Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey in the Post-Cold War Era: In Search of Identity

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey in the Post-Cold War Era: In Search of Identity

Article excerpt

THE drastic changes that have taken place in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the past few years provide important opportunities for Turkey in terms of defining its role and identity in the emerging international system at the close of the century. Relations with northern neighbors as well as the Central Asian republics will increasingly assume critical importance both as an avenue for trade expansion and economic development and also in terms of overcoming Turkey's isolation and insecurity over the coming years. In this context, full membership in the European Union is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for achieving rapid economic development, nor a condition for accomplishing the "Western" ideal of a secular and advanced form of democracy. Moreover, given its loose ties to the Arab world, Turkey should refrain from playing the role of an active regional power in the Middle East. The objective, instead, ought to be to set an example in terms of economic performance, secularization, and democracy.

A central hypothesis of this article is that Turkey should look simultaneously to the East and the West in defining its identity in the novel global context that is emerging as the end of the twentieth century approaches. From a purely economic point of view, the rational strategy would be to optimize the benefits of geographic location by developing close relations with all the major blocs that Turkey interacts with, without necessarily developing a complete economic and political union with any particular bloc. In any case, economic considerations alone cannot constitute a viable criterion for membership in a broader economic and political union. Turkey should come to terms with the fact that its heritage draws from both the East and the West. Turkey should also come to terms with the fact that Islam constitutes an important component of its cultural heritage. The emergence of the new Central Asian republics, which share with Turkey a common linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage, confirms that Turkey possesses a broader identity that extends beyond a purely European one. This broader identity should be considered an asset rather than a weakness or disadvantage. The challenge is to acknowledge and accept this identity as we approach the twenty-first century.


The chain of events starting with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and his steps toward nuclear disarmament in the mid-1980s, leading at an amazing pace to the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the communist system by the beginning of the 1990s, and culminating in the dismantling of the Soviet Union itself, contain profound implications for Turkey's economic prospects, domestic politics, and geostrategic role. The initial reaction of the Turkish policymakers to the decline in East-West tensions was apprehension. The drastic changes involved implied the downgrading of the geostrategic importance that Turkey had enjoyed during the Cold War as an integral component of the NATO alliance, with a corresponding decline in the likelihood of its becoming a full member of the European Union. The immediate implications seemed to be increased isolation and insecurity in return for long-term economic benefits, which, themselves, appeared to be highly uncertain.

Yet, in retrospect, a closer investigation reveals that the benefits and opportunities provided by the process that was introduced by glasnost and perestroika outweigh by a tremendous margin the short-sighted considerations identified above. From a Turkish point of view, three key sets of changes deserve particular emphasis.

First, at a purely economic level, the reform process, in the direction of integrating both the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe into the world economy, has generated enormous long-term trade and investment opportunities. Second, the elimination of the Soviet security threat and the collapse of communism as an alternative socioeconomic system had important repercussions on Turkey's domestic polity. …

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