What Erdogan’s ‘Turkish Gaullism’ Means to the Middle East and the West

Samuel Huntington still cast a long shadow over modern Turkey. And that is unfortunate. The late Harvard professor once characterized the country as “torn” between East and West. And so according to the Huntington binary worldview of civilizational confrontation, the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a dangerous Islamist determined to overhaul the secularist legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Westernized Turkey. Thus, many today see Turkey’s increasing divergence from the West to be a result of Turkey’s Islamic revivalism.

The problem is that nothing is truly binary or black and white. To be sure, Islam plays a role in Erdogan’s politics, but the real driver of his strategic vision is nationalism, an ideology that in fact appeals to all Turks – secularists, conservatives, progressives and Islamists alike. The flaw with Huntington and other such determinists has always been their overstatement of religion and culture at the expense of nationalism. Today, the East-West and secular-Islamist clichés no longer capture the complexity of Turkish domestic and foreign policy.

In fact, a more accurate way of understanding contemporary Turkey would be to recognize the similarities between the populist strongman of Turkey and France’s Charles de Gaulle, whose anti-Americanism and nationalism drove France into, among other things, leaving NATO’s integrated military command structure in 1966. France returned to NATO as a full member only in 2009, but still maintains its independent nuclear deterrent, achieved under de Gaulle’s pursuit of full independence from Washington.

The similarities between Erdogan and de Gaulle extend to domestic politics as well. It was under the guidance and pressure of de Gaulle that France transitioned, as Turkey did under Erdogan, to a strong presidential system.

No comparison is perfect, of course. France is a country with much deeper democratic traditions than Turkey, and Erdogan is no de Gaulle when it comes to their respective intellectual and political background. Yet, Erdogan’s vision for Turkey, similar to de Gaulle’s for France, is motivated by a “certain idea of Turkey,” to restate the Gaullist dictum, based on independence, sovereignty and imperial grandeur. Erdogan may be a much more autocratic version of the French leader, but shares with him an ability to monopolize the national will.

While France managed to balance the dangerous aspects of Gaullism with institutional checks and balances, Erdogan’s Turkey is free of such obstacles to the tyranny of populism. This is why, today, the real threat to Turkey’s Western and democratic orientation is no longer Islamization, but a broad-based Turkish nationalism and its frustration with liberalism and pluralism.

And this has become much more alarming lately. For it has allowed, following the failed coup in 2016, for an ultra-nationalist realignment in politics that threatens to pull Turkey toward proto-fascism. In essence, what has emerged is a marriage between Erdogan, the ultra-nationalist MHP (or Nationalist Movement Party) and the Turkish military (or what’s left of it, since more than a third of its flag officers have been discharged or detained since 2016).

In foreign policy, the supposed political opposites – Islamist neo-Ottomanism and secular Kemalism – actually share a Gaullist vision of the country striving for full sovereignty and independence from the United States and Europe. Both factions, moreover, are angry with Western support for the Kurds and supposedly for Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric that Washington refuses to extradite despite Turkish accusation for orchestrating the failed coup.

Admittedly, there are differences between the Kemalists and neo-Ottomans. And their divergence is clearly more pronounced in domestic politics. But even there they have more in common than one might suppose. Both camps are virulently anti-Kurdish, for example. And despite significant differences between the “secularist nationalism” of the Kemalists and the “religious nationalism” of the neo-Ottomans, both are strong proponents of nationalistic interests grounded in a nostalgia for Turkish preeminence and independence from the West.

The neo-Ottomans and Kemalists, especially of the “Eurasianist” wing (who are well-represented among military officers now progressing up the army echelons), are advocates of regional strategic alliances that boost Turkish leverage against Western partners in the transatlantic alliance. At the end, both neo-Ottomans and Kemalists share a state-centric view of the world that places Turkey at its very core.

Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria, its growing anti-Americanism, its rapprochement with Russia and Iran, its frustration with the EU, and its war against the PKK Kurdish group, are all factors that contribute to the growth of Turkish Gaullism. If current trends continue, what will emerge is not an Islamist polity but a Turkey with a strategic orientation that is much more defiant, independent, self-confident and self-centered – in short, a Turkish variant of Gaullism.

As in the case of Charles de Gaulle’s anti-American and anti-NATO policies in the 1960s, this Gaullist Turkey already is questioning Ankara’s membership within the Atlanticist military structure and the logic of waiting for an elusive membership in the European Union. In search of full independence, full sovereignty, strategic leverage and, most importantly, “Turkish glory and grandeur,” a Gaullist Turkey may opt for its own “force de frappe” – a nuclear deterrent – and its own realpolitik engagement with countries such as China, India and Russia.

The West, obsessed with Huntington’s clash of civilizations, ignores this Gaullist trend in Turkey at its own peril. But just as importantly, the rest of the Middle East – given their even greater proximity to Turkey – should also want to consider what the strategic implications are for themselves.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.