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Are Turks and Americans Friends: A Reconsideration

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On Friday a guest post by Alexander Slater on the blog Ottomans and Zionists explored the question Are Turks and Americans Friends?  This is a reconsideration of that question.  I am not calling this a rebuttal, because I can’t argue with the statistics on which the post was based.   I disagree with Slater that the White House’s statement emphasizing “the close friendship between the United States and Turkey” is essentially wrong.  However, it certainly should be accompanied by a number of asteriskes.

Far from being exceptional, the friendly relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan is typical of interactions between individual Turks and Americans.  As anyone who traveled to Turkey or spent time with Turks will tell you, Turks are extremely welcoming, friendly and even excited to meet Americans and are curious about American culture.  The lived experience seems to contradict the Pew Forum Survey which found that only 13% of Turks have a favorable view of the American people.  I agree with Michael Koplow and Steven Cook’s explanation, namely that Turks are able to separate American foreign policy from individual Americans.  The Pew Forum questions were simply not worded in a way that would discern the fine but important distinction between a nation as a whole and the individuals that comprise it.  In order to measure this distinction the survey should have included questions such as: Have you ever met an American?  If so, do you have a favorable opinion of him or her?  Do you have a desire to visit the United States?  Do you have favorable or unfavorable impression of everyday life in the United States?  I suspect questions such as these would elicit much more favorable responses from Turks than those in the original survey.

However, the fact remains that the vast majority of Turks have a negative opinion of the United States and its foreign policy.  This begs the question that Slater addresses in his post: Given the close relationship between the governments of our two countries, and a similar business and political culture, why do such negative opinions persist?  More importantly, what can be done to cultivate a more favorable and accurate image of America among Turks?  As I’ve written previously, Turkey has an ingrained suspicion of foreigners and their motives, often referred to as Sevres Syndrome.  This phenomenon goes far in explaining the fact that Turks not only report a dislike of Americans, but foreigners in general.  Slater rightly points out that the majority of Turkey’s population now lives in urban areas and that the urban vs. rural population split continues to widen.  However, I think it is incorrect to automatically expect Turkey’s city-dwellers to hold cosmopolitan world views.  Turkey’s urbanization was the result of a mass internal migration from the countryside to the cities in the mid to late 20th century.  While younger Turks may overwhelmingly be city-dwellers by birth, the majority of the older generations are transplants who spent their formative years in villages despite their current urban residence.  Therefore, many urban Turks still take a provincial view of the world, unlike the political and business elites with whom he interacted.

However, this perception problem goes both ways.  Turkey was not included in the list of countries in a recent Gallup poll gauging American perceptions of foreign countries.  However, I suspect that Americans’ opinions of Turkey would place it nearer Egypt or Russia rather than Germany or France, that is generally unfavorable.  Popular perceptions of Turkey in the United States are based largely on its geographic location, Muslim population and depiction in films. Slater calls for bilateral action emphasizing the numerous political, business and cultural commonalities between Turkey and the United States.  While I am unclear as to what this action might entail, I fear it would only be effective at the micro level.  I believe that the United States bears much of the responsibility for  effecting large scale changes in Turkey’s perception of American as well as American’s perception of Turkey.  Turks will always to view the United States in a negative light as long as our foreign policy continues to vacillate between violent disasters like Iraq and impotent attempts to secure peace, such as the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Turkey’s xenophobia is something that as a nation Turks must work to overcome.  However, Americans must also work to end our notoriously poor knowledge of the world and ever persistent Islamophobia.  Unfortunately, all of these changes will take a great amount of time and effort to come about and may in fact not be realized for many years.  In the short term at least we can take comfort in the fact that our respective leaders, and many lay individuals, share an open and friendly relationship.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

May 20, 2013 at 4:59 pm

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