By Jesse Biroscak Staff Writer November 15, 2009

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) was elected in 2002 on a platform of change, economic growth, and democratization. The party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had successfully cleaned up Istanbul as the city’s mayor only a few years prior. Yet many in Turkey, the European Union (EU), and the United States fear that the change negatively affects Turkey’s relationship with the West.

Since 1923, Turkey has tried to orient itself Westward after more than 600 years facing East under the Ottoman Empire. It became a secular, nationalist republic terrified of allowing religion to infiltrate its governmental structures. Each time a political party with Islamic values or an Islamist agenda came to power, it was overtaken or forced out of office by the military, which then assumed power in order to re-set the democratic process.

AK Parti represents another such political party for Turkey – its leaders represent former Islamist parties (now disbanded), and Erdogan spent time in prison for Islamist sympathies. The Turkish military and Western nations are watching carefully to see whether AK Parti is turning Turkey away from the West to reflect the party’s Islamist inclinations.

Accusations that AK Parti is anti-Western are buttressed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s emphatic statements condemning Israel, his recent visit to a contentious Iran, and renewed relations with Syria. The United States, which tends to align itself definitively, feels that Turkey is either “with us or against us.” But for Turkey – a country accustomed to bridging two continents and representing the crossroads of cultures and civilizations – alienating one side in favor of another would be foolish and shortsighted.

Turkey’s relationship with the West, and specifically with the United States, was born out of mutual need during the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, the lack of geographic proximity between the two coupled with the absence of key bridging factors (such as a large Turkish-American community, cultural affinity between Turkey and the West and/or significant economic partnership) has lead to a natural shift in the relationship. The strategic partnership between the two NATO allies is less critical without a common enemy. This evolving relationship, combined with rise of AK Parti, gives the country cause for a rapprochement with its Eastern neighbors. Turkey has every right to reject the will of Western governments, but it must not sacrifice its ties with the West in order to improve its relationship with the East.

It is not a contradiction to say that Turkey is opening itself up to the East, while remaining open to the West. The country is trying to assume its role not as the dividing line between Europe and Asia, but rather as the link joining the two together. Turkey’s actions, however, should neither be misinterpreted as ploys to infiltrate the Muslim World in order to aid the West, nor should they be interpreted as anti-Western. AK Parti is taking advantage of its non-Western and Islamist background to actively engage Turkey’s Eastern neighbors, advancing its own economic and political situation. It will no longer act as a Western puppet or buffer.

Western nations would be wise to encourage AK Parti and Turkey to continue participation in the NATO alliance and pursuit of EU membership. Unfortunately, two countries in Europe are not helping Turkey with its difficult balancing act: France and Germany. Both nations have voiced strong objections to allowing Turkey into the EU, and Turkey is both weary and wary of pushing for an improbable bid for accession. The West must understand that Turkey’s position at the crossroads of Eurasia allows it to have Western policies in mind when it attempts to influence anti-Western countries.

Prime Minister Erdogan claims, “Turkey is expanding its relations; it is not changing its direction. Our axis is obvious. I guess people cannot get rid of the Cold War mentality. Turkey may be extremely good friends with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Georgia and Armenia – with Greece or Bulgaria as well. This is neither against NATO nor can it be considered as a stance against any other country or a group of countries. We have to get rid of such limiting paradigms.”

The West’s relationship with Turkey is extremely valuable. Turkey’s newfound independence of thought and action is looked upon favorably by non-aligned countries in the East. Taking offense at Turkish efforts to be a part of both sides will only force Turkey to choose one side over the other. The West must not become an obstacle along Turkey’s path towards becoming an inter-regional interlocutor.

Turkey is a sovereign nation in a complicated location bridging two different ways of life. In order for both the East and the West to reap the maximum benefits of a positive relationship with Turkey, neither should force Turkey to downgrade the other. Turkey’s foreign policy under AK Parti has the potential to join East and West, encouraging peace, prosperity, and cooperation where the possibilities for such actions were formerly limited.