Turkey: Emerging power, valuable friend

I recently visited Turkey, where I learned much about our increasingly powerful partner. A deeper and more candid friendship with Turkey will help the United States pursue its interests and support its values around the world.

Sunday’s parliamentary elections showed continued support for Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s center-right Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since its first landslide victory in 2002. But opposition parties showed strength, too, narrowing the AKP’s majority. Bottom line: the Turkish people are determining their own destiny — and that is a beautiful thing. 

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Turkey is the strongest and truest Muslim democracy in its region — more than 99 percent of Turks are Muslims, and though Turkey’s modern history is marked by periodic constitutional crises, it has remained a secular constitutional republic since 1923. As such, Turkey is a natural — and strategically important — friend of the United States.

Since antiquity, present-day Turkey has been situated at the crossroads of civilizations. Its complicated position as hinge between “East” and “West” continues to shape its place in the world, evidenced by persistent hurdles to EU membership and complicated relationships with Israel and Iran. 

Turkey faces serious international and domestic challenges — continued disputes with Greece, difficult relations with the Kurdish population and room for strengthened freedoms of speech and the press, for example — but Turkey is a model of democracy in the Muslim world.

On Good Friday, my wife and I visited the House of the Virgin Mary, a site venerated by Christians and Muslims alike on Turkey’s western coast. It is believed Mary once lived there, and people of many faiths were assembled to reflect. Despite the congregation’s somber mood, it was a hopeful scene, in striking contrast to the violence that continues to mar countries to Turkey’s south. Turkey’s unique history has laid the foundations for the development of a remarkably strong and pluralistic society.

It is also an emerging regional power and important trading partner with a rapidly modernizing economy — 8.2 percent GDP growth in 2010 placed Turkey among the world’s fastest growing economies. Istanbul’s skyline is marked by cranes and signs of development reminiscent of China’s booming mega-cities. Smart investment in infrastructure is improving quality of life and supporting economic growth. Flourishing trade with Europe, Russia, China, Israel and Iraq is growing Turkey’s middle class and bolstering its global clout.

Turkish participation in multilateral security missions (including NATO efforts in Afghanistan, anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Operation Unified Protector in Libya) demonstrates greater assertiveness in international affairs. This development should be embraced and shaped by the United States — not rejected or contained. 

Turkish officials are eager to deepen ties with the United States, and Turkey’s “no-enemies” foreign policy allows for effective facilitation of diplomacy between the U.S. and regimes with which we have disputes. I discussed with Turkish diplomats the plight of American journalists in Libyan captivity, some of whom have been subsequently released. Turkish advocacy on behalf of those Americans still detained remains invaluable.

The region is in turmoil as citizens rise up to topple rotten dictatorships. Though this “Arab Spring” represents hope and greater democratic consciousness in societies recovering from decades of repression, some in the United States fear that popular rule in the Muslim world will not serve American interests. Turkey stands as evidence that Islam and democracy can be reconciled without undermining constructive relations with the United States and our allies. The United States should continue to cultivate Turkey as an enduring partner and friend, while encouraging our friend to maintain its democratic institutions.

There is much discussion of constitutional reform in Turkey. The United States should engage in candid and respectful dialogue with Turkey’s leaders to advocate for an inclusive process true to Turkey’s secular, democratic heritage — a key foundation of the U.S.-Turkey friendship. Speaking candidly with our Turkish friends, we should continue to emphasize the importance of free speech and an unfettered press and encourage a swift, efficient, and apolitical judiciary.

In supporting and deepening ties with Turkey while restating our commitments to these principles, we not only advance our economic and political interests, we demonstrate important commitments to democracy, religious freedom and prosperity in the Middle East.

Johnson is a member of the House Armed Services committee and the Judiciary committee.