Turkish Foreign Policy in a Blind Alley

25 March 2015

It was only a decade ago that Turkey, in recognition of its commitment to continuing political and economic reform, was given green light to start accession negotiations with the EU. Peoples of the region were following the process with envy. It was less than a decade ago that Turkey was playing a facilitator role between Syria and Israel. Our relations with neighbors were characterized by a determination to open new avenues of cooperation reflecting shared interest. It was in 2004 that a consortium led by a Turkish company won the contract to build the third terminal of the Cairo airport. The terminal was opened at the end of 2008 and doubled airport’s passenger capacity. In April 2009 Turkey became the first country to host President Obama on a bilateral visit.

Of course there was no guarantee that these positive trends would continue. EU countries still had lingering doubts and some regretted the decision to launch negotiations. With the Arab Spring the Middle East entered a period of turmoil. Syria became a battleground. But there was no obstacle to keeping our democratization process on track and maintaining reasonably good relations with regional countries.

A decade later, Turkey appears to be a different country. The world is no longer praising of our reform efforts but talking of our authoritarian tendencies. We have reopened a debate on the fundamentals of democracy such as separation of powers and independent judiciary. The negotiation process with the EU has stalled. We are no longer a facilitator between adversaries but a party to numerous regional conflicts. We no longer have ambassadors in Cairo, Damascus and Tel Aviv.

Our internal policy failures have been instrumental in altering world’s perception of Turkey. But foreign policy mistakes, most of which are linked to our internal politics have also have contributed to this image change. Indeed, a combination of ideology, overconfidence and miscalculation has shattered Turkey’s traditional foreign policy and put us in a blind alley.

Our basic mistake was look at the Arab Spring from an ideological angle. Surely the only organized opposition in these countries was the Muslim Brotherhood. But this did not guarantee their accession to power. We should therefore have refrained from giving them our blanket support and wait for things to settle. This policy has destroyed our relationship with Egypt and put us at odds with Gulf countries and many others. Today, at least some of Egypt’s regime opponents seem to be based in Turkey. A most respected think-tank, the International Crisis Group mentions Egypt, UAE on one side and Qatar, Sudan and Turkey on the other side as countries supporting different groups competing for power in Libya (*). Why could not Turkey simply support national dialogue?

Today many countries continue to say that President Assad has no political future. But they see ISIL as a greater challenge to regional and global security. They are neither as obsessed with Assad as we are, nor were they as close to him in the past as we were. The lesson from the Libya intervention should have made it amply clear to us this could not be repeated in Syria. The invasion of Iraq should have thought us that foreign military interventions lead nowhere.

It appears that the blind alley where we find ourselves has resulted in disappointment, frustration and a reluctance to cooperate. The argument that we are standing by our principles and by the peoples against oppressive regimes is not convincing.

On 7 June Turkey will hold general elections. This is not going to be simply a test for political parties measured in percentages of votes received. This and particularly what follows are going to be a major test of maturity for Turkey’s democracy. It will be important to remember in this respect that our problem is not the constitution but the polarizing, zero-sum game political culture.

Regardless of where we may head internally, we would need to engage in a substantial review of our foreign policy. Reversals are usually an anathema to politicians. Yet the insistence on the current path may further isolate and marginalize Turkey.
(*) Libya: Getting Geneva Right, Middle East and North Africa Report N. 157, 26 February 2015

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