Reforms and economic growth have helped build a rising regional power straddling Europe and the Middle East.
Editor's note: The following commentary, a board member with the Minnesota International Center, included a reference to a task force report on the country written by the Council on Foreign Relations. Although some of the material in the column was correctly attributed to the report, the author used several passages from the report verbatim, or with very slight word changes, without adequate attribution. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics, and the commentary was written as part of that series. We are working with the center on attribution guidelines for future commentaries submitted as part of “Great Decisions.” In the meantime, we apologize to the Council on Foreign Relations and our readers. - Scott Gillespie, editorial Page Editor
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When I came to the University of Minnesota as a graduate student in 1976 from Istanbul, the Turkey I left was very different from the Turkey of today. Then, 75 percent of Turks lived in the countryside; today, that percentage lives in the cities. One of the consequences of this major population shift is that Turkey now has a middle class, which contributed to the election of the center-right conservative Adalet ve Kalknma Party (AKP) in 2002.
The AKP portrays itself as a pro-Western party in the Turkish political spectrum that advocates a conservative social agenda and a liberal market economy. When the AKP was elected to power, Turkey's gross domestic product was $231 billion; in 2010, it reached $736 billion. The Turkish economy has been growing by an average of 6 percent a year during the last decade; exports have more than tripled; annual inflation has dropped from the highs of between 60 and 80 percent in the 1990s to a more palatable 6 to 10 percent in the past decade, and interest rates have dropped dramatically.
Along with the economic advances, the government undertook reforms in earnest to meet the European Union's criteria for membership negotiations, which, in turn, had a dramatic effect on Turkish politics. Falling under the broad categories of judicial, human rights, economic, minority rights and foreign policy, these reforms and Turkey's strong economic growth have contributed to the significant changes in Turkish society and have solidified the AKP's political dominance.
Turkey is a rising regional and global power in close proximity to the challenges of political turmoil in the Middle East, bloodshed in Syria and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. A report by a bipartisan Task Force of the Council on Foreign Relations, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, stated that "Turkey may not yet have the status of one of Washington's traditional European allies, but there are good strategic reasons for the bilateral relationship to grow and mature into a mutually beneficial partnership that can manage a complex set of security, economic, humanitarian and environmental problems. This relationship should reflect not only common U.S.-Turkish interests, but also Turkey's new stature as an economically and politically successful country with a role to play in a changing Middle East."
While Turkey is more democratic, prosperous and politically influential than ever before, there are still questions about some of the government's democratic practices, including the prosecution and detention of journalists; the seemingly open-ended -- and at times questionable -- pursuit of military officers and other establishment figures for alleged conspiracy against the government; the apparent illiberal impulses of some Turkish leaders; the still-unresolved Kurdish issue, and the lack of progress on a new constitution.
The task force found that, overall, Turkey is not well understood in the United States, and it recommended that more effort be made to promote a better understanding of the new Turkey -- its strengths, vulnerabilities and ambitions -- in order to appreciate its regional and global role.
Turkey is clearly a country in transition. As with all countries undergoing fundamental change, there have been not only dramatic positive steps but also somewhat worrying developments. Overall, however, Turkey's story is a good one. The country is economically more successful and more representative politically, and it is playing a more influential role in its region and beyond.
For the United States, Turkey has always been an important, if at times complicated, ally. As a result, it is incumbent upon both governments to make every effort to develop U.S.-Turkey ties in order to make a strategic relationship a reality. To do otherwise would be to miss an historic opportunity to set ties between Washington and Ankara on a cooperative trajectory in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa for a generation. A partnership between the United States and Turkey will be good not only for the two countries but for the world at large.
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Ertugrul Tuzcu , a Turkish-American, lives in Minneapolis with his family. He is a member of the Minnesota International Center Board of Directors and regularly visits Turkey regularly, where he has extensive family connections.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.