A League of Ambiguities

As events in Turkey show, advocates of a League of Democracies must come to grips with the ambiguity that characterizes governments—including crucial allies—around the world.

In discussing Senator John McCain's proposal for a "League of Democracies", the blog for the Project on Middle East Democracy did a survey of reactions to the idea. One of the blogs they consulted, Power Line, noted, "Standards for admission, of course, would be a key issue."

Indeed. And developments in Turkey over the weekend show why coming up with clear-cut, easily-enforceable criteria for such a League-assuming that its purpose is also to marshal the forces of what during the Cold War-era was referred to as the "Free World"-will be so difficult. The continuing struggle in the Turkish political soul between authoritarian and democratic tendencies, and between secularity (French-style laicite) and religiosity, shows no signs of abating.

If McCain wants to use the criteria of Freedom House, then Turkish membership in his proposed League is problematic, since Freedom House continues to rate the country only "partly free." The New York NGO acknowledges all of the progress, but even the most generous interpretations of Turkish behavior are only sufficient to push Ankara into the borderline between "Free" and "Not Free." By the standards of the Greater Middle East, Turkey is a democracy-it has a functioning parliament, elections, it guarantees a good deal of personal autonomy and its media is robust. But the military plays a role much larger than that of securing the national defense, especially in its self-appointed role as guardian of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

There are clear red lines imposed over the media. And the counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency campaign carried out in southern and eastern Anatolia combined with continuing reluctance to recognize the status of the Kurds as a distinct people would have caused the government in Ankara to be treated quite differently had it been located a few hundred miles to the west, in the Balkans. And unfortunately for Ankara, the Freedom House "Map of Freedom" shows its Balkan neighbors who are already in the EU-Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania-firmly in the category of the "Free." And the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France further dooms Turkey's chances for inclusion in the Union; in his comments to The National Interest, he was quite blunt: "I do not think Turkey has a right to join the European Union because it is not European."

In the past, when the goal of the United States in foreign policy was to ensure that every country should be allowed to develop its own political, economic and social institutions without forcible interference from a hegemonic power, Ankara could be a major partner for Washington. But the country's current "democracy deficit" poses a real challenge if the new basis for America's global alliance is adherence to democratic standards today (as opposed to eventual aspirations for the future). McCain's "League of Democracies" will lose credibility, if, for example, Turkey is included as a democracy and Venezuela-another political system with mixed democratic/authoritarian features also rated as "Partly Free" by Freedom House-is excluded-especially if other countries feel that the determining factor of "democracy" is agreement with U.S. policy.

The controversy over Abdullah Gul's presidential campaign-culminating in Sunday's parliamentary session where the opposition boycott prevented a quorum from assembling, followed by Gul's own withdrawal from consideration for the presidency-arose out of continued suspicion that the Justice and Development Party is not committed to a secular form of democracy but will seek to dismantle various checks and balances in the Turkish system, leading to a greater Islamicization of Turkish life. In this matter, the continued disquiet of the military establishment in Turkey reminded me of another Middle Eastern parallel-Iran. In an inverse fashion, the military in Turkey performs a function not unlike the Guardian Council in Iran, which in the last elections disqualified up to 2000 candidates for office on the grounds of being sufficiently un-Islamic.

It is also not clear whether, given its stand on secularity, a number of U.S. political candidates would make the cut were they to be in Turkey. What would be the reaction if Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), whose position on the role religion and values should play in the formation of public policy makes him in some ways a Christian version of Abdullah Gul, were to be barred from running for the presidency in 2008?

All of this calls for a fundamental re-assessment of policy. One approach-to use outside pressure to compel reforms-is only effective to the extent that there is a clear "reward" at the end of the day-and the United States certainly cannot promise EU membership. The other-to pretend full compliance is present-is also increasingly difficult to pull off.

The U.S. experience with South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and other east and Southeast Asian states is what should guide U.S. policy toward Turkey. But this works best in an environment of ambiguity, and proposals like the "League of Democracies" wouldn't provide much maneuvering room at all.

Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.