Much is made of Turkey’s ‘difference’ in the Middle East. Why is it an inspiration to the region? Why is Turkey cited as a model for Egypt, and not the other way around? In an interview for the Winter 2012 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly, Bernard Lewis makes much of Turkey’s republican history of independence and self-criticism since the end of the Ottoman era, arguing that it is these factors that account for the country’s regional pre-eminence today. While these are indeed significant, the case can be made that they were not nearly so distinct as Lewis claims. After World War II, Turkey was no more immune to the hard choices that had to be made in a bipolar world than other Eastern European and Middle Eastern states. Like many others countries during the Cold war, it was only nominally independent. The difference between Turkey and the other countries in the region is that it was able to emerge as an independent actor much more quickly in the post-Cold war era. Turkey’s emergence can be ascribed to its higher economic, educational, industrial and institutional development, as well as its important narrative of national sovereignty and proud republican history. Its regional pre-eminence today is closely linked to its status as a pioneer in the new, multi-polar, post-Cold war era. The sense that the country is now defining itself, as opposed to being defined by outsiders, is a crucial psychological hurdle that Turkey has overcome.
During the Cold war period, the Middle East was a region shaped by outside forces. In practice, this meant states being pulled into the influence of either the United States or the Soviet Union. Turkey was no different in this sense. It was considered by Washington as an essential bulwark against communism on the southeastern fringe of Europe. In order to anchor Turkey to the West, the US bankrolled the Turkish military through the Truman Doctrine (1947) in the post-WW II era and the country became a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952 along with Greece, the other named state in the Truman Doctrine. US support, tacit or otherwise, played a crucial role in the three Turkish military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 and helped to maintain the status quo. Like so many other states during the Cold war, Turkey was barely democratic. Its Western allies preferred a stable, reliable partner to one that genuinely reflected its people’s unpredictable wishes. The 1980 coup is particularly instructive, seen by the US at the time as necessary to prevent any danger of the country sliding towards communism. The Turkish left had become extremely mobilised throughout the 1970s, and the US had just lost one of its primary allies in the region, Iran, to an Islamic revolution. CIA Ankara station chief at the time, Paul Henze, is on record as saying that he cabled Washington shortly after the coup had been carried out by the Turkish military to say ‘our boys did it.’ Gossip perhaps, but illuminating gossip.
The 1980 coup illustrates the old Turkish model, as well as similarities to US relations with the Arab world in the recent past: US/Western support for an essentially non-democratic state in return for the guarantee of stability. Turgut Özal, who became Prime Minister in 1983, can be compared to a kind of non-military, Turkish version of Chile's General Pinochet. Coming to power shortly after an American-backed coup, Özal was pro-US, anti-communist and economically a neo-liberal. He significantly opened up the Turkish economy to international market forces with US support. It is an interesting irony that it was these reforms instituted by the Özal government in the mid 1980s that paved the way for Turkey to develop economically in the post-Cold war era.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, it became increasingly clear that the Cold war, US-dominant model had become irrelevant. There no longer was any justification for the US to support stable, but undemocratic, regimes. It became possible for new, popular movements to emerge in the region. The changed international context goes some way to explaining both the revolts sweeping across the Arab world today, as well as the less violent rise of Turkey’s strongly independent government that represents Turkish popular will. Turkey’s significance today is that it was a regional pioneer in the emerging, post-1991, multi-polar world order. It was able to emerge faster from the bipolar Cold war order as a proudly independent, economically developing state than the other countries in the region. It is for this reason that it is so often cited as a model for the countries of the Arab Spring.
There are, however, significant differences that may legislate against post-Cold war, Arab countries following the same trajectory as Turkey. Not least of these is the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional nature of most of these countries. None can really be considered ‘nation states’ in anything like the organically evolving Western European sense of the word. Turkey’s own early 20th century nation-building project relied on an enormous amount of violently imposed, state-directed social reorganisation, essentially imitating the Western model that stressed a uniform cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious cohesiveness. On its own terms, the Turkish model of modernisation was successful, taking a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic population and forging a unitary, monolingual, officially mono-cultural state. It is difficult to see how the same results can be achieved in the early 21st century in the modern states of the Arab world, with their fragmented and multifarious social, ethnic, religious, linguistic and sectarian structures, or whether such results would be even desirable (see here for a different perspective that comes to the same conclusion). Today’s Middle East is more likely to be one where, instead of two great outside powers seeking to impose their influence and maintaining some form of stability, multiple, competing local forces will engage in a regional struggle. This struggle will be based on old fissures that the old Cold war order had previously kept an uneasy lid on.