The Prodigal Son Fallacy
Why do people think Turkey is returning to the West?
I wrote a piece for War on the Rocks recently, and it’s out today. It’s not as much on Turkish politics as on watching Turkish politics.
Here’s how it starts:
NATO’s Vilnius summit appears to have gone well. To the delight of allies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came out announcing that he would take Sweden’s membership application to parliament and support its ratification. Sweden’s accession probably won’t hit parliament’s floor for months in Ankara, but the announcement still triggered an all-too-familiar media frenzy. “Erdoğan’s Flip On Sweden Signals Mending ties with the U.S.” ran a New York Times news analysis. “Turkey’s Reversal on Sweden’s NATO bid boosts alliance unity” said Bloomberg. It seemed Turkey was finally distancing itself from Russia and steering back towards the West.
Recent history is ripe with moments where people expected Turkey to stop its “drift” away from the West and “pivot back,” so I gave it a name: Prodigal Son Fallacy.
So, Erdoğan recently won an election? Maybe he’ll moderate! Turkey is selling arms to Ukraine? They are coming back to the Western fold! Erdoğan has lifted his veto on Swedish accession to NATO? Ankara has finally seen reason! et cetera.
You can read the full argument here.
My point is that a big segment of journalists, analysts, and people who watch these things chase a moment of Turkey’s return to the Western fold. This is exhausting to a subset of more serious Turkey watchers, because the prodigal son idea is so dominant that it can’t be ignored - it either has to be pandered to or refuted. The headline by veteran journalist Amberin Zaman at Al Monitor was “Erdogan’s NATO moves agitate Russia, but don’t spell Turkey’s sharp shift to West,” and Aaron Stein’s piece on War on the Rocks read “A pirouette, not a pivot.” My favorite example though, is how Steven Cook started his recent FP column:
Not long after the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, concluded earlier this month, I attended a gathering at a friend’s house in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. As I stepped into the dining room where friends were drinking beer and devouring steamed crabs, one of them shouted, “There you are!” and asked me, “Can you explain to me what Erdoğan did in Vilnius?” I promptly turned around and left the room. It was a Sunday, and I had been answering questions about Turkey and the NATO summit for weeks.
Why turn your back on steamed crabs and ice cold beer in the DC summer? Probably because you can’t stomach explaining to yet another person why Vilnius didn’t mean that Turkey was “returning to the fold.”
Sometimes it helps to name something, so I thought I’d give it a go.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial