Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Ruhani were in Ankara last week to talk about Syria. Their photo has been plastered across the news for much longer than is typical for this sort of thing. Western friends are puzzled and a bit upset, like someone who has just heard that their long-lost friend joined a drug cartel. Bob Menendez, a senator from New Jersey and a ranking member of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs Committee had a more mature attitude.
It was the confirmation hearing for the Secretary of State nominee, the current director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo. Menendez showed that picture in Ankara and asked, “What is missing in this picture, director?” When Pompeo did not answer, Menendez said, “It is the U.S. that is missing in this picture, director.” That is the attitude those of us in Turkey who think NATO is important would like to see more of.
There is a second and related question on my mind these days. Why did Halide Edip Adıvar, the renowned Turkish writer, give her second son born in 1905, a Japanese name?
On May 1905, the Japanese fleet, commanded by Admiral Togo Heihachiro, destroyed two-thirds of the Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait. Halide Edip was 20 years old at the time and gave birth to her second son. She and her husband Salih Zeki Bey presumably named their newborn Hasan Hikmetullah Togo out of respect for the Japanese admiral.
Later, her second husband Adnan Adıvar wrote in his memoir that his stepson’s “name was only Hasan Hikmetullah and Togo was just his nickname, as all the boys in the neighborhood at the time were called Togo.” Why did a name from a Far East Asian Island nation make it to Anatolia? Out of love for the Japanese? I tend to disagree.
Whatever the case may be, the naval Battle of Tsushima had an impact on the Turkish psyche in 1905. This was the first time a non-European power beat a European military. Russia, mind you, is the country that had been the chief architect of Ottoman decline. The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 that ended with the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774 was the beginning of Turkey’s long and painful decline. The Russians seized Crimea, my own homeland, marking the first time Muslim lands were given up to a Christian power. But Admiral Togo, from a non-European country that modernized much later than Europe, beat the Russians. Because both societies were increasingly becoming a periphery or “the rest” to a liberal center.
That picture of Erdoğan with Putin and Rouhani is about non-European powers trying to shape their own destinies. The only way NATO can influence this destiny is by joining it. It is their total indifference to the security interests of Turkey that has forced Turks to seek new partners.
Now that the Syrian crisis is entering a new phase, the West needs to have an endgame strategy. Otherwise, unfortunately and rather eerily, Putin knows how to approach Ankara, and make a game plan of his own. This does not make Turks happy, but as people who are stuck being “the rest,” they’ll take it.