As the lone Islamic NATO member and a keen aspirant to the European Union, Turkey was long seen as the bridge dividing the East from the West. The metaphor was not lost on President Obama, who chose it as the site to launch his administration’s outreach to the Muslim world, but mere months later, the infatuation has begun to wear thin.

Vocal Turkish fury at Israel’s ill-fated assault on the Turkish-led Gaza flotilla has reignited the decade-old question of whether Turkey is shifting its axis eastwards. Yet today, with Turko-Israeli relations at their lowest ebb in history, with Turkish popularity and presence in the Middle East at an all-time high and with Turkey confident enough to formally oppose American-led sanctions on Iran, the question has deservedly resurfaced and merits keen attention.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP)

Much of the worry has centered on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamist party that has dominated the Turkish political landscape for the past 8 years. Its perceived overturn of the cherished secularist ideals of post-Ottoman Turkey have led to dire predictions of an Islamicized Turkey that bears little resemblance to the Pentagon’s frontline gendarme during the Cold War. Truth be told, despite Western hysteria and Erdogan’s decidedly Islamist leanings, Turkey has not made a calibrated decision to turn from the West. The AKP has, however, demonstrated ambition unparalleled amongst its predecessors and has implemented an extremely aggressive multi-dimensional foreign policy designed to turn Turkey into a “central power,” radiating influence in all directions.

Currently a Western partnership with Turkey continues to hold significant dividends for both sides. Turkey’s unique position affords it growing credibility in the Middle East, even as it sits astride a major energy crossroad for Caspian and Middle Eastern exports to Europe. Furthermore, its overarching foreign policy goal of ‘zero problems’ is predicated on a peaceful Middle East. The difference, however, as is being made abundantly clear, will be in a Turkish approach that is willing to pander to anti-Western sentiment. Primarily, this stems from the acknowledgment of a new post-Cold War security environment in which the majority of threats to Turkey lie on its southern periphery. Consequently, the utility in the Turkish perception as a NATO lackey or Israeli ally is fast fading.

In the end, the onus on the long-term direction of Turkey may lie on the United States and Europe, which retain enormous levers of influence. It remains an open question as to whether Western strategic planners will remain willing to demonstrate the same level of engagement as they have done in the past, despite Turkey’s strategic sync diverging on some key interests. However, contrary to popular belief, Turkey’s newfound independence is not nearly as omnipotent as is often presumed. In actual fact, today more than ever, Turkey is being forced between poles with the difficult task of balancing multiple different factions, many with diametrically opposed viewpoints.

A prominent accusation is that frustration at the lengthy EU accession process Turkey has been put through is driving its drift. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has voiced his concurrence, stating recently that Turkey is looking eastwards because “some in Europe (are) refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”[1] There is some merit to this assessment. In a March 2010 interview, Erdogan noted that Turkey first applied for membership in the European Economic Community in 1959. “That was 51 years ago. No other country was subjected to such a procedure, and yet we have remained patient.” He also equated the recent proposals put forward by Germany and France to offer Turkey a ‘strategic partnership’ instead of full membership as “strange as someone changing the penalty rule in the middle of a football match.”[2]

Changing domestic prerogatives in Turkey and Europe have also begun to sour the accession dream. Contrary to common perception, the AKP came to power with EU accession as its primary objective and did more than all its predecessors to reform Turkey to EU standards. They continue to insist that their commitment to accession has never wavered with Erdogan dismissing such claims as “dirty propaganda.”[3] However the E.U. fixation on Cyprus in late 2005 became a sticky issue with many Turks equating it as a demand for unilateral withdrawal. The upshot was a drastic decline in support for the EU falling from 73% in 2004 to 40% in 2007. Public opinion in the EU too was unenthusiastic for Turkish integration, holding at a measly 21% across the E.U. in 2007.[4]

It is unfortunate for Turkey that its accession has raised serious questions about the E.U.’s identity and future direction. On the security front, it is feared that Turkish accession will shift European borders from the more defensible Bosphorus to one straddling the Middle Eastern arc of instability and force the import of Middle Eastern security including thorny issues such as the Kurdish problem. It is also worried that Turkish accession will provide momentum for Georgia and Ukraine to renew their accession pleas, exacerbating tensions with Russia. But mostly worries have centered around social and cultural differences between Turkey and mainstream Europe including the Turkish penchant for military coups and issues of gender inequalities, minority rights and union organization. Immigration concerns have also mobilized European xenophobia as has the Islamic nature of Turkey, made starker with Erdogan’s decidedly Islamist leanings.

European politicians, particularly in France and Germany, have pandered to this public opposition. French President Sarkozy has frequently invited Turkish ire, provocatively stating that he was “always opposed” because “Turkey is not in Europe.”[5] That these aggravations may have added impetus to Turkey’s eastern drift is revealingly illuminated in a closed door meeting where Ahmed Davutoglu, the architect of the AKP foreign policy, stated he was purposely putting Turkish embassies in prominent sites across North Africa so that “wherever Sarkozy goes he’ll see a Turkish flag.”[6] Erdogan himself has not been averse to pandering to domestic opinion choosing a lower gear of engagement with the EU in 2007, when nationalism and anti-US sentiment became electoral issues. Yet AKP supporters have derided Western attention to these issues, stating that it reflects Turkey’s enhanced democratization, where unlike previous military governments they are forced to acknowledge public opinion and diversify their foreign policy.

Economic interdependence has been the central component of the new Turkish foreign policy codified in ‘Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position,’ a book written by Turkey’s highly influential Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In it Davutoglu blends together his ‘zero problems’ policy with his intention to recapture ‘strategic depth’ in the region. This multi-dimensional policy is predicated on the notion of stabilization through integration, the idea that Turkey can leverage its shared religiosity, “multiple regional identities”[7] and substantial economic clout to facilitate political convergence and economic interdependence with its Arab neighbors. The desired outcome is to secure a Turkish zone of economic and cultural influence that overrides historical grievances greatly enhancing Turkish prestige and influence in the region.

With this in mind, it is important to note that at present Turkey remains firmly tethered to Europe. The EU27 accounted for 75% of Turkish FDI inflows in 2008[8] and held a resounding 41.7% share of Turkish trade, bounds ahead of Turkey’s second largest partnership with Russia and its 11.4%. Similar proportions are seen in Turkey’s export partners with the EU27 accounting for 48.3% of exports while the next largest, the UAE, accounted for a mere 6.1%.[9] A closer look at macroeconomic trends however shows a clear attempt at diversification, with Asian and Middle Eastern countries beginning to nibble at the E.U.’s preponderance. 2008 marked the first year where the E.U.’s export share fell below 50% to 41%, departing starkly from their traditional average of 56-58%. Import shares have also been in steady decline, falling in three years to 37% in 2008 from 42.55%.[10] These figures are particularly surprising given that Turkish trade has been booming from $116.5bn in 2003 to $334bn in 2008. Middle Eastern countries have been the primary beneficiaries of this diversification with their export and import shares reaching record highs of 19.3% and 8.7% respectively.