The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Conversation with Namik Tan
Published on February 13, 2012

The embassy of Turkey is located at 2525 Massachusetts Avenue in the core of a region of Northwest DC known as Embassy Row. The compound’s bright and lively architecture stands in stark contrast to the gray block structures across the street, representing the Indian, Japanese, and South Korean embassies.

The compound is accessed through a front gate with an intercom. A tall man guided me into the main building and into a cool, quiet, and empty waiting room. Off to the side, down a flight of stairs, I could see a sanctuary-like area featuring a bust of Atatürk, reminiscent of the crypt one might find in a Christian basilica. Every now and then, a dark suit would enter and exit quickly through adjacent doors. Work was clearly being done, just not in my presence. A diplomat welcomed me into his office, where we chatted briefly about life in the Turkish foreign service, and then escorted me to meet the Ambassador.

Namik Tan has been the chief Turkish envoy to the United States since early 2010, and previously headed the embassy in Israel. His experience as a career diplomat carried him to Abu Dhabi and Moscow, and into the highest echelons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He motioned me to a couch and gave every appearance of welcoming a low-key conversation—or so I like to think—as a kind of break in what was obviously a busy day.

Ambassador Tan got his start in government by watching his father rise through the ranks of Turkish administration. Each of Turkey’s 81 provinces has various sub-divisions run by administrators, of whom his father was one of the country’s first. The family followed him around the republic as his responsibilities increased

“Each and every city has its own unique characteristics”, Tan said. “The more you travel, the more you engage with different people.” Even the folk dances in each city are different. He drew an explicit comparison to the United States, where urban centers tend to resemble each other in significant ways, due in large part to the growth of commercial chains like McDonald’s and Best Buy. “You close your eyes and you shift your place”, he continued, still on America. “It doesn’t make much difference.”

“From the very beginning, I was very much interested in literature”, Tan said. “I read a lot from different parts of the world, Russian classics and European history. The more my father was stationed in different parts of Turkey, the more I got to learn.” He was born in a city to which his family had zero connections, “some remote town of Turkey”, and his sister was born in a town equally disconnected from his family on the other side of the country.

In many ways, his childhood and adolescent tour through Turkey was a preview of his tour through the world. “I was in admiration of all those different lands”, he said, even before college, and immediately afterward he took the foreign service examinations. “I am a graduate of law, but I never practiced law.”

“There is no end to learning”, he offered on reflection. “You always learn, until you pass away. Every day you learn something new, especially when you meet with different people, in different cultures.”

Another Special Relationship“Turkey is located in a very special region, in every sense of the world”, Tan began. “If you look around Turkey, you will see a very complicated type of region. If you go clockwise, counter-clockwise, whichever way you like, you would see such issues like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the whole entire Middle East and North Africa. The so-called Arab Spring is there, right next to Turkey. We have the Balkans, we have Russia, we have the former Soviet republics and newly independent Central Asian republics, we have the fight against terrorism, we have energy security.” Not all of these issues can be found just on Turkey’s border, of course, but they are all in the same general neighborhood. “We have the EU, which is a very important civilization project as we see it”, he continued. “We have NATO, as one of the main institutions of international security.”

If this rather ambitious foreign policy portfolio sounds familiar, that is because it mirrors that of the United States. “It is an almost overlapping agenda”, Tan observed, “so the Turkey-U.S. relationship is of utmost importance to both countries. It is important not only to both countries, but it’s important to some security arrangements like NATO and it is important for regional stability and security.”

The modern relationship traces back to 1927, when diplomatic relations were restored between the Turks and Americans, a decade after World War I severed the bond. Later, in 1952, the United States ushered Turkey into the NATO military alliance. As Tan described it, the relationship was first focused mostly on defense issues, “a pillar-type of relationship”, in the same manner that Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran constituted pillars of American security. Over the decades, though, that military partnership evolved “to a very diverse, comprehensive” sense of cooperation.

The Sources of Turkish PowerThere are two basic reasons why Turkey is important and influential. First, and most obviously, Turkey is geographically adjacent to the core of U.S. interests in the region. Even Baghdad is just a couple days’ drive from Istanbul, and is closer still to the border. Second, as Tan explained, the Turks have deep-seated “cultural and historical affinity” with almost every nation in their vicinity. “If you look at history, for instance”, he suggested, “we ruled the lands of the Middle East for 500 years.” As a sign of that rule, the Ottomans assumed the head of the Islamic caliphate in 1517, although they began exercising control long before then. Ottoman rule persisted in the Balkans and North Africa for centuries.

As descendants of the Ottomans, Ambassador Tan continued, “we have left our traces all over these regions.” The Turkish “way of life has influenced the societies in this wide region.” In religious terms, too, Turkey is “very much connected to those areas, since most of the people who are under the influence of the Arab Spring are Muslim-majority countries.” Here he paused to clarify something important: “I’m not saying religion is a sort of a tool in a way, but it brings some affinity. We have the same religion and cultural affiliation with all those countries.”

“What is more, we have a democratic secular system and parliamentary democracy”, he added. “All the values that we all cherish, universally, especially among the civilized world, are there.” He described Turkey’s free market-based economy as being “of utmost importance.”

“So what makes us different from other countries is that we have a Muslim-majority society, but we hold Western values”, he summarized. Turkey’s existence demonstrates that “Islam and modernity can go alongside with each other in a most effective way.” Further, the Ottoman heritage, which itself is multicultural, permits Turkey to play a role “in moderation, in reconciliation, in mediation between different cultures.”

“We can talk to anyone and everyone you can think of”, he said proudly. “We can talk to everyone in our region. When you go into Iraq, we can, for instance, talk to every single individual group”, regardless of race and ethnicity. “Even if they don’t talk to each other, they talk to us.” Turkey has relations with the Israelis and with the Palestinians, and even within the Palestinian construction, between those in the West Bank and those in Gaza. “This gives us some special unique ability, really, to make our own contribution to regional peace and stability.”

Tan continued: “Even if we wanted to, we could not just distance ourselves from any of those issues, in terms of engagement. We need to engage with these problems.” In this context, engagement doesn’t necessarily mean intervention, the way two armed forces might engage each other on the battlefield. It refers to diplomatic contact, economic dealings, and other types of “softer” contact.

Turkish engagement, though, is not “out of a sort of an ambitious type of policy or perspective”, he added, “but because of the fact that if we do not engage with those problems, or if we are not proactive in responding to certain challenges, before those problems blow up in real terms, then we are the party which feels the heat, no one else.”

Neighborhood WatchGiven Turkey’s cultural legacy and active role in the region, the following question naturally arises: Is the republic a model for others?

“We’re not just trying to be a role model for someone else”, Tan replied. “We are there for our own people, for our own destiny, for our own future, but what does that future involve? Let’s think about that. What we are trying to do is to create a peaceful neighborhood. We are sick and tired of these very complex, difficult problems around us.”

I raised the analogy of doing nothing while your neighbor’s house burns.

“How can you have really complex issues around your country”, he responded, and remain “just happily living in the place where you are, when people are being killed right next to you?”

In the wider region, though, there are plenty of other countries that are either unwilling or unable to stop violence just across their borders. What makes Turkey exceptional in the Middle East region? Are other Arab countries not sick and tired of these perennial problems? Why does Turkey care, even as others don’t seem to?

“Because we want to enjoy the wealth that we have achieved!” he replied. “I tell all my American friends: ‘You have a wonderful country, and you have quite an acceptable standard of living for your own people.’“ We hold certain values, and hold them strongly. “But look at the environment. Two oceans, Canada and Mexico, two peaceful countries. It’s not the case in our region. This is what I’m telling you. They say, ‘Why is Turkey trying to engage with the evolving situation in Syria?’ Why? Because we have thousands of people getting into our country. We are right next to them.”

He suggested that Americans in Washington place themselves in Turkey’s situation. Replace Maryland and Virginia with a 880-kilometer border with Syria, 330-kilometer border with Iraq, and 450-kilometer border with Iran. “There are the places which are unfortunately burning”, Tan said. “We have to put out all of those fires so that we can have our people culturally engage with all those neighboring countries”, in commercial terms, “making the region rich and peaceful, so that we can enjoy our own achievements.”

But should others follow the Turkish example, incorporating Western institutions and values into a Muslim framework?

“If the others take it as an ideal model for themselves, it’s their choice and we are happy”, he replied. “What we are doing is for our own people, not for setting, specifically, an example for others.”

“We want to live a decent life, but through internationally accepted values”, Tan argued. “We want our people to enjoy all of them.” These aspirations include democracy, transparency, accountability, professionalism, the rule of law, and other values common to the West.

“We may not be perfect”, he acknowledged, but he urged me to compare Turkey with any of the more than forty Muslim-majority nations around the world. “With all due respect to each and every one of them”, he said, “when you look at them, something is missing.”

Good Sportsmanship and Power PlaysThe Middle East is likened to a grand chessboard more than any other region. Commentators imagine Iranian pawns and Saudi knights skirmishing in every direction, symbolizing the covert war taking place just beneath the surface. Iran, it is alleged, instigated or at least facilitated much of the Arab Spring that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and threatened every other Arab regime in some way or another. The Sunni Arabs respond in kind, theorizing in public and private about the threat from Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey is also viewed as a third power broker in the region. I asked Ambassador Tan to what extent this was a realistic portrayal of the dynamics at work in his neighborhood.

“I think it is quite fair if every country has a fair competition”, he said, comparing it to sports. “One day you beat the rival team or they beat you, but everything is peaceful. So that is what we are trying to do.”

Noting that the Middle East is historically volatile, he continued: “We should have very strong cultural exchanges, social exchanges, very, very strong commercial cooperation, joint ventures. These things should come to the forefront, not some violent approaches or, let’s say, some military-type of intimidation.”

In this sense, he claimed, the Republic of Turkey has “never ever had an ambitious foreign policy.” On the contrary, “legitimacy is of utmost importance to us.” The argument here, of course, is that conquering other nations is an illegitimate way of exercising and gaining power. “I’m telling you”, he insisted, “the focus is always our own people, quite naturally.”

“Who Am I?”Turkey is often described as “the bridge between East and West.” No two countries have been more supportive of Turkey’s accession to the European Union than the United Kingdom and the United States. This is interesting because an entire continent, most of which is ambivalent at best about Turkish membership, separates the former from Turkey, while the latter isn’t even a member.

So is Turkey European or Middle Eastern?

“Let me tell you a story”, Tan replied, and then launched into his family’s genealogy. His mother’s mother is originally from Salonica, Greece, and moved to the Anatolian region at an elderly age. “My father’s father is originally from the lands of Bulgaria”, he continued, adding that other relatives were from the border with Syria and as far afield as Ossetia. “So tell me”, he said with a smile, “Who am I?”

His family background is typical of the Turkish population. “We see there’s a richness of our own society”, he added, noting that more Albanians, Macedonians, Kosovars and Azeris live in Turkey than in their national homelands. “It’s in our genes, that we can easily communicate with all these different cultures.”

Is there something, then, to the notion that Turkey embraces a neo-Ottomanist policy?

“I’m not trying to make an analogy. It is not my message that we want to revive the Ottoman Empire”, he shifted quickly. “Sometimes people do develop such arguments here in this country, but it’s never been on our agenda.” He pointed out that the United States is young compared to Turkish civilization. It’s only natural, he argued, that Turkey would be interested in the lands it once possessed.

This diversity, he concluded, “has made our society very colorful, but powerful as well.”

Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of the Stanford Review.