Is Rasmussen the right man?

Dennis Nottebaum
19 April 2009

President Obama's European tour went remarkably smoothly. Many expected the G20 summit to end in fights over stronger regulations of the global financial system, but despite president Sarkozy's hard-line position the outcome was surprisingly consensual. The US and most West European governments were even able to agree on a common candidate for NATO's new Secretary General, an issue that has led to rather longer arguments in the past. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits until Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan disturbed the party with his publicly declared opposition to the candidacy of Anders Fogh Rasmussen - a diplomatic clanger.

An ultimate veto against the candidate could only be avoided by reportedly broad concessions to Turkey, chief among which was the appointment of a Turkish deputy to Rasmussen and the shut-down of the allegedly pro-PKK TV channel Roj TV, which operates from Denmark. Despite the seeming resolution of the situation, the implications of the choice of Rasmussen remain problematic. The quarrel indicates two developments that will pose great challenges to both NATO and the European Union. First, Erdoğan's conduct demonstrates a new Turkish self-assurance in standing up to its Western partners, that can largely be traced back to a general strategic reorientation in Ankara. The case also highlights a serious lack of sensitivity towards the ‘Islamic world' on the part of central NATO member states, calling into question NATO's strategic reorientation.

The causa Rasmussen

Rasmussen has become a persona non grata in much of the ‘Islamic world' due to his fervent support of the Iraq war and his mismanagement of the cartoon controversy in 2005. After the cartoons were published in Denmark several ambassadors from Muslim countries tried to enter into dialogue with Rasmussen on how to defuse the situation. The Danish Prime Minister arrogantly snubbed them. While insisting on free speech as a vital component of civil liberties in his country, he nevertheless failed to acknowledge the need to communicate this principle or to engage in dialogue over what had occurred. His behavior left the ambassadors startled and ruined his reputation in the ‘Islamic world'. Moreover, Rasmussen's minority government has long relied on toleration of the right-wing Dansk Folkeparti, a group that has repeatedly used racist, anti-Muslim rhetoric.

It is indeed surprising that it took an embarrassing public declaration by Erdoğan to point out the implications of the candidate. Still NATO chose to ignore Rasmussen's bad standing in a key region of the globe and a primary area of operation for NATO. It is essential for a Secretary General of NATO to be able to get along well with the ‘Muslim world'. Rasmussen's appointment comes as a welcome present for the propagandists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who have long declared NATO's intervention in Afghanistan anti-Muslim. It also contradicts president Obama's efforts to reorganize NATO and clearly shift its focus to AfPak.

Turkey's reorientation

Turkey's geographical proximity to the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus locates it at an intersection of pivotal energy and transportation networks. Its political and economic ties to Syria, Iran and other Southern neighbours provide Ankara with unique access to and influence in one of the most troublesome areas of the globe. Turkey's position benefits the increasingly outward-oriented EU and NATO when it comes to influence and credibility in this area; an asset that shouldn't be trifled with.

The country has always been torn between its ties to these neighbours and to the European Union. Atatürk's secular model of the state launched Turkey on a westernising path, but this path is by no means uncontested. After having lost some eight percent of the popular vote in the recent parliamentary elections, Erdoğan has come under increased pressure from within his party. Conservative elements in the AKP have long demanded a more self-assured position for Turkey against its Western allies, particularly the European Union. The ‘special treatment' that has characterized the long and troubled process of Turkey's accession to the Union has alienated many Turks from the western orientation of Erdoğan's early years. His and his party's steadily decreasing popularity signify this, as does the subsequent cessation of Turkish reform efforts towards meeting the Copenhagen criteria since 2005. The political costs of the accession process are starting to outweigh the gains that Turkey aspired to. It gets harder and harder for the pro-EU parties to keep up their support for the accession process in the light of a rising popular reservation against further concessions without clear signals from the EU.

Erdoğan's refusal to support Rasmussen's candidacy emphasizes the implications of Turkey's strategic reorientation. Turkey will increasingly turn towards its Southern neighbours in order to assert its power in the region. The assurance of a distinctively pro-Muslim policy will highlight Turkey's key role and further its position as a spokesman of the ‘Muslim world'. Erdoğan's row with Shimon Peres in Davos hinted at such a strategy, underlined by Turkey's successful conduct as a mediator between Syria and Israel.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Turkey and ‘the West':

Hakan Altinay, "Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The Mandela test" (17 February 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Hakan Altinay and Kalypso Nicolaïdis, "Why the European Union strengthens Turkish secularism" (3 September 2008)

Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007)At the same time this emphasizes the strategic importance of the only Muslim NATO member as a key ally both for the Alliance and the EU. It is high time for the Union to acknowledge Turkey's geopolitical potential and its uniqueness as a secular democracy with a predominantly Muslim population. Turkey as an EU member (provided it meets the Copenhagen criteria) will be an invaluable asset in the region because it can better than any other country play the role of the honest broker. Moreover, as the only NATO member keeping diplomatic contact with Tehran, Ankara is a prime channel for a rapprochement. If the EU continues to alienate Turkey and invent new strategies to protract the accession process it will lose the Turks. It becomes increasingly hard to explain to the Turkish people why they face harsh visa restrictions when traveling to the EU while most EU citizens can freely go to Turkey. And Ankara's elites are hesitant to perform any further pro-European reforms as long as European governments - especially Germany and France - continue to undermine the perspective of full membership.

The window of opportunity that the Erdoğan government has represented (at least in its earlier years) is closing. A future Turkish administration is much likely to be a lot less pro-Western.

NATO's strategic choice

President Obama's visit to Turkey and his call for the EU to fast-track the accession of Ankara are signs that the new American administration acknowledges the importance of NATO's only predominantly Muslim member. It also came as a well-placed nod to moderate Islam. Turkey's ties to Iran and Syria may be another reason here, as is the potential use of Turkish territory during the US pullout from Iraq. Many in Europe still believe that cooperation with Turkey is nothing more than a benevolent gift to an emerging country. It's not. From a geopolitical perspective, and for economic reasons, strong ties are a win-win-situation. Obama's visit has made this very clear: there is something to gain for America in Turkey. And despite strong anti-American sentiments, the Turks seem to respond positively to Obama's open hand. Again the Europeans are losing ground.

The whole controversy around the appointment of the new NATO secretary general emphasizes that a few calls between Washington, London and Berlin are no longer sufficient to govern a multipolar world. Other states need to be actively incorporated in order to achieve a broad consensus and thus a strong strategic position. Engaging Turkey is a first step - and a smart one given Ankara's influence.

Obama's call for a large-scale reform of NATO towards a more flexible, globally operating security force is highly controversial within the Alliance, especially among its larger Western European members. However, NATO's future mission will undoubtedly include a more active role in regional crisis areas, especially in the wider Middle East. The importance of its image in the region therefore must not be underestimated, which NATO still does given the symbolic meaning of a Secretary General Rasmussen. The issue comes as a huge ideological burden for NATO's operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere; a needless mistake, that should have been avoided. And yet another reason to embrace Turkey.

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