The Unbreakable Bond Between Turkey’s Democracy and Foreign Policy

May 31, 2019

A fundamental reality of foreign relations is that a country’s international standing is largely a reflection of its internal strength. And this invariably depends on respect for the rule of law, strong institutions and a broad national consensus on where the country should be heading.

And, geographic location largely impacts a country’s foreign policy.

This is a given which can constitute a challenge in itself. The contrast between Portugal’s and Turkey’s locations is a striking example. Portugal is a member of NATO and the EU and its only neighbor is Spain, another NATO and EU member. The Portugal–Spain border is 1,214 kilometers, the longest uninterrupted border within the European Union. Portugal is located at the western end of Europe where peace, prosperity and stability have reigned for decades. It is far away from conflict areas.

It is generally agreed that Turkey enjoys a unique strategic location. This is true but we Turks need to remember that this is also a double-edged sword. Indeed, Anatolia is unique multilayered piece of land with a rich history joining three continents and two seas. As such it has been a focal point of geopolitics for ages. However, the other side of the coin is that today it is located in the middle of three conflict areas: the Balkans, the Caucasus and prominently the Middle East. On the Asian side, Turkey shares land borders with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Our border with Syria is 910 kilometers long.

Such a country has no other option than being internally strong, having the hard power to provide for its security and the soft power to contribute to peace and stability in its vicinity. Thus, republican Turkey sought to build its foreign and security policy on pillars: relations with the West, namely the US and Europe and relations with regional countries prominently among them Russia, a global power. Moreover, it constantly strived to add new columns to these three in view of global change.

Ankara considered each one these columns essential for its national interests. Indeed, had Turkey not joined NATO, maintained close relations with the US, launched the EU accession process and inspired confidence in regional countries, it would have put itself in a corner. Whatever difficulties we encountered, the EU accession process which reflected our democratic progress gave us a privileged regional status. It multiplied our soft power. Our good relations with the region, on the other hand, were seen as an asset by the EU. In brief, these columns were not alternatives. This was why successive governments did their best to ensure their complementarity.

And for decades, despite ups and downs, Turkey endeavored to build a strong economy, a strong army and to follow a rational security policy based on partnerships. During the last decade, however, the country witnessed a reversal. Our democratic performance, our respect for the rule of law, our attachment to secularism, the antidote to Middle East’s sectarian strife, and the independence of our institutions became questionable. From being a trusted regional partner, we shifted to being an adversary. We became part of problems. Our soft power waned. We put our commitment to NATO in doubt. Our relations with the US and Russia became unsteady. Syria which had become a partner after many years of a confrontational relationship turned into a major security challenge. But worst of all, we became a polarized nation.

To go back to the beginning, today we are not as internally strong as we should be. Our economy is in dire straits and our foreign and security policy is almost at a dead-end.

Regardless, some still claim that Turkey is on its way to becoming a global power. Advocates of this view conveniently ignore the fact that today’s global players are countries with vast territories and large populations; they are world’s major economic and military powers; they invest heavily in technology, research and development; they cultivate relationships with other countries and always keep diplomatic channels open.

Turkey is not the only country which can’t meet the global power criteria. There are many others. Nonetheless, we still have a unique opportunity. If we move forward on the right path Turkey can still become a country of global consequence if not a global power. For this, me must prove beyond a shadow of doubt that we are, irreversibly, a secular democracy. Because this would give us the opportunity to inspire the peoples of a region in chaos and thus earn us world’s appreciation. In other words, Turkey has two options:

  • To launch a fresh effort to achieve Western democratic standards and use the soft power this would yield to promote peace and stability in our region, or
  • Irreversibly become part of the Middle East characterized by “turmoil”, “sectarian conflict” and “lack of democracy”.

This is a time to think hard but not for too long because we have to beat the clock.





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