Turkish Reluctance

Turkish reluctance towards Danish prime minister as head of NATO – The symbolic significance of public dissociation

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

Turkish government last week publically announced their reluctance towards the idea of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen becoming head of NATO. They even went so far as to threaten to veto his possible candidacy. How come this overt display of reluctance, when the implications could easily be that Turkey upsets a number of significant NATO allies?

In order to understand this, one of course has to take into account concrete reasons stemming from the somewhat strained relationship between Turkey’s current AKP led government and its Danish counterpart. But in my opinion a far more significant reason is to be found in the current foreign political outlook and vision of the ruling party in Turkey, in which a rapprochement towards the Arab world plays a significant role. Due to active Danish participation in the US led alliance in Iraq, and the so-called Cartoon Crisis, a majority of countries in the Middle East  would probably rather see anyone but Fogh Rasmussen as head of NATO. Through their public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen Turkey has clearly signaled that the concerns of the countries in the region have been heard.

There are several concrete reasons why Turkey’s government is opposed to Fogh Rasmussen’s possible candidacy. First, there is the issue of the Kurdish TV channel, Roj TV, broadcasting from Copenhagen. The Turks have repeatedly asked that the TV channel be closed by the Danish authorities, since Turkey accuses the channel of supporting, both in words and financially, the PKK. During a visit to Copenhagen in November 2005 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to speak and then left a press conference due to the presence of a reporter from Roj TV. The Danish response has been staunch in the sense that the Danish government has informed the Turks that their claims against Roj TV lack substantial evidence, and that the TV channel is therefore allowed to continue to broadcast from Copenhagen protected by the rules of free press. Second, there is the issue of the so-called Cartoon Crisis. Also the Turks were upset with the firm stance of the Danish prime minister during the Cartoon Crisis. He was seen as unwilling to listen to the concerns of a number of Muslim countries, hence displaying lack of diplomacy. Particularly with regard to Turkey, this became obvious in the eyes of the Turks when Fogh Rasmussen flatly refused to take into consideration a letter from the then Turkish ambassador to Denmark urging him to stress to his public the responsibility of the media with regard to depicting Islam. Third, the Danish prime minister is seen as displaying a great amount of reluctance towards the idea of Turkish EU membership, and has among other in a debate article in a large Danish newspaper, stated that EU has to carefully consider further enlargements of the European Union, not least Turkish accession. Finally Denmark is part of the US led alliance against Iraq, a war Turkey strongly opposed. In 2003 the Turkish government refused US troops access to Northern Iraq through Turkey.

Each of these reasons gives ample ground for Turkish reluctance towards Fogh Ramsussen as head of NATO. But the question is whether they provide the key to understanding how come the Turks publically display their strong disliking of the Danish prime minister? In order to comprehend this I suggest we must also turn to the foreign political ambitions and vision of the AKP in general. Throughout the past couple of years it has become increasingly clear that the current Turkish ruling party envisions a grand role for Turkey on the foreign political stage. A role where Turkey is a key strategic partner and central political player in the wider Middle East, but also a role where Turkey stands out as able to act independently and on its own and not only as part of a Western alliance. This is what has been named a Neo-Ottomanist Turkish foreign policy. The diplomatic activity of the Turkish government, not least the rapprochement between Turkey and a range of Muslim countries, indicates the presence of such visions. Turkey has thus attempted to present itself as a possible moderator in talks between Israel and Syria, Iran and US, just to mention a few of the current relations topping the political agendas, and has throughout the past years on several occasions hosted meetings between Muslim countries in Turkey. Traditionally, relations between Turkey and Arab-speaking countries in the region have been strained, given that Turkey has been a key US ally, has had extensive relations with Israel, not least with regard to defense cooperation, and does not share a history of being colonized but rather used to be the colonizer in the region. Particularly, relations with Syria have been tense. In order to develop a role as a key player on the foreign political stage in the wider Middle East, though, Turkey needs to stay on good terms with the various countries of the region. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s display of anger against Israel in a session on Gaza during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in late January 2009 gave him some street credit if not points for diplomacy.

However, in order to reaffirm the Turkish position as an independent and significant foreign political actor with good ties to traditional Western allies, i.e. the US, but sympathetic to concerns of Muslims countries, dissociating from Fogh Rasmussen in public is a fruitful way of signaling this position. It, on the one hand, allows the Turks to signal their independence and willingness to speak out against what is held to be the wish of major Western alliance partners. This plays well at home, where Fogh Ramussen is not a popular choice, and where displays of Turkey as being a significant and independent foreign political actor are welcomed by many Turks. On the other hand it also allows Turkey to signal to the wider Middle East that Fogh Ramsussen was never their choice for head of NATO even if he should eventually become so, and that they are thus in effect in line with a range of other countries in the Middle East when it comes to him. Hence, their newly established credentials among other countries in the Middle East are kept intact. At the same time the Turks might even be able to use the prospect of an eventual, reluctant accept of Fogh Rasmussen on their behalf as a bargaining chip with regard to advancing their position in relation to some of the issues high on their agenda. Should Fogh Rasmussen not become head of NATO the Turks can even claim that they have some amount of influence with significant countries, most notably US, within NATO. Why else should Turkey be the first Muslim country Barack Obama is to visit, if it was not seen as a significant strategic partner?

Stakes are high, since Turkey’s clear public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen will obviously annoy a number of countries within the NATO alliance. On the other hand the Turkish government has a lot to gain from such a public display of opposition to possible candidacy of the Danish primeminister both at home and abroad.

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