You might recall President Barack Obama’s first overseas trip shortly after he was sworn into office in 2009. Memorably, his travels included a visit to Turkey.
There, amid all the symbolism of Istanbul, he characterized the Muslim nation as a shining example of how Islam and democracy can go hand-in-hand.
A lot has changed since then. Turkey’s economy has boomed and busted, its government has cast off democratic principles and its president has taken shots at the United States.
Dr. Yale Ferguson, a graduate fellow and emeritus professor of global affairs at Rutgers University in Newark, puts these changes into context in this 38 minute podcast.
Recorded at the May program of the Savannah Council on World Affairs, he discussed whether Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and Europe would improve or continue to sour.
“Much will depend on whether Turkey is seen as an indispensible Western ally and a bastion of relative stability,” he says. “You don’t want to make long-range predictions.”
Ferguson went down a catalog of strains between Turkey and the West. But many of the problems stem from the highly combustible Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
First swept into the prime minister’s office with great promise in 2003, he’s walked down an autocrat’s path. He’s jailed journalists, bullied the judiciary and stifled the media.
“For several years now, Turkey has had this not very desirable distinction of jailing more journalists than any other country in the world,” Ferguson says.
Voters nonetheless made him the country’s first popularly elected president in 2014, in large part because the country’s GDP tripled during the first part of his leadership.
“His plan now is to have the constitution changed to make the president rather than the prime minister as it is now the country’s most powerful political figure,” Ferguson says.
These shades of Russia’s Vladimir Putin won’t win him any allies in Brussels. Turkey’s long dream to become part of the European Union now seem very distant indeed.
Ferguson says Europe’s chill toward Ankara is only partly based on Turkey’s slide from democracy. The West is also concerned about a potential backdoor from the East.
“There are concerns about Turkey’s role as a country of transit,” Ferguson says. “That would lead to a flood of immigration from other countries than Turkey.”
Turkey also sits in a very unstable region. Its borders include Iraq, Iran and Syria. Its minorities include the Kurds. So where Erdogan sees racism, Europe sees security fears.
All of these things compound the West’s history with the Turks. Once “the sick man of Europe” under the Ottomans, their empire killed Armenians in a genocide 100 years ago.
We can pretty much guarantee that none of these things will be discussed in Turkey’s upcoming election. In June, Erdogan faces a popularity test in parliamentary ballots.
His Justice and Development Party leads in the polls. Ferguson says his support rests on his embrace of Islamic policies, women’s rights and massive spending on infrastructure.
If he wins a large majority, he could change the constitution again. With so much in the U.S. dependent on what happens in the Middle East, this is certainly an important topic.