Turks Growing More Confident over Turkey’s International Role

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 158

Flags of Turkey and the E.U. When asked in a public opinion poll "where does Turkey's future lie?" 56 percent chose the E.U.

An Ankara-based think-tank, Uluslararasi Stratejik Arastirmalar Kurumu (USAK), announced the findings of its 2009 public opinion poll on Turkish perceptions of foreign policy (www.usak.org.tr, August 14). The survey shows that the Turkish people prioritize national interests over global causes, and a visible increase in their self-confidence can be identified. Moreover, Turks continue to support E.U. accession, while the United States is still perceived as the major risk to Turkey’s security.

The survey indicated popular support for the government’s foreign policy. 49 percent of the 1,100 respondents believe that "Turkish foreign policy is successful," while 27 percent evaluate it as unsuccessful, and 20 percent find it fair. The level of support for Turkish foreign policy has increased by 7 percent since the last survey in 2005.

These results might be attributed to the effect of the government’s recent foreign policy initiatives. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Palestinian policies earlier this year bolstered his popularity at home. Moreover, the government has used energy deals with the European Union and Russia as a public relations tool domestically to argue that the country has been emerging as a major energy hub and will become a global power. Such campaigns by the government might also have boosted its support.

There is growing self-confidence among the Turkish public about the country’s international standing. In response to the question: "Do you believe many countries are contemplating dividing Turkey?" 54 percent said yes. This is a rather high figure and it largely reflects Turkish negative perceptions of foreign powers and fears of territorial dismemberment. Nonetheless, it represents a significant decline from 72 percent in 2005 and 64 percent in 2004. The resolution of Turkey’s problems with its neighbors, and the diminishing threat from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) might explain this trend toward a more confident and less skeptical perception of the outside world.

The question: "What should be the priority of Turkish foreign policy?" produced revealing answers. A combination of military and economic security concerns proved most popular: prevention of terror attacks (13 percent), protection of Turkey’s economic interests (12 percent), preparing defense against foreign armies (10 percent), and boosting Turkish investments abroad (8 percent). These responses show that Turkish people still prioritize the advancement of "national interests" over the promotion of "global" issues. Dealing with environmental issues was at the bottom of the list. Likewise, the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad, assisting oppressed countries, or supporting Islamic causes received low levels of support (www.usak.org.tr, August 14).

In another significant reflection of the nationalist tendencies within Turkish society, 72 percent of the respondents defined the "identity of Turkey in international affairs" as "Turkish." 13 percent regarded Turkey as a European state, 6 percent as Muslim and 5 percent as Middle Eastern.

On the question: "What country threatens Turkey the most?" the United States maintained its place at the top of the list (25 percent), followed by Israel (15 percent) and France (12 percent). Although the proportion of those who perceive the U.S. as the main threat has declined compared to 29 percent in 2005 and 28 percent in 2004, its place at the top of the list is revealing. Despite the rejuvenation of Turkish-American relations under the Obama administration, and their sympathy for him, the results suggest ongoing reservations toward American "policies," and that more concrete measures might be needed to enhance these relations. Likewise, 32 of the respondents believe the United States is the country that poses the biggest threat to world peace.

Interestingly, these results are corroborated by the conclusions of the recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey. Although the election of Obama improved the U.S. image around the world, in Turkey along with other Muslim nations, U.S. favorability ratings still remain low (PEW, July 23).

Nonetheless, the United States climbed to fourth place on the friendly countries list, behind Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkmenistan. In 2005, the United States ranked twelfth on the same list. Moreover, on a related question, "what country would come to Turkey’s rescue, if it was confronted a major problem such as war, civil conflict or natural disaster?" most Turks expected the United States (25 percent) to assist, followed by Azerbaijan (10 percent). Although Turks feel threatened by the policies of the United States, they essentially view it as an indispensable partner capable of providing security at difficult times, unlike other "friendly" countries that are either distant or too weak to offer any meaningful help.

One remarkable trend among the list of "threatening countries" concerns France. Whereas those who perceived France as a source of threat accounted for only 0.69 percent in 2003, that figure rose to 2.5 in 2004, and 12.9 percent in 2009. This negative attitude toward an E.U. member is indicative of Turkish people’s reactions to recent French policies. Apparently the French support for the Armenian theses, and Paris’s vocal opposition to Turkey’s E.U. accession are resented by not only the Turkish government, but also within the society (www.usak.org.tr, August 14).

Similarly, attitudes toward the other outspoken critic of Turkey inside the EU, Germany, also support similar conclusions. Whereas, Germany was not perceived as threatening in 2005, 1.82 percent of the respondents in 2009 said Germany threatens Turkey. Conversely, on the list of friendly countries, only 0.64 percent sees Germany as a friend, which indicates a dramatic decline from 8.2 percent in 2004.

Together, the negative reactions to France and Germany’s attempts to block Turkish accession suggest that Turks still value the E.U. membership process and the E.U. ideal. Indeed, in response to the question "where does Turkey’s future lie?" 56 percent chose the E.U., while those who preferred the Turkish or the Islamic world remained at 23.64 and 10 percent respectively. Nonetheless, Turks believe that their country’s rejection by the E.U. is due to religious and cultural differences and historical prejudices toward Turkey.