A number of developments?from Wikileaks to the democratic upheaval in the Middle East?have prompted articles debating Turkey?s newly active, ?neo-Ottomanist? foreign policy. Indeed, in recent years Turkey has been particularly quick to build political and economic ties with formerly hostile neighbors. American critics of this policy love to call it ?neo-Ottoman,? as do some Turkish advocates. Say what you will about the Ottoman Empire or Turkey?s foreign policy, the metaphor makes no sense. As it is currently used, ?neo-Ottomanism? implicitly links political Islam and Ottoman nostalgia to some vaguely defined anti-American, anti-European, pro-Muslim, or generally Middle East?oriented foreign policy. In doing so, the term misrepresents history in order to misunderstand the present. Let?s take a quick country-by-country look at Turkey?s foreign policy and see just how familiar it would be to the Sultans.
Iran ? Turkey?s rapprochement with Iran strikes many as the most frightening manifestation of the neo-Ottoman spirit. Iran, of course, was never part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, despite their admiration for Persian poetry, still managed to fight quite a bit with the Safavid Empire. Not surprisingly, when Turkish politicians visit Tehran today, it?s the several centuries after things calmed down that they prefer to talk about.
Syria ? Leaders from Turkey’s governing party the AKP get grief for being neo-Ottoman or Islamist when they meet with Syrian president Bashar Assad, and then again when they meet with representatives of Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the relationship between the Assad family and the Muslim Brotherhood is a particularly bloody one. Bashar Assad, whose father massacred tens of thousands of Brotherhood members along with fellow residents of the city of Hama in 1982, may be a nasty dictator, but he is certainly not an Islamist.
Iraq ? After forming a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council and abolishing visa requirements, Turkey conducted $6 billion worth of trade with Iraq in 2010. Sultan Suleiman the Great did not institute a free-trade zone with Iraq in 1534; he conquered it. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, no one in Turkey or America compared George W. Bush with Sultan Suleiman or accused the United States of having a neo-Ottoman foreign policy (though Iraqis may well have). Indeed, conflating economic ties with political rule would sound almost offensive in other contexts. When Germany invests in France or Eastern Europe, nobody calls it ?neo-Nazism.?
The Balkans ? In a world before oil, the Balkans were always more of a cultural and economic hub for the Ottomans than the Middle East. Turkish companies are now investing in once vibrant Ottoman cities like Skopje, Bitolas, and Mostar. If ever there was a place for using ?neo-Ottoman? in a purely economic sense, this would be it. But why would anyone talk about Macedonia when they could be talking about somewhere with oil like?
Libya ? So far, it seems most commentators have correctly identified in Turkey?s resistance to Western intervention in Libya the timeless and universal value of putting profits first. But Libya?s instability offers a perfect opportunity for a real neo-Ottoman coup. In the sixteenth century, the Ottoman pirate Barbarossa took advantage of internal power struggles among quarrelsome Maghrebi rulers to seize control of the North African coast and then run it as a pirate haven. If this is Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan?s end-game, Qaddafi seems to be the only one worried. In an interview with a French newspaper, the Libyan leader warned the world that if the rebels win, the Mediterranean will return to an era when ?Barbarossa, pirates, and Ottomans? held Western ships for ransom.
Israel ? This one is tricky. As Turks are eager to tell you, the Ottomans really treated Jews pretty well, at least by the standards of the times. When the Spanish monarchy drove the Jews out of Spain, the Ottomans welcomed them. For centuries, Jews lived throughout the Ottoman Empire, practicing their religion and continuing to speak a version of Spanish. Then in the 1930s, the super-secular government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk began pressuring them to speak Turkish and adopt Turkish names. In the 1940s, Turkey went after their money with a special confiscatory tax. So a genuinely neo-Ottoman approach to Israel might look a lot better than one based on the ugly anti-Semitism that is widespread among secular and religious Turks today.
Greece ? After several centuries of living in relative harmony, things ended badly between the Ottomans and the Greeks. Turkey?s relations with Greece are better now than at any point since the two countries almost went to war over Cyprus in 1974. If ever there was a triumph of pragmatism over history, this is it.
Western Europe ? Ataturk famously tried to Westernize Turkey and leave the Islamic, Eastern, and Ottoman past behind. He never actually used the phrase ?Westernize? himself, preferring to speak of his desire to make Turkey modern. Nonetheless, everyone knew this meant being modern like France, Britain, or Germany. Ataturk?s vigorously ?pro-Western? domestic policies?which famously included banning the fez and switching written Turkish from Arabic to Latin letters?never led to a ?pro-Western? foreign policy, as many would like to believe. As an Ottoman general, Ataturk did not go to Gallipoli to discuss his admiration for European culture with invading British officers. After the First World War, he used weapons provided by the newly formed Soviet Union to fend off the French, British, Greek, and Italian forces trying to occupy Anatolia. In doing so he set the stage for his signature policy of non-intervention, neutrality, and good relations with as many neighbors as possible. Which brings up?
Russia ? The immediacy of the Soviet threat after the Second World War forced Turkey to abandon its policy of neutrality and seek safety in NATO. At a time when ?Eastern? meant Communist, not ?Muslim,? this made Turkey as Western as it needed to be. At this point, an anti-Soviet policy was perfectly Ottoman; it was Russia after all who had helped bring down the Empire in the nineteenth century. As worried as the United States might be now about Turkey making nice with Russia, this is about as far from neo-Ottoman as a policy could get. In fact, during the early years of the Cold War, the United States encouraged Turkey to embrace its Ottoman heritage by leading the Arab world in a defensive alliance against Communism.
The EU ? Is joining the EU neo-Ottoman? Well, if you think the Ottomans were European, then yes. Otherwise, no. The Ottomans ruled much of Europe in their time. For advocates of EU accession, this shows how European they were. For opponents, it makes them the eternal enemy. Austrian nationalists imagine that if Turkey joins the EU, Turks will at long last slip through the gates into Vienna. Meanwhile, anti-EU Turkish nationalists insist that in incorporating Turkey, the Europeans will finally realize their dream of retaking Constantinople for Christendom. History just doesn?t offer that many analogies for an economic union of post-industrial democracies that have been partially successful in instituting a common currency but not in transforming into a political federation.
Given Turkey?s location, its foreign policy will always involve former Ottoman lands. To date, Turkey?s approach to this neighborhood has been nuanced and pragmatic. There may be good reason to worry that it is also unrealistic, hypocritical, or bad for American interests. But there is no reason to confuse these legitimate criticisms by sticking a fez on them.
Image: Suleiman the Great (Nakkaş Osman, 1579, Wikimedia Commons)