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January 27, 2013, Sunday

Turkish perceptions of the United States (1)

Until a couple of years ago, American officials would complain vehemently about anti-Americanism in Turkey.

According to most opinion polls, Turkish attitudes towards American foreign policy were consistently very negative. In fact, if I remember correctly, Turkey even came in a few times at the top of the list of countries that resent American policies in the Middle East. I'm not sure what the most recent statistics are, but my recent observations in Turkey have led me to think that despite Turkey's growing self-confidence, there still seems to be a high level of distrust and disdain towards Washington. Negative Turkish perceptions of the United States have always been disturbing and surprising for American officials. After all, Turkey is a member of NATO and a strategic partner of the United States. Turkish and American officials never tire of repeating that their two countries share similar values and that their differences are often about tactics, not strategic objectives. So why is Turkish public and expert opinion still quite negative about the United States?

Before answering this question, one needs to make a couple of points about the concept of anti-Americanism. Most Turkish officials, especially when they deal with American officials, argue that they do not believe Turkish public opinion is anti-American. They are right in saying so because there is quite a positive image of the United States as a country that Turks want to visit, send their kids to to study or that they admire for its political and cultural institutions. There are still long lines of people applying for visas or green cards to the United States, and American tourists are always welcomed in Turkey. Beyond Turkey, this is a global phenomenon. The problem is never at the cultural or people-to-people level. Those who study or try to understand the root causes of the resentment of the United States should make absolutely clear that what drives negative perceptions of America is primarily foreign policy. In other words, the phenomenon called anti-Americanism is not about hating American culture, food, movies, educational institutions, etc. It is about resentment of American foreign policy or perceptions of American policy. Since perception becomes reality, the difference between the two seldom matters.

As a result, if we want to answer the question why Turkish public and expert opinion is still quite negative about the United States, we need to look at foreign policy. A quick analysis of the last two years, from 2010 to today, shows the ups and downs in Turkish-American relations. 2010 was a particularly bad year. Tensions between Ankara and Washington peaked after Turkey brokered the Tehran agreement with Iran. The Obama administration reacted very negatively to this Turkish-Brazilian attempt at mediating the nuclear issue. Washington was even more disappointed when Turkey voted against a new round of economic and financial sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Things went from bad to worse after the Mavi Marmara incident as Ankara's relations deteriorated with Israel and, indirectly, with Washington.

2011, on the other hand, turned out to be the year when relations between the two countries bounced back in a very positive way. The Arab Spring hailed Turkey as a model for emerging Muslim democracies and the Obama administration took Turkey's growing “soft power” in the Arab world very seriously. During the same year, Ankara's relations seriously deteriorated with Iran over the uprising in Syria. Equally important in improving Turkish-American relations in 2011 was Ankara's decision in favor of the NATO missile defense system to host radar near its border with Iran. All this created the perception of a “golden age” in bilateral relations. But as I will analyze in my next column, despite this talk of a golden age in Turkish-American relations, negative perceptions of America in Turkish public opinion have persisted. We still need to ask why.

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