July 25, 2016
A year-and-a-half ago I wrote (*):
“We Turks need to understand that our success as a nation, especially in the field of foreign policy, depends first and foremost upon our internal peace and stability. The amount of respect we enjoy, our international status, our regional role, our effectiveness at international organizations, they all depend upon our giving final proof that Turkey is a secular democracy. Since the founding of the Republic by Atatürk in 1923, this has been the world’s expectation because we are or were, the only country with a predominantly Moslem population to have come this far. Turkey needs to prove, once and for all, that we are a democracy and that the point of no return has been crossed.
“Until we do that even the right foreign policy initiatives will yield no result.
“Unfortunately, the “once in a century” historic opportunity is slipping away…”
In a dangerously polarized country bordering on the most unstable region of the world and facing a multitude foreign and security policy challenges, a bloody coup attempt was the last thing anyone could want. Sadly, Turkey once again disappointed world. The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership is giving assurances that as the perpetrators of the coup are brought before justice, fundamental rights, freedoms and different life styles will be respected and the rule of law upheld. Nonetheless, there is no denying that this is going to be the most turbulent period in the history of the Republic. While the government is trying to calm the fears of Turkey’s friends, allies and markets, there were those who, in the heat of the day, called for relaxing of gun control measures, urging people to carry arms and demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty. There is information pollution. And, the sheer numbers of those detained, fired or under investigation show the enormity of task before Turkey’s crippled justice system. This upheaval will no doubt have foreign policy consequences.
Turkey’s traditional foreign policy stood on pillars. Our relations with the United States and the European Union constituted the first two. A third one was our relations with our neighbors and the region. Prominently among those was Russia. Since the world is in a constant process of transformation Turkey was searching for new pillars to add to the existing ones. Relations with China, India and other emerging powers offered new prospects.
Turkish foreign policy’s success depended on each one of these pillars being strong. Had Turkey not been a member of NATO, maintained strong relations with the US, started an accession process with the EU and enjoyed the trust of neighboring countries, we would have confined ourselves in a corner. The EU accession process, in spite of all the difficulties, added a positive dimension to our regional role. Our relations with region were an asset for the EU. In other words, our foreign policy pillars did not constitute alternatives. On the contrary, together, they supported the same structure.
With the Arab spring the regional pillar of our foreign policy was shattered. JDP’s obsession with toppling President Assad led to strains not only with Russia and Iran but also with Europe and the US. Eventually, it became evident that “precious loneliness” was no longer sustainable. Turkey’s new PM Binali Yıldırım said from day one that Turkey needs more friends and fewer enemies. Reconciliation with Russia and Israel were welcome steps. But now, with the 15th June coup attempt and its aftermath, our relations with the West can become more problematic. Turkey’s leaders need to be open-minded towards expressions of concern and worry regarding our internal developments because for a Western capital anything even remotely similar is simply unthinkable, beyond comprehension. Further strains may change for the worse the nature of our increasingly uneasy traditional relationships. The government would be well-advised to avoid head-on confrontations with both the EU and the US. No country can afford to engage in battle on all fronts.
President Obama gave Turkey more credit than any of his predecessors; he paid his first bilateral visit to Ankara; he praised our secular democracy; he saw in us a nation to promote respect for human rights, freedom of expression and good governance in the region (**). However, during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 2013, he also stated the following:
“Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals…”
So, regardless of who is in the White House, Ankara and Washington can either try to rebuild what was once referred to as a “model partnership” or engage in restricted and uneasy cooperation on core interests. The same goes for the EU and even NATO. In the latter case, it will either be a less than perfect relationship with our allies of six decades or our nominal membership in a club of strangers.
To put this period of upheaval behind us we should prioritize national unity, restraint, respect for the rule of law and transparency. Turkey is a polarized country. The horrific assault of 15th June on our waning democracy appeared to unite the country. Whether this is momentary or not, only time will tell. Nonetheless, it creates an opportunity. The day after the attempted coup the parliament met and issued a declaration underlining its commitment to continue reflecting “Turkey’s unshakable attachment to democracy”. The parliament should now agree on a democratic platform to promote national unity. The best response to the coup attempt can only be more democracy not less, and the proper place to achieve that is the parliament.
No one would question the need to cleanse state institutions from those who for long years infiltrated them for their sinister aims, and bring them before justice. However, this must allow for the due process of law. We need to forget about reinstating the death penalty not because the EU would oppose it, but because there can be no penalty without previous law. Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker better try to hold his tongue for a while and let Turkey herself settle this.
And, political leaders, members of parliament, mayors and the media need to refrain from inflammatory statements. After all, what we are going through is not only a test for our democracy, it is also about our standards of civility.
(*) Quo Vadis Turkey, February 3, 2015.
(**) President Obama and the Middle East, February 1, 2015.