TCS Daily

Turkey and the Problem of History

By Michael Totten - October 25, 2004 12:00 AM

The European Commission recently approved membership talks between the European Union and Turkey. It was a top-down decision. E.U. citizens overwhelmingly oppose the idea of Turkey joining their union. They fear Princeton historian Bernard Lewis may be right when he says that based on demographic trends Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century.

But there's something else, too. Something that's left unsaid, perhaps even unformed in thought, but there like a chill up your spine when you think you feel someone's eyes on the back of your neck.

Turkey is outside the E.U.'s post-modern End-of-History paradise. Its absorption would push the border of the European Union beyond the continent of Europe itself and deep inside the unofficial "nation" of Kurdistan. Europe wouldn't begin at the former front line of the Cold War. It would begin at the active front line of the Terror War right next to two states, Syria and Iraq, that are not only mired in History but also in Baath Party totalitarianism and Islamist jihad.

Robert Kagan's groundbreaking book Of Paradise and Power brilliantly contrasts the different views of power held by Europeans and Americans. The United States and Europe, he says, have sharply diverging ideas about the role of diplomacy and the use of military force due to the stark differences in historical experience accumulated over the past century.

Europe has never had it so good. After the meat-grinding horror of World War I and the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II, the United States provided a protective security umbrella over Western Europe, under NATO auspices, permitting Europeans to build multilateralist institutions and lavish welfare states. And now, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire on the West's eastern border, Europeans feel they have entered a settled post-historic era where nations can settle differences through diplomacy and the merger of formerly separate bureaucracies. War is seen as an anachronism from Europe's monarchical, imperial, and machtpolitik past.

We Americans, on the other hand, have never felt more threatened. The attack on September 11, 2001, was the worst ever on our own soil. History is far from over for us. Neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union ever struck such a blow against us at home. And because we are militarily powerful we are far more willing to use force than Europeans. Kagan quotes one European critic of America's policy who says "When you have a hammer, all problems start to look like nails." This is certainly true. Kagan's response: "When you don't have a hammer, you don't want anything to look like a nail."

From Europe's perspective, that's the problem with Turkey. It's a nail.

Turkey is a relatively liberal secular democracy, but it is no post-historic paradise. The government in Ankara is in a precarious balance of terror with its Kurdish minority in the East, where a civil war raged throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Last year the armed forces threatened the right-wing Islamic government with a military coup if the secular constitution isn't respected. Though the Turks have initiated serious liberal reforms and have improved their human rights record, troubles still lurk in the shadows. Troubles with the whiff of war.

The jihad in Iraq could spill out of its borders. Iraqi Kurds could declare independence from Baghdad and kick off civil wars inside any number of neighboring states (including Turkey) where the Kurds have long wished for a sovereign homeland. Israel could get drawn into yet another shooting war with Syria (which borders Turkey) over Syria's support for Hezbollah and other international terrorists.

The E.U.'s recent experience with metastasizing violence on the Balkan peninsula knocked the ideological struts out from beneath its conflict resolution system. It can't function with warmongering dictators in its midst, nor can it handle thugs on it borders. While Slobodan Milosovic massacred hundreds of thousands, Europeans averted their eyes and wished the problem away. The very idea of an armed intervention threatened the pacifist belief system that permits the E.U. to exist in the first place.

Europeans tried everything they are supposed to be good at: summits, diplomacy, an arms embargo, sending in the U.N., and a "peace process." All failed. Civilians were massacred even inside the U.N. "safe areas." Only armed intervention put a stop to the violence. Something similar or even worse could puncture the perimeter of the E.U. itself if it moves its border next to states more violent and volatile than Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.

The problem is not -- or at least not exclusively -- that Turkey is Islamic or that it borders front line states. Middle Eastern wars reverberate inside Europe even from a distance. The second Palestinian intifada was matched by the largest wave of anti-Semitic violence in Europe since the Holocaust. Europeans do have sound reasons to fear being drawn into these conflicts.

But History is coming again no matter what Europe does. In the era of high-tech globalization the world can't be walled off. The West can push into the East. And the East can push back.

The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell quotes Bassam Tibi, Germany's most well-known moderate Muslim: "Either Islam gets Europeanized, or Europe gets Islamized." This may be an overstatement. Mr. Tibi relies on the assumption that the increasingly Islamization of Europe will continue indefinitely. He doesn't take into account possible countermeasures such as the restriction of immigration. In any case, it will be far better for the world if Islam becomes Europeanized. The Middle East -- part of it anyway -- could become at least seemingly post-historic and settled as Europe is now.

Turkey is at a crossroads, physically and politically. Most of it is in Asia, its capital is in Asia, and its culture is Asian -- sort of. There is no such thing as "Asian culture" per se. But Asia has many cultures, and Turkey's is one of them. Turkey also has a small toehold in Europe at the tip of the Balkan peninsula. Politically it is moving as much as it can toward the liberal-democratic tradition born in the West.

If the fear of History, fear of the "other," or some combination of both prevent Turkey from joining the union, the danger is that Turkey may drift, like a spurned would-be lover, away from the Europe it aspires to join. If it turns from the West, it can only turn back to the East. Turkey, then, is in play.

Europe is at a crossroads, too. It can wallow in stasis and passivity. Or it can the initiative and act.

Europe can still have a role, if not as a super-power then at least as a civilizing soft power. What better way to carry out that mission than to admit Turkey into the union, to "Europeanize" at least one part of the House of Islam, and to set up a permanent Western camp on the edge of the Middle East itself.

Annexation is risky. But there will be problems in the Turkey-Iraq-Syria border region whether Europe moves into the neighborhood or not. Europeans should act while they can instead of waiting to be acted upon. They can handle it, in theory. But not unless and until they burst their psychological bubble where they pretend History is over.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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