Dangerous neighborhood draws Turks closer to West despite doubts

PHOTO SUNDAY’S ZAMAN, MEHMET YAMAN

September 16, 2012, Sunday/ 12:43:00

The German Marshall Fund of the US (GMF), a US think tank that promotes cooperation between North America and Europe, has been measuring for the last 11 years American and European public opinion on a number of issues, from foreign policy and support for NATO to the economy and the rise of other world powers, and has published the results in an annual survey since 2002.

The world has been more globalized since then, but not more secure, and the Turkish public still remains very doubtful about transatlantic relations, though Turks feel somewhat warmer toward the US and the EU.

The annual GMF Transatlantic Survey this year was conducted in June so Turkish respondents were not influenced by some recent key events.

The events such as the increasing tensions with Iran over its spy-ring in Turkey which is allegedly exchanging intelligence with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

Nobody predicted that Turkey’s relationship with Tehran would reach rock-bottom. Indeed, Ankara was accused by many observers in the West of having an “axis shift” and turning its back on its traditional allies as Turkey has been consolidating its power in the region.

But though some observers have speculated that the basic interests of Ankara and Tehran might collide, Turkey’s diplomatic relations with Iran have been strained for some time, mainly because of their differing stances on the Syrian crisis. The Iranian chief of General Staff recently said that “it will be Turkey’s turn” if Turkey continues to “help advance the warmongering policies of the US in Syria.”

“‘Competition’ and ‘rivalry’ have always described the relationship between Turkey and Iran for centuries, even when relations looked warm on the surface. As this is a historic phenomenon, the Turkish public is highly aware of this. On top of this, sectarianism is increasingly becoming part of the political discourse in Turkey, adding to concerns about Iran,” said Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the Ankara director of the GMF.

Let’s review some of the key data from the survey to understand the Turkish and Western public attitudes on Iran and some other issues.

As in the past years, Turkey was the least worried about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Only 48 percent of Turks were troubled by this possibility, but this still represented a 10-point increase from 38 percent in the previous year.

When it came to the Europeans on the same issue, four out of five Europeans (80 percent, up five points from the previous year) said they were concerned about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons; similarly, 79 percent of Americans were concerned (up three points). A large number of Russians, 61 percent, were also concerned about Iran. There was little support in the EU countries polled (6 percent) or in the US (8 percent) for simply accepting that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons while other options were on the table. A quarter of the Turks polled (27 percent), a majority, said that accepting a nuclear Iran was the best option. Very few in the EU (7 percent) and Turkey (4 percent) preferred military action over all other options.

Who favors whom?

The lowest perception of the US was seen in Turkey -- 34 percent. On the other hand, the percentage of Turks viewing the US favorably has been increasing slowly but steadily since 2009 (22 percent).

Meanwhile, Americans looked less favorably on Greece (44 percent), Turkey (43 percent), Russia (42 percent) and South Korea and China (both 41 percent). In general, Europeans viewed Turkey unfavorably, though 61 percent of Russians viewed Turkey favorably.

Although Turkish feelings for the EU and the US continued to warm somewhat over the past year, a majority of Turks still viewed the EU and the US unfavorably. As in 2011, the majority of Turks thought that working with Asia was more important to their national interests than working with the US.

“As a matter of fact, Turks are not alone in attributing an importance to Asia and this is consistent with the picture of an Asia that is rising economically. What causes Turks to have a bigger tendency to think that Asia is more important than the US or the EU for their country’s interests is a mix of not so favorable opinions of the US and frustration with the EU accession process,” Ünlühisarcıklı commented.

Despite its frustrations with the EU, 44 percent of respondents in Turkey said that EU membership would be good for their economy. As in past years, Turkey was the NATO member with the lowest public support, with only 38 percent saying that NATO is still essential.

On the issue of Asia, Europeans and Americans felt similarly this year. Nearly two-thirds of EU respondents said that the US was more important for their countries’ national interests than Asia, while 55 percent of Americans felt that Europe was more important than Asia, a reversal from 2011, when Americans said that Asia was more important than Europe.

In this year’s survey, Turkey was treated as a European country without a separate section on it, as in the previous surveys. When asked, a majority of Turks thought that the US and the EU have enough common values (45 percent) or interests (47 percent) to enable international cooperation.

But it is enough to like each other or do you need to have common values to narrow divides on specific issues? “Liking one another is not the answer. There needs to be convergence on how you look at international issues if you are going to cooperate,” said Ian Lesser, executive director GMF’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels, where he leads GMF’s work on the Mediterranean, Turkish and wider-Atlantic security issues.

As far as one specific case -- Syria -- was concerned, the majority in the EU (59 percent), the US (55 percent) and Turkey (57 percent) said that their countries should stay out of the Syria conflict completely.

As Ünlühisarcıklı pointed out, the nature of the relationship between policy and public opinion is still a matter of debate and in a way, it is a chicken and egg story: “Governments in democratic countries are increasingly taking public opinion into consideration when making policy changes. However, it is difficult to attribute certain decisions of governments to public opinion as every single decision is a function of several factors, including public opinion.”

Economic system unfair, survey shows

For the first time this year, Transatlantic Trends asked respondents if they felt that their economic system worked fairly for everybody or if they believed that most of the benefits of the system went to a few.

Three out of four (76 percent) European respondents felt that their economic system did not work fairly for everybody and that most of its benefits went to a few; (64 percent) of Americans agreed likewise.

Even in those countries where there was more optimism, approval ratings were low, with the highest ratings in Sweden (37 percent), the Netherlands (35 percent), and the US (30 percent). In Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Spain, Poland and the UK, between 70 and 90 percent of the respondents thought that most of the benefits went to a few.

According to Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels, this finding has not yet been represented well in the media. “Large majorities on both sides of the Atlantic answered that most of the benefits went to a few, and this was a similar feeling across the board, even in different economic systems,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.

Sergio Chiamparino, chairman of the Compagnia di San Paolo, said that worrying trends have emerged, such as a lack of trust in governments. “The leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should pay attention to these issues, especially in light of the negative view of the social and economic equality of their system registered across Europe and in the US,” he said.

When it came to the economy and the Euro crisis, in the EU, 65 percent stated they had been personally affected by the economic crisis (up from 61 percent last year), while in the US, 79 percent said they had been personally affected.

 

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