I want to react to a high-profile article from the NYT’s Sunday Review of last weekend, “The Empires Strike Back,” by Soner Çağaptay, a well-known Washington-based Turkish historian and political analyst. Çağaptay argues that
two old imperial powers are competing to exert their political influence over Arab countries in upheaval. And they are not America and Russia. After years of cold-war competition over the Middle East and North Africa, it is now France and Turkey that are vying for lucrative business ties and the chance to mold a new generation of leaders in lands that they once controlled.
Çağaptay then goes on to describe this geopolitical bras de fer in the southern and eastern Mediterranean between the two ancient rival powers, France and Turkey, though France is, in point of fact, not so great of a power anymore and Turkey is still in the wannabe stage—and that during their centuries of greatness, France and the Ottoman Empire were in fact allies (against the Hapsburgs, their mutual enemy) more than they were adversaries. Mais peu importe. I found Çağaptay’s perspective odd, and particularly his view of France and its role in the region. Viewed from Paris, a lot of what he said was off base or just didn’t make sense. I’ll work my way though his piece and comment on its odd or problematic assertions. First point. Çağaptay observes that
Even Turkey once looked to France as a model: when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923, he championed the French model of hard secularism, which stipulates freedom from religion in government, politics and education.
Absolutely correct. When teaching Turkey to my French students I inform them that the Turkish term for secularism, laiklik, was rather obviously inspired by laïcité, one of the most hallowed words in the French language. And one sees many words of French origin in Turkey, which was the doing not just of Ataturk but also the Ottomans. But the admiration has not been unidirectional. From the mid-1920s onward Turkey has been highly regarded in France as well, not only for its laiklik—which actually differs in important respects from French laïcité—but also for the whole Kemalist project of state-directed modernization—a sort of Jacobinism on steroids—, which so closely resembled the French model from the Third Republic onward. The French admiration for Turkey was manifest in De Gaulle’s triumphal state visit there in 1968 (e.g. see the videos here). Turkey started to get some bad press in France with the 1974 Cyprus invasion—but then, Turkey didn’t get good press anywhere on Cyprus—and with the repression following the 1980 coup and then against the Kurds. And there was, of course, sympathy with the Armenians on that issue (though which did not stop the Armenian terrorist group ASALA from carrying out a terror bombing at Orly airport in 1983). But the view of Turkey as a (geo)political problem by a part of the political spectrum in France is recent and linked to its candidacy to join the European Union.
While France has dominated much of the region over the past two centuries, that is now changing. And if Turkey plays its cards right, it could match France’s influence or even become the dominant power in the region.
France having dominated “much” of the region? The only parts of MENA where French influence was preeminent were its former colonies and protectorates, i.e. the Maghreb—Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco—and, for a brief period after WWI, Lebanon and Syria. But the French did not gain a lasting foothold in Syria—where there is little trace of the French mandate and even less of the French language—and in Lebanon French influence has mainly been with the Christians—and particularly the Maronites, in a relationship that goes back several centuries. France’s ascendency in Egypt was ephemeral and it never had anything in the Arabian peninsula or Mesopotamia. There was, of course, a certain French cultural influence among elites—in Egypt, Turkey, and among the Jews of the Mediterranean via the Alliance Israélite Universelle—but outside the Maghreb the British and Americans were the big players.
As for Turkey becoming a dominant power in the region, I think Mr. Çağaptay, who has been a biting critic of the AKP up to now, is getting caught up in Ankara’s ambient neo-Ottomanism. A player, yes, but dominant? Dream on.
As…economic meltdown devastates much of Mediterranean Europe, Turkey and France have largely been spared.
France is not one of the PIGS but it’s not Germany either. Or the US. France is in bad economic straits and whose future is not rosy. Even if the French economy does not go the way of Italy’s or Spain’s, France will no longer have the means to pursue whatever ambitions Gaullist nostalgics in Paris may have of being a major player in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. If France can preserve its position in Tunisia, that will be good in itself.
And their growing rivalry is one reason France has objected to Turkey’s bid for European Union membership.
Nonsense. I don’t know where Cagaptay gets this. Something that outside observers of France seem to lose sight of is that the French political class has not been uniformly opposed to eventual Turkish membership in the EU. The French left—and which has an excellent chance of coming to power this spring—has been supportive of Turkey’s EU candidacy, sometimes even vigorously so. And former President Chirac and his neo-Gaullist protégés (Alain Juppé, Dominique de Villepin, Jean-Louis Debré…) have also been pro-Turkey. Opposition to Turkey has come from the right (post-Gaullist, conservative, and extreme) and center (the part of it issuing from a Christian democratic tradition, such as François Bayrou’s MoDem). Islam is of course a factor in this opposition—and particularly on the hard right—but it’s not the only one. There are, in fact, serious arguments against Turkish entry to the EU: e.g. that Turkey is both too big and too poor relative to the rest of Europe, too nationalistic, not sufficiently democratic or respectful of minority rights… And, as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has insisted, that Turkey—96% of it—is not even geographically a part of Europe—that Europe does not border Iran and Iraq—and that if a geographically non-European country is allowed to join the EU then what is to prevent, say, Georgia or Azerbaijan (already members of UEFA, BTW), or even Russia, from legitimately applying for EU membership at some point down the road? I do not necessarily adhere to these arguments but some of them are valid—see, e.g. this book—and cannot be dismissed out of hand by Turks or proponents of it joining the EU. But one argument I have never seen is the necessity of countering Turkish designs on a French-dominated Mediterranean. Soyons sérieux.
one thing has become obvious to the Turks: Paris won’t allow Turkey into the European Union or let it become a powerful player in a French-led Mediterranean region.
Paris will definitely not allow Turkey into the EU so long as Nicolas Sarkozy is president. But if the fateful day ever does come when a decision on Turkey and the EU must be made, Sarko will be long gone. As for a French-led Mediterranean region and which can thwart the ambitions of others, hah! Only in Dominique de Villepin’s dreams…
Turkey threw its support behind the Arab revolts early on, winning fans across the region.
Huh? Turkey managed to jump on the train before it left the station but, like everyone else, was taken by surprise when the revolts began. And there was a period of dithering on Libya before the change in policy. As for winning the hearts and minds of the Arab masses, that was accomplished with Erdoğan trash talking Shimon Peres in Davos in ’09 and then the Mavi Marmara in ’10. Erdoğan was no doubt appreciated in Tahrir Square last February but I doubt the crowds there were paying much attention to communiqués coming out of Ankara.
Until it backed Libya’s rebels last year, France had bet on the enduring nature of dictatorships and never forged ties with the democratic forces opposing them
In regard to France and dictatorships, this is precisely true, and nowhere more than in Tunisia, which was a French foreign policy fiasco of the first order. But without defending the French here—who have been soul searching and doing mea culpas for the past year—it is not totally the case that France ignored democratic forces in the MENA countries. French diplomats en poste had instructions from the Elysée not to meet with Ben Ali opponents—Moncef Marzouki et al—and who were not received at the Quai d’Orsay when visiting Paris, but these opponents—the non-Islamist ones—did regularly visit Paris, participated in public meetings and rallies, and had extensive contacts with civil society groups and the political left. The French networks of Arab world non-Islamist opponents were dense and which French officialdom could readily tap into once the policy changed. And not just with the Maghreb countries. E.g. the chairman of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, has been a longtime professor at the University of Paris.
As France’s business ties with the old secular elite fray, its influence is waning. It remains a military and cultural power, and will continue to attract Arab elites, even Islamist ones, seeking weapons and luxury goods. However, France will find it hard to market its brand of secularism across the region
The bit about weapons and luxury goods is a cliché. France sells a lot more than that to MENA countries. As for secularism (laïcité), it’s been a long time since France tried to market this anywhere, let alone in MENA.
In September, when Mr. Erdogan landed at Cairo’s new airport terminal (built by Turkish companies), he was warmly met by joyous millions
He was indeed. But President Chirac, who earned the eternal gratitude of the Arab masses with his coup de gueule against the Israelis in the Jerusalem Old City in ’96 and in standing up to Bush on Iraq in ’03, was also warmly met by joyous millions—well, maybe not millions but five- and six-figure crowds nonetheless—on visits to the Arab world, notably in Algiers in March 2003. And Sarkozy received a rapturous welcome in Benghazi last September (more than he would ever get at home these days).
but France has more hard power, as the recent war in Libya…make[s] clear.
France’s military engagement in Libya was an impulsive roll of the dice by Sarkozy. The French could have never pulled it off had the Americans not gotten involved. And even then, had the Libya war not ended in September the situation would have become untenable for the French military, which could materially not sustain its already modest commitment for much longer. France’s hard power is not so hard anymore.
The recent discovery of natural gas off the south coast of Cyprus is a major opportunity. Turkey could rise above the fray by proposing unification of the island in exchange for an agreement to share gas revenues.
This would be an excellent initiative on Erdoğan’s part. Settling the Cyprus issue—on which Turkey is totally isolated, with no support even in the Arab world—and on terms acceptable to the Greek population of the island would be huge game changer in Turkey’s relations with Europe, removing the most redhibitory obstacle to eventual EU membership. If Erdoğan were to propose this and succeed, I’d nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Such a deal, coupled with improved Turkish-Israeli ties, could facilitate cooperation in extracting even larger gas deposits off Israel’s coast; Turkey is the most logical destination for a pipeline from there to foreign markets.
Improving relations with Israel would also be a good idea. It would be in Turkey’s interest on several levels, one being that the Turks could once again act as an intermediary between the Israelis and Palestinians (and Syrians, after regime change there).
Turkey will rise as a regional power only if it sets a genuine example as a liberal democracy
I totally agree. 100%.
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