Why Turkey Matters

05/13/2010 11:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Turkey is a country on the move. Its economy is growing like wildfire—6% a year on average between 2002 and 2008, nearly three times as fast as the rest of the OECD.

Yet its politics seem to be stuck in neutral. Its Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also a newly-minted TIME 100 member, is best-known in the West for bashing Israel, palling around with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and eroding Turkey's secular values. Some commentators have wondered aloud whether the West has "lost" Turkey.

Last month I had the chance to travel to Turkey with the Toronto-based Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. For about a week and a half, we met with movers and shakers in Ankara, Istanbul, and Diyarbakir to get a sense of where Turkey is going.

I can tell you this—the West hasn't lost Turkey. But unless Washington makes a deliberate effort to engage Turkey in the long-run, Ankara will likely continue to distance itself from the West.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee's 23-22 vote to recognize the Armenian genocide, which caused the Turks to withdraw their Ambassador to Washington (he has since returned), didn't help much in this regard.

Did the Committee get its history right? Sure it did. Every credible historian who has studied the events of 1915 will tell you that a genocide was committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians.

But politicians have different responsibilities than historians—their first priority should be the future rather than the past. This means safeguarding an important relationship for the West by giving Turkey space to recognize what its Ottoman predecessors did in Armenia at its own pace, something the Turks slowly seem to be doing.

Why is Turkey so important to Washington?

First of all, with the largest army in Europe, Turkey is well-placed to take a leadership role in Afghanistan. Afghans, Turkish officials are quick to note, prefer dealing with Muslim troops from Turkey to American or European ones. Washington will likely need Turkey to increase its commitment to Afghanistan as its troops withdraw from the country.

Turkey is also a valuable partner in Tehran, with clout and contacts that Washington could only dream to have—assets that will continue to be useful as the West tracks Iran's nuclear program.

Also, Ankara may yet prove a useful mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians. The 2008 Israeli incursion into Gaza may have dumped cold water on Turkish-Israeli relations, but this won't last. Ankara still covets the role of Middle Eastern mediator, which means it's only a matter of time before it finds a way to make amends with Israel.

American engagement with Turkey is doubly important now, because Turkish-Western relations are headed for a serious rupture; the failure of Turkey's 23-year-old bid to join the European Union, which, possibly next to its membership in NATO, is Turkey's most important tether to the West.

Both Brussels and Ankara know Turkey's bid will be rejected. France will never support anything that shifts the EU's power center away from Paris, and European public opinion is cold to the idea of admitting a Muslim country to their ranks.

For now, Erdogan prefers to pretend his EU bid is still alive, as it gives him the political capital he needs to push through democratic reforms that further marginalize his rivals in the Turkish army.

But it's only a matter of time before the curtain falls on this long-running bit of Kabuki theater. The EU's popularity in Turkey is falling, and the Greek economic crisis will likely exacerbate that trend. And how long will the Turks tolerate living in EU limbo? Five years? Ten years? Some think the EU bid could drag on for another fifteen or twenty years, but I doubt Ankara will be able to justify waiting this long before calling it quits.

Washington will need to find a way to soften the blow this rupture between Turkey and the EU will do to Turkish sentiment toward the West, and the groundwork for this needs to start now.

U.S. engagement helps Turkey as much as it helps the United States. The EU bid, futile though it is, has been crucial to Turkey's modernization—it drove Turkey's elites to begin recognizing minority rights, and made democratically-elected politicians, rather than army generals, the key decision-makers in Ankara.

The Turkish government, though reluctant to admit it, will benefit from continued Western engagement as it tries to reconcile Islam with its secular government, accommodate its long-suppressed Kurdish minority, and, of course, come to grips with the events of 1915.

No matter what happens, Turkey's economy is likely to continue to grow, as will its significance to the region. Whether Turkey's rise will benefit all of its citizens, along with the West, will depend on what Washington does.