A man walks past flags of Turkey and the European Union at Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 9, 2013.
A man walks past flags of Turkey and the European Union at Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 9, 2013.
Stoyan Nenov / Courtesy Reuters

The Turkish republic was born a dictatorship in 1923. And there is a good chance that it would have stayed that way had it not been for the United States’ influence as the leading world power since 1945.

To see why, consider the two major democratic turning points in Turkey’s last 90 years. The first came in 1950, when the country’s first free, multiparty elections swept aside the authoritarian Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and brought to power the conservative Democratic Party (DP). Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, wanted Turkey to become Westernized, but the one-party rule that he put in place was deeply anti-liberal and inspired by Western rightist authoritarian political thought. In other words, true democracy did not necessarily figure among the principles that Atatürk wanted Turkey to follow.

The next major democratic transition took place roughly half a century later, in 2002, when the Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The AKP dismantled the system of military oversight over civilian politics that had been in place since 1960, when the military staged the first in a string of four coups that ensured that it always kept its hands on the levers of power. The AKP forced the military to accept civilian rule (and the rule of a civilian party the military disliked) and then pushed through legal changes that limited the military’s political role. Most important, it changed the composition of the National Security Council, the body that the military had used to impose its will on elected governments, by reducing the number of generals in the body and subordinating them to civilian representatives. It also staffed the judiciary with loyal judges and prosecutors, who have subsequently taken up the cases of hundreds of senior military officers accused of having plotted to overthrow the government. Although the AKP’s creeping authoritarianism has become a worry, it is hard to overstate just how important the early reforms that expelled the military from politics were.

Turkey’s democratic revolutions -- the transition to multiparty democracy in 1950 and the end of military tutelage in the early 2000s -- were both rooted in internal changes that had taken place in the preceding years. In the 1940s, the CHP’s ruling elite had split over the role of the state in the economy. Some sided with the emerging bourgeoisie that demanded greater freedom. Traditional Kemalists, meanwhile, wanted to protect the rule of the bureaucrats.

In the 1990s, something similar happened. Thanks to economic liberalization in the 1980s and globalization, a new middle class rose to prominence in Anatolia, the conservative heartland of Turkey. The ascendant conservatives resented the tutelage of the military and the authoritarianism of the state. Supported by the liberals, they handed their party a victory in 2002 and then set to take over the entire state apparatus.

An outside power helped determine the outcome of these democratic revolutions. In both cases, the outgoing authoritarians -- the CHP and the military -- caved in because they knew that if they did not American and other Western support would evaporate. And without that support, Turkish security and welfare would take a hit.

After the opposition DP victory in 1950, the military offered to stage a coup to keep the defeated President Ismet Inönü and his CHP in power. Inönü was no democrat. Under his rule, leftist intellectuals were thrown in jail and even murdered. Jews and Christians were persecuted. He went even further than his predecessor Atatürk in his personality cult, appointing himself National Chief, in the image of his contemporaries, such as Spain’s “Caudillo” Franco. It would not have been surprising, then, if he agreed to the military’s plan. But Inönü abided by the election result and duly resigned.

In this case, U.S. influence was decisive. During the Second World War, Inönü had steered Turkey dangerously close to Nazi Germany. The Turkish regime was compromised by its pro-Nazi bent; United States and Britain pressured Inönü to come down on the Allied side, but he resisted until the war was almost over. Desperate for U.S. protection against a Soviet Union that was making territorial demands, Inönü needed to prove to the West that Turkey could be a respectable ally -- and what better way than holding “free elections” in 1946. The elections were not fair; but still, Turkey was rewarded for its efforts with aid under the Marshall Plan. But both sides needed more. Turkey was a front line state in the Cold War, and both Turkey and the West wanted Turkey in NATO. But it could not be brought on board as long as it remained authoritarian. The Inönü regime understood that it had to surrender to its domestic rivals or else face losing the full protection of the Western alliance against the Soviet Union. And so it held another round of elections in 1950, and the rest is history.

History repeated itself after the election victory of the Islamic conservative AKP in 2002. Only five years before, the military had ousted an Islamist-led government, arguing that it had to protect secularism. Many in the officers’ corps wanted to do the same to the AKP, and there were several aborted coup attempts in 2003 and 2004. Ultimately, though, those attempts came to naught because the General Staff did not endorse them. What had changed since 1997 was not the mentality of the General Staff. Rather, it was the state of the Turkish economy. By 2001, after a decade of political mismanagement, it was in free fall. Turkey needed to gain the confidence of foreign investors -- and a commitment to start the membership process with the European Union -- at all costs. Under such circumstances, the realists in the General Staff knew that a coup was out of the question. The generals surrendered their power -- and later even endured humiliation when scores of their comrades-in-arms were imprisoned -- out of fear that Turkey would otherwise be deprived Western economic protection.

In both cases, of course, democratic hopes were soon frustrated. Adnan Menderes, who came to power in Turkey’s first free, multiparty elections soon proved to be an autocrat himself. He jailed critical journalists and violently repressed the opposition. The rule of the AKP’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has similarly turned autocratic, and the EU membership process has stalled. Both leaders owed their power to the fact that the authoritarians before them had decided to feign adherence to democracy and liberty to please the West. But when Menderes and later Erdogan began to demonstrate authoritarian traits, the United States waited too long to remind them of their predecessors’ commitments.

The United States has pushed Turkey toward democracy but, as a rule, it has then been prepared to overlook a lot from democratically elected Turkish governments. Eisenhower finally disowned Menderes in late 1959, refusing Turkey further financial aid. By then, Menderes’ fall from power was imminent. It never condemned the dirty war that Turkey waged against its Kurdish minority during the 1990s. And successive administrations have made sure that Congress never passes resolutions on the Armenian genocide. In an interview in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama even listed Erdogan among the five world leaders with whom he had been able to forge “friendships and the bonds of trust.” But by then, Erdogan had already demonstrated his autocratic tendencies.

From Eisenhower to Obama, American administrations have been reluctant to ask too much from “democratic” Turkish governments, for fear that doing so would push them away, push them to be less cooperative in military and strategic matters. However, the United States has more leverage than it realizes. The prospect of being abandoned by America is something that terrifies Turkish leaders. The CHP and the military were scared enough to step down. Süleyman Demirel, a veteran conservative former prime minister and president, who grew alarmed when the United States began to open up diplomatically to China during the Nixon years, asked the question outright. “You are not going to abandon us now, are you?” he reportedly said to President Richard Nixon.

Turkey might appear to be more self-confident today; it sees itself as a rising power. Erdogan has not hesitated to publicly rebuke Obama for his reluctance to become involved in Syria. Erdogan’s predecessors would never have dared to do that. Although his rhetoric may suggest otherwise, however, Erdogan fears being abandoned by the United States as much as Demirel did. He has been desperate to enroll the United States in the civil war in Syria, in which Turkey is actively involved; he is afraid that, otherwise, Turkey is going to be left alone to deal with the consequences of the war. And U.S. pressure on the EU has been critical in keeping the potential for Turkish membership alive; if that were to disappear, the Turkish economy would be hurt. Even as a “rising power,” Turkey does not stand on its own feet. It remains as dependent as ever on the United States and the West for its security and welfare.

History teaches that, left to its own devices, Turkey does not abandon illiberal habits. But it also teaches that Turkey’s fear of being deprived of Western protection can be used to induce it to make democratic transitions. American and Western power has made a difference before, and can do so again now. Washington should treat Erdogan the way it treated Inönü: by reminding him that Turkey has to live up to Western democratic standards if it wants to continue to enjoy the benefits of being counted as a Western power.

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  • HALIL KARAVELI is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Security and Development Policy. He is also Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
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