ISTANBUL–Turkish public opinion is divided over many issues, and foreign policy is by no means an exception. As Turks heavily debate their place in the world, who their friends and enemies are, and which route their country should take in foreign policy, an annual public opinion survey undertaken by Kadir Has University in Istanbul provides valuable insights into the Turks’ thinking about their country’s relations with countries in their region and beyond.
This year’s edition of the survey, released last week, shows that Turks have second thoughts about the government’s performance in foreign policy. 38.7% of the respondents find the government’s foreign policy practices successful, whereas for 34% it is a failure.
In more specific issues, however, there are clearer tendencies. For instance, about the government’s Syria policy, only 16.8% of the respondents believe that the right things are being done. In contrast, when asked whether Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last November was a legitimate act, 58.2% responded in the affirmative.
A country’s foreign policy choices are profoundly influenced by identity issues, in other words by how the policy makers in office and the population in general define themselves along ethnic, cultural and religious lines.
For 37.5% of the survey respondents, Turkey is primarily a Muslim country, whereas 31.8% see themselves as citizens of a European country, and 25.7% believe that Turkey is first and foremost a Middle Eastern country. The interesting thing here is how rapidly perceptions can shift.
In the previous year’s survey, the share of respondents defining Turkey as a Muslim country was 45.5%, followed by a prioritization of Turkey’s European identity by 26.4%. The Muslim identity, is still dominating, but the gap between Turkey the Muslim country and Turkey the European country is diminishing.
An increasing inclination towards Europe is also evident in the fact that 61.8% of the respondents favored Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU), compared with 47.5% in 2015. EU approval rates are increasing in Turkey, despite ongoing skepticism about Brussels’ intentions and sincerity with regards to the Turkish bid.
Turks want to join the EU, but only 15.3% of them believe that the EU is dealing with Turkey’s accession process in an honest and fair way. According to survey results, Turks want EU membership primarily due to expected economic benefits and secondly because it can support the country’s democratization process. On the other hand, multi-culturality and a young labor force are thought to be Turkey’s major assets that will benefit Europe.
The United States does not enjoy the same warmth that the Turks have towards Europe. For 44.1% of the respondents, the United States is the greatest threat against Turkey. Although Russia’s perception as a source of threat has risen from 10.2% to 34.9% due to the ongoing crisis, and Syria’s has gone up from 22.1% to 30.4% since last year, the United States is still perceived as the main threat against Turkey and its interests.
In the meantime, while 41.6% of the respondents describe the United States as an “unreliable country” and 21.3% consider it as a “colonial power”, only 4.1% see it as a “military ally” and 4.8% as a “friendly country.”
The reason behind this significantly negative view of the United States relates to the divergences in the way the two countries deal with terrorism in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
Groups considered to be terrorists by Ankara are not always seen as such and sometimes even actively supported by Washington, and this is the reason why Turks see Americans as unreliable partners in the fight against terrorism. 72.2% of the survey respondents said the fight against terrorism is the main issue between Turkey and the United States. This figure was only 25.3% one year ago.
Americans and Europeans might not really be seen as good friends by Turks, but the neighboring Azeris certainly are. When asked which country was Turkey’s closest “friend”, 59.3% of the respondents said it was Azerbaijan (up from 37.2 percent in 2015), and 23.1% remarked that Turkey does not have any friends whatsoever.
All other countries that were mentioned by survey participants could score only minimal victories in Turks’ hearts. The second most-favored country for Turks is actually —and ironically — the United States, with a 2.6% of respondents deeming it as a friend of Turkey (down from 5.9% in 2015), Saudi Arabia ranks second with 2.4%, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus comes third with a mere 2%.
This magnetism of Azerbaijan obviously stems mainly from shared ethnic and linguistic identity rather than the dynamics of realpolitik.
For Turks, terrorism is the main foreign policy challenge faced by their country, followed by the conflict in Syria. One thing that the Turkish public opinion really agrees on is that the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is a terrorist organization. 90.9% of the respondents agree with this, compared with 85.1% in 2015.
When it comes to the nearly three million Syrian refugees that have found shelter in Turkey, Turks feel that the situation is rather unsustainable. 57.7% of the respondents said they are not comfortable with the Syrians’ presence in Turkey, while 31.8% remained indifferent.
The majority (45.2% of respondents) believe that no more refugees should be allowed in, while 28.5% favor refugee intakes within limited quotas. Only 17.7% said refugees must be allowed in regardless of their numbers, and 2.9% asserted Turkey’s policy should focus on enhancing the living conditions of Syrians.
Unsurprisingly, for 57% of the respondents, the refugee deal with the EU was not a wise move on behalf of Turkey, mainly because it will lead to further increasing inflows of refugees and, related to this, a worsening of the economic conditions inside Turkey.
While there appears to be a great deal of confusion among Turks with respect to the country’s different foreign policy options and there exists a variety of threat perceptions coming from different directions, the survey data nevertheless shows that their most serious concern is terrorism, that they are not distancing themselves from — but actually willing to get closer to — Europe, and they demand a lasting solution for the Syrian refugee in Turkey.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and a senior researcher at Turkey’s International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).