US must share power in new world order, says Turkey's controversial president

In his first interview with a foreign newspaper since becoming head of state, Abdullah Gül tells Stephen Kinzer of his vision for his country as a bridge between nations

Guardian | August 16 2008
By Stephen Kinzer

Days after Russia scored a stunning geopolitical victory in the Caucasus, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey said he saw a new multipolar world emerging from the wreckage of war.

The conflict in Georgia, Gül asserted, showed that the United States could no longer shape global politics on its own, and should begin sharing power with other countries.

"I don't think you can control all the world from one centre," Gül told the Guardian. "There are big nations. There are huge populations. There is unbelievable economic development in some parts of the world. So what we have to do is, instead of unilateral actions, act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order, if I can say it, should emerge."

Gül, relaxing in a hotel suite with a spectacular view of the glistening Bosphorus, spoke just hours before meeting with the visiting president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

He rejected the idea, promoted by the United States and Israel, that the best way to deal with Iran was to isolate, sanction and punish it. "There are so many important issues, like the nuclear issue, Iraq, the Caucasus, Afghanistan," he said. "Iran is definitely having some influence of these issues, so we are talking."

Gül said Iran had a right to develop nuclear energy but not nuclear weapons. "We don't want to see weapons of mass destruction in this region," he said. "If it's in our neighbourhood, we definitely don't want to see it."

Asked about the possibility of an American attack on Iran, Gül replied: "I don't want to think about that. Everybody should take a lesson from what happened in Iraq," he said. "Diplomatic solutions are always better than hard solutions."

Few countries in the world have changed as dramatically as Turkey over the last decade, and Gül is among the most intriguing new political leaders to emerge here during that period.

When first elected, he seemed to be part of a new Islamic wave that was challenging the entrenched secular elite. He is a practicing Muslim who married his wife when she was 15; she wears the headscarf that some secular Turks consider a badge of reactionary Islam. Yet he and his closest political ally, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have led a political revolution that has brought Turkey closer to democracy than any regime in the modern state's 85-year history.

Gül said Turkey could play a decisive role in bridging the chasm that separates the west from more turbulent regions. His country's effort to join the European Union, he said, was its "main agenda".

"I wish to see Turkey as an island where the European standard of democracy is being fulfilled and the free market economy is functioning very well," he said. "This will be a real gift to the region, to the world, for peace. And this Turkey will be a source of inspiration for so many.

"As we are transforming ourselves in that direction, we will not forget our natural links and relationships and advantages with other countries - Muslim countries, central Asian countries, Caucasus countries, Middle Eastern and other countries," he added, speaking in fluent English. 

"Turkey is having a positive impact on them, spreading the values of democracy, freedom, rule of law. Also, the economic changes here ... are admired. Maybe that is the indirect influence of this country."

For much of this year, political life in Turkey was frozen as the constitutional court considered a prosecutor's charge that the ruling Justice and Development party should be banned because it was a "focus of anti-secular activity". Last month the court rejected that argument. 

Now, Gül said, Turkey's priority must be to resume its stalled progress towards political reform. "In the last two years, we spent our energy on domestic issues, and the reforms slowed down," he said. "Now, after the court case, there is a new era. This is a big opportunity for Turkey. Everybody realises that reforms are necessary."

Some European leaders, Gül said, fail ed to recognise the contribution that Turkey was making to stability in the world's most volatile region.

"This is a big asset for Europe," he said. "Turkey has great capacity to influence the region, indirectly, very peacefully, being an inspiration for changes. Turkey has been playing this role already. This has not been appreciated enough."

Opposition to Turkish membership in the EU was for years based on the country's failure to meet democratic standards. More recently, politicians in some European countries have sought votes by bashing Turkey and pledging to keep it out of the EU regardless of its progress toward democracy. These campaigns, Gül said, harmed Europe's long-term interests.

"Europe should realise that Turkey can do more for the stability and security of the region," he said. "Start with the Caucasus; last month, the problem was not serious, but suddenly we found ourselves in a war situation. 

"Europe should encourage Turkey, and not create some artificial problems during the negotiation process with us. Some member countries or some politicians should not mix domestic issues and strategic issues. Domestic issues are conjunctural; today it's there and tomorrow it's not. But the strategic issues are always there, and we cannot sacrifice strategic issues for domestic issues. Unfortunately, nowadays we see this kind of shortsighted policies in some countries."

Gül repeatedly returned to the importance of Turkey's democratisation process. He said it would ultimately resolve all of the country's domestic problems, including the long-festering conflict with Kurdish nationalists in south-eastern provinces. "Some call it terror, some call it the south-east problem, some call it the Kurdish problem - whatever you call it, we will find a solution," he said.

"There are other problems - secularism and anti-secularism - those things will also find solutions in this climate. That is why I focus on the reform process. The problem was this: the lack of democracy, the standard of democracy. That was creating problems, not only in the south-east but in other issues. That is when we upgrade the standards, these problems will find solutions."

With that, Gül was off to meet Ahmadinejad. "Our values are different," he said with a smile, "but having a good relationship helps the stability of the region."