Turkey's Anti-Americanism Isn't New

Turkey's Anti-Americanism Isn't New

Erdoğan isn’t promoting anti-U.S. sentiment—but he’ll exploit it.

First, despite all the caricaturization and demonization that surround his public persona, Erdoğan is a survivor, owing his survival in Turkey’s ever-brutal game of power politics to his unmatched pragmatism. Erdoğan almost always presents a very strong front, appearing at times irreconcilable or even irrational. However, a calmer examination of his past record suggests that Erdoğan can also be extremely “flexible”; not only does he find it easy to turn against his former allies when his interests dictate (e.g., Gülenists), but he will also swiftly make peace with his former enemies (e.g., Israel or Russia). In other words, Erdoğan may be many things, but he is not a leader who will allow something as fuzzy as anti-Americanism to affect his decision making.

So, the question then becomes, why has Erdoğan been implicitly fueling, if not yet formally endorsing, the anti-Americanist wave in Turkey? The answer is simple: he is weaponizing it to pursue his political objectives at home and overseas.

In domestic politics, he is building on anti-Americanism to consolidate his political popularity in the aftermath of the failed coup. Remember: anti-Americanism peppered with conspiracy theories is one of the very few elements that bring all Turks together. In so many ways, he is trying to unify the masses by building on their biases and convictions. He is using anti-Americanism as a foreign-policy tool, to exert further pressure on the U.S. government, signaling that if the United States does not extradite Gülen (or, alternatively, make his life in the United States infinitely more uncomfortable), he might just be unable to contain the anti-Americanism that is becoming even more widespread and robust among the Turkish people. Make no mistake: Erdoğan will not only stop fueling anti-Americanism, but also put a lid on it—when, of course, he thinks it no longer serves a purpose.

Western spectators may disagree: perhaps, some might argue, this “new” anti-Americanism is so different from that of the past that it may eventually overpower even Erdoğan, compelling him to break ties with the West. That line of thinking would be missing the second key characteristic that is of utmost importance for making sense of Erdoğan: he has an unbreakable spell over his followers. When it comes to communicating with his supporters (roughly half of the Turkish people) he is like a magician; just as he can motivate people to take to the streets and face down tanks with a single word, he can also calm them down with soothing language in a matter of minutes. Especially in the aftermath of the failed coup, which elevated Erdoğan to the status of a demigod in the eyes of his followers, it is unlikely that he will be a slave to this “new” anti-Americanism. Just the reverse; Erdoğan will act as a skillful master of anti-American discourse and ride it, even if implicitly, until it no longer benefits him.

Turkey’s new anti-Americanism is not only quite “old,” but also hardly worth exaggerating. There is little cause to worry about the possibility of anti-Americanism inadvertently pushing Erdoğan’s Turkey toward a breakup with the West. So, when should we worry about such a breakup? Only when Erdoğan endorses anti-Americanism formally and bluntly. He has so far refrained from doing so and, considering the costs and risks associated with breaking up with the United States, it remains unlikely that he will steer Turkey away from the West in the coming years. Even if he does, the decision will be his, and anti-Americanism will be his tool, not his master.

To summarize, until Erdoğan “openly and formally” adopts anti-Americanism, the associated rhetoric will make for sensational headlines and lively discussions in both Turkish and Western media, but will not have an important impacts on U.S.-Turkish relations.

All that being said, a disclaimer is warranted. There is in fact a risk that anti-Americanism could lead to a breakup between Turkey and the West. But that would only happen if the Western media and policymakers exaggerate the newness of the recent wave, as well as Erdoğan’s intentions over fueling it. Such a “preventive” breakup would, to invoke German statesman Otto von Bismarck, be like committing suicide for fear of death. What we need right now is not fear and paranoia, but calmer heads that can see through sensationalism and propaganda.

Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state formation and production of military power, and empires. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Mogadishu, Somalia. Wikimedia Commons/AMISOM Public Information