The "Challenge" of Turkey

Samuel Huntington did alert us to the danger. In his now famous thesis on the "Clash of Civilizations" he gave Turkey as an example of a " torn country," one divided internally, according to him, between East and West, a country neither in Europe nor in the Middle East, with a fault line running within rather than at the border.

The recent bombings in Istanbul underscore, once again, the importance of Turkey's overcoming Huntington's fault line to emerge firmly as a prosperous, secular and stable democracy. If Turkey succeeds, it will show that there is nothing inevitable about the 21 st century becoming one of a "Clash of Civilizations," during which the Cold War's divisions are replaced by new religious antagonisms that resemble the Middle Ages. The concept of borders itself must be rethought in today's world: borders that run in minds and on the internet are as important as lines that divide geographical space.

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Turkey's success in moving forward as a modern democracy will depend, of course, on many factors, most of them internal to Turkey and having to do with domestic leadership and decisions that political and economic actors will make in Turkey. But the terrorists who struck with such deadliness understand the global, not just regional, nature of the struggle for Turkey's soul.

External factors will be critical in determining where Turkey ends up. Indeed, the single most important factor, which will have a decisive impact on developments to come and could set the stage for a remarkable success story, or, on the contrary, lead to failure, is the European Union's forthcoming decision on whether or not to start negotiations towards Turkey's full EU membership in 2005.

In December of 2002, EU leaders committed the Union to start negotiations with Turkey on full membership, provided Turkey fulfilled the relevant criteria common to all candidate countries. A December 2004 summit, to take place under a Dutch chairmanship, is to see the EU review Turkey's progress and decide, provided the criteria are met, on whether to start negotiations "without delay."

Economically, politically, institutionally, Turkey needs the "anchor" of the European integration process. Europe and Turkey together must prove to themselves, and to the world, that Huntington's "clash of civilizations" is not unavoidable; that Christians, Jews, Moslems, and other believers and non-believers can build the "European Project" together; that a society with a large majority of Moslems, can be democratic and secular; and that Turks and Greeks can do what the French and Germans have done: overcome a century-long antagonism to build a "good neighborhood".

The "borders" between East and West that Ataturk largely abolished in Turkey must not be allowed to form again in the minds of a new generation. The situation here is not unlike that which the EU faced in Eastern Europe, a region which also needed an "anchor" after the fall of communism. The EU provided that anchor almost without hesitation and the result has been spectacular.

Countries with command economies and scant experience of democracy are about to become full members of the Union, after a decade of rapid transformation. The anchor was there from the beginning. Europe was decisive and generous, and it worked.

In 1990, Turkey had a more advanced market economy and a much greater experience with democracy than the Eastern European countries about to join the EU. But, in the case of Turkey, Europe has long been reluctant to provide the same sort of incentives and hopes.

This has hurt Turkey's progress. But when Europe did move more decisively, as it did at the Copenhagen summit in 2002, economic and political progress in Turkey accelerated in a very tangible way.

Turkey must, of course, fulfill the conditions common to all candidate countries, measured in a fair and reasonable manner. But if it does fulfill these conditions, further hesitation by Europe will undermine all those who want to bring Turkey's democratic transition to a successful conclusion.

No doubt the challenge for Europe of integrating a large Turkey, bordering on the Middle East, is great. The rewards of success, however, would be immense -- for Turkey, for Europe, and for the world. Few moments in history hold the promise of the EU summit of December 2004.

A year remains before us. Turkey must work hard to get ready. The Unites States must think long-term and gently support the process, instead of toying with the misconceived notion of Turkey as part of a new "greater Middle East." Most importantly, European statesmen, who know in their hearts what is required, must show the courage and the wisdom to lead.