[email protected]

September 13, 2012, Thursday

Turkey: Static but slightly ‘warmer’

Not much new on the transatlantic front. This is what one could conclude, at least from Turkey’s perspective, by looking at the latest Transatlantic Trends opinion survey.

Despite a visible increase of tension, concentrated in the neighborhood -- Iran, Syria and Greece with a prospective global impact -- Turks remain rather unmoved and display remarkable caution in many matters.

Overall, Transatlantic Trends 2012, an annual survey of US and European public opinion, provides very useful reference material. This one -- the 11th -- (including Russia for the first time), once more aims to clarify how Americans and Europeans view the transatlantic relationship and the vast challenges facing the world. Around 1,000 people were surveyed in each of the 14 countries included. The best part concerning Turkey is that it is one of the four where the questions were asked “face to face” instead of via phone calls, making it more precise.

In general, three points emerge as important: Americans’ interest in Asia is on the rise, while Europeans still support the EU project, and both seem to agree more on security policies.

Reading Turkey in the report, actually, should be everyone’s priority. Simply because, as predicted a decade ago by Bill Clinton, Turkey stands right in the midst of turmoil as a relatively stable semi-democracy, and much of what will take shape in the century will be defined by its policies and shifts of opinion.

There is a noticeable “softening” in Turkey with regard to how the US and the EU are seen: Although a majority still think negatively of both, there is an increase of sympathy for the “West,” as compared to the lows in past years. On the question “How desirable is it that the United States exerts strong leadership in world affairs?” 26 percent of those asked responded positively. This is an increase of nine points from last year. Yet, 59 percent (close to two-thirds) do stand negatively on the issue. Fifty-one percent would vote for Obama, while Romney would get only 5 percent.

On the EU, there is also a remarkable upward shift. Almost every second citizen in Turkey (48 percent) thinks that full membership is a good thing, a rise of 10 points compared to last year.

But, if the majority of Turks remain skeptical about membership prospects, so do the Europeans, despite growing insecurity on the “Middle Eastern front,” with regard to energy policies and political stability: Although 48 percent believe Turkey as part of Europe will add to stability and peace in the Middle East, those who oppose membership in general remain around 65 percent (led by France and the Netherlands). American sympathy for Turkey, as well as its EU prospects, is down by seven points. Also notable is that the Middle Eastern neighborhood is seen as increasingly more important than the EU.

What unites, perhaps unsurprisingly, Turkey, the EU and the US is how the Syrian conflict is seen. As some earlier domestic surveys showed, this one also tells us that 57 percent of the respondents in Turkey say it should stay away from the conflict. The survey shows that the opposition remains even if the UN approves action. Yet, Turks are the least concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Domestically, those who support the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) economic policies are lower: 55 percent, while the backing for its foreign policy is 51 percent.

While a deeper reading is necessary, what is reflected in this year’s Transatlantic Trends about perceptions on and of Turkey is, continuing skepticism and confusion on US policies in the region (most particularly on the Palestinian issue and secondly Iraq), ongoing dismay about the public opinion of Europe, but (arguably) more understanding of it by increasing levels of tourism in the EU.

But as their view on the “West” in general shows a notable warming, Turks do display awareness that they are torn within about the state of the economy and foreign policy. Their utterly cautious stand on Syria, coupled with the fact that those who worry about Iran slightly outnumber others should explain a consistency about “non-involvement” in regime change, as was clearly exemplified during the Iraqi crisis.

One possible explanation for this rather static position, compared to the earlier surveys, has to do with the sense of justice (Palestinians vs. Israelis), with the sense of insecurity (domestic and global economy) and, quite importantly, being kept away from adequate information -- from both their own as well as other governments. Honest communication has always been helpful.

Previous articles of the columnist