technology and then allow Turkey to sell it to third countries. The 21st century may witness the gradual erosion of the West’s dominance of the global economy and technology in favor of Asia. There is no indication, however, that either Turkey or the Middle East will be at the forefront of innovation. It follows then that although the sources may change, both places are likely to remain heavily dependent on imports of technology and knowhow from outside the region.

A more immediate threat to the AKP’s dreams lies in its inability to understand that others have a different perception not only of the future but also of the past. Although AKP officials repeatedly deny that they have neo-Ottoman aspirations, their own statements give them away. In denying that Turkey had any ambitions to dominate the Muslim world, Erdogan declared that the AKP would follow the example of Sultan Selim I. Whatever he may have said about being “a servant”, Selim’s actions were somewhat different. During his reign, Selim fought and defeated other Muslim rulers, bringing Arabs in Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia under Ottoman rule. He was also the first Ottoman sultan to claim the title of caliph, thus adding an assertion of spiritual pre-eminence to his political dominance of those he had conquered. Although many in the Arab world welcome the AKP’s increased engagement with the Middle East – and often admire Erdogan’s enthusiasm for diatribes against Israel – few have any desire for the region once again to be dominated by Turks; although this is exactly what appears to underpin the AKP’s Ottoman nostalgia.

Nor will Erdogan’s reference to Selim I endear him to Iran, which has its own ambitions of regional hegemony. It was, after all, Selim I who was responsible for one of the most devastating defeats in Iranian history when he routed the army of Shah Ismail at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514.

Erdogan’s insensitivity to the historical sensitivities of Arabs and Iranians appears symptomatic of a deeper inability to distinguish between self-aggrandizing aspirations and the realities of the modern world. Until relatively recently, Turks would frequently bemoan their geographical location. Yet, in the prevailing strategic environment, it is probably the country’s greatest asset; but only if it utilizes its location for engagement rather than confrontation.

During the Cold War, Turkey was regarded as a frontier state on an ideological divide between West and East. Today, as Erdogan demonstrated in Kuwait, the AKP is trying to position Turkey as a frontier state on another ideological divide; this time on “civilizational”, or in other words “religious,” grounds. AKP’s strategy risks squandering Turkey’s greatest asset and its ambitions of regional domination — rather than partnership – seem likely to ultimately alienate not only the EU and the US but also the peoples of the Middle East, including both Arabs and Turks.