Turkey Needs a Serious Foreign Policy Review

May 31, 2017

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 also searching for new pillars to add to the existing ones. Relations with China, India and other emerging powers offered new prospects.  Since they did not constitute alternatives to one another, strengthening each and every one of these pillars was a dictate of Turkey’s interests.

Those pillars have undergone serious damage in recent years for two reasons: our leaving the path of democratic reform and our involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) hoped that the change of administration in Washington would herald a new era. The initial signs are not inspiring.

Our relations with the EU are no better. The Council of Europe has put Turkey on its watch list. Our response has been, “so what, who cares?”

Our NATO membership has provided us with a full-fledged seat in an alliance which, despite the air of confusion created by President Trump, remains the cornerstone of Western solidarity. Now, however, lack of good chemistry between the EU and Turkey has started to adversely affect our relations with NATO. According to Die Welt, a Turkish proposal to hold NATO’s 2018 summit in Istanbul was strongly opposed by Germany, France, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The Turkish media reported immediately after President Erdogan’s return from the NATO summit that he had a telephone call with President Putin during which they agreed to further deepen the strategic cooperation between the two countries. Russia and Turkey have indeed maintained a mutually beneficial and correct relationship for years until the downing of the Russian Su-24 on November 24, 2015. Although a process of reconciliation has been launched, the timing of the call coming on the heels of the NATO summit looked rather interesting until a Kremlin statement said:

“… The two leaders exchanged greetings on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Treaty on the Principles of Relations Between the Republic of Turkey and the Russian Federation, dated May 25, 1992. Vladimir Putin also wished Recep Tayyip Erdogan success in connection with his election as Chairman of the Justice and Development Party of Turkey…”

Indeed, the Treaty in question was signed during the visit of Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to Russia on May 25, 1992. According to the official website of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “the treaty, which is the foundation of the new era of Turkish-Russian relations, sets forth the principles that constitute the basis of the relations between the two countries, such as respect for political independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, equality of rights and mutual interests, refraining from using force and threat to use force in solving problems and is a sign of the willingness on both sides to add new dimensions to their cooperation…”

The Kremlin statement also said that “mutual commitment was reiterated on furthering the strategic partnership of the two countries.”

The term “strategic partnership” hardly ever means a perfect relationship. Less than a decade ago, Turkey and the Assad regime agreed to launch a long-term strategic partnership. They were referring to common threats and challenges. With the Arab spring a few years later, all that became history. The US enjoys strategic partnership with both the United Kingdom and Israel but that does not mean that they agree fully on every issue. However, they do not have a fundamental problem of chemistry whereas we do. So, for Turkey, the term has lost much of its significance, the latest example being the relationship between Ankara and Washington. During the early years of the Obama administration we said that Turkey enjoyed a “strategic” even “model” partnership with the US but then the JDP came to believe that it was being betrayed by its partners in Washington and the relations took a downturn. Now, with the Trump administration, we appear to agree on generalities but hardly on anything of substance. To put it briefly, restoring our relations with both the US and Russia will take time. And, the relationship to emerge would probably be “transactional cooperation” rather than “strategic partnership”. In the light of current developments, one can make the same observation on EU-Turkey relations with even greater confidence.

Beyond its immediate regional concerns, Ankara now needs to read carefully and with cool-headedness, the signs of global uncertainty and transformation wherever this may or may not lead, and adjust its policies accordingly. Chancellor Merkel said in Munich last Sunday that traditional alliances were no longer as steadfast as they once were and that Europe should pay more attention to its own interests, take its fate into its own hands. “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” she added. The remarks of Europe’s de facto leader, who is known be extremely careful in her public comments, cannot be taken lightly. And indeed, all of this has some history. Germany and France never supported the US invasion of Iraq. When the UN Security Council voted on resolution 1973 (2011) allowing President Sarkozy and PM Cameron a leading role in the military intervention in Libya, Germany abstained together with Russia and China. The people of the United Kingdom have voted for Brexit and President Trump does not seem committed to his predecessor’s policies.

It is high time for the JDP leadership to start rebuilding the pillars of Turkey’s traditional foreign policy. Engaging in endless rhetoric, having spats with Turkey’s traditional allies and zigzagging between major powers may appeal to some in today’s polarized Turkey but they can no longer be presented as a coherent, national interest-based foreign policy.


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