Looking abroad, Turkish public echoes views of country’s leader

The majority of Turkish people (56 percent) view Turkey as mainly an Islamic country, while just 19 percent see it as a European country, according to a survey by Kadir Has University’s Centre for Turkish Studies.

Another 19 percent see Turkey as primarily a Middle Eastern country. Thus, three out of four Turks view their country as mainly Islamic or Middle Eastern.

The second striking result of Kadir Has’ Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy survey, conducted last year, is that Turks recognise only one country as a close friend of Turkey, Azerbaijan (59 percent). Russia came in a distant second, seen as a close friend by 4 percent of Turks.

Just 0.1 percent see Germany as a close friend. The United States, which supported Turkey throughout the Cold War, is seen as a close friend by 0.6 percent of those surveyed, or almost no one at all.

Reflecting their critical view of the West, most Turks believe Turkey should be close to countries such as Azerbaijan, Islamic countries, the Turkic states of Central Asia, and Russia. Most Turks want to see the country conduct its own foreign policy without close coordination with Western countries.

The survey results could be interpreted in this way:

i. The Turkish public has a Eurasian outlook on foreign policy.

ii. Ideology, not economy, shapes most Turks’ understanding of foreign policy. For example, Turks do not see Germany as a close friend, even though it is one of Turkey’s biggest trading partners and it is home to more people of Turkish origin than any other country outside Turkey. Somehow, even China is viewed more favourably than Germany.

iii. Turkish people favour an Islamist and anti-Western foreign policy. Their Islamism is observed on issues such as Israel and Palestine, their anti-Westernism in their demand for close relations with Russia and China.

But given the importance of Western countries to the Turkish economy and security, there would be real costs to pivoting the country’s foreign policy in the way Turkish people appear to prefer.

Despite Turkey’s dependence on the West, political leaders and the public are likely to maintain their anti-Western stance for ideological reasons. While the country manages its economy and security mostly via its relations with the West, pro-Westernism is labelled shameful or even treacherous.

According to the survey, 60 percent of the Turkish public see the United States as a threat and 26 percent see the European Union as a threat. The United States, Israel and the EU are seen as the top three threats.

The survey confirms Turkey is an extremely inward-looking country and it is thus very hard to expect it to conduct a liberal, economic or pro-Western foreign policy.

The survey strongly hints that those who want better contacts with the West, such as businesspeople and academics, should realise they have next to no public support.

Conversely, it appears that any sort of anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism would secure huge popular backing. Similarly, any sort of military operation abroad would gain political support at home. More than 55 percent of Turks support military operations abroad.

All in all, these results suggest that political leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who stir up tensions with the West, stress connections with the Muslim world and promote military operations outside Turkey, are likely to receive considerable backing.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.