More Than a Lost Year

December 22, 2020

The main foreign policy topics of the past decade have been China’s ascendancy, relations between the West and a resurgent Russia, the rise of authoritarianism, democracy’s decline, the failure of multilateralism and climate change. With the Trump White House, most of the questions raised in recent years focused on Washington. People started asking “what went wrong?” to use the title of Bernard Lewis’s remarkable book on the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. Pundits in the West, including the US, started talking about Washington’s external military interventions and their political/diplomatic/economic cost, racism, gridlock. Some of the questions raised went beyond the Trump years. With major foreign and security policy challenges and 251,000 new coronavirus cases recorded last Friday, Mr. Biden will not be moving to a dream house on January 20.

International reaction to Covid-19, even within the EU, prioritized national interest. The UN Security Council remained invisible. The World Health Organization could only offer advice and statistics, sometimes becoming a target of criticism. The race for vaccines turned into a competition lacking cooperation. It seems that even if the world were under alien attack the reaction would hardly be different.

On December 14, the electoral college formalized President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. “Faith in our institutions held. The integrity of our elections remains intact,” Mr. Biden said in an address. “And so, now it is time to turn the page. To unite. To heal.” His promise to heal and unite must be music to ears of Americans, suffering like us the Turks, from a disease more dangerous than Covid-19, namely polarization. Not an easy task even for an exceptionally experienced statesman.

Mr. Biden’s election victory, or one may say “Mr. Trump’s defeat”, has been well-received across the world. In foreign policy, Mr. Biden would not pick up exactly where Mr. Obama had left, but he too would try to steer clear of what the former President called the “Washington playbook” that presidents are supposed to follow, a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment and prescribes responses to different events, which tend to be militarized responses. Hopefully, the change of the guard in Washington would augur well for effective multilateralism. Because another cold war is the last thing the world needs.

In Russia, President Putin has been in power for two decades. Although much has been said about his unpredictability, he has remained on a steady course in restoring Russia’s global status as a major power. And he has seized the opportunities offered by the West, in Georgia and Ukraine. In other words, he has been more than predictable, perhaps not in ways that the West would have liked, but he has.

China, while rising as a global economic power, has refrained from getting involved in international conflicts and remained principled and predictable. President Xi Jinping’s emerging as China’s “leader-for-life” has disappointed those who believed that China would become more democratic as it became wealthier. Nonetheless, that Beijing has now emerged as an equal of Washington is widely accepted.

The EU, a global economic power, has remained divided and ineffective as a foreign policy actor. Its public discourse on democracy and rule of law has weakened. Authoritarian tendencies in some EU countries were welcomed by autocrats elsewhere.

The US, China and Russia continue to engage in competition as global powers. Yet, all three must admit the impossibility of achieving exclusive global dominance and making decisive interventions in the immediate periphery of the other two as shown by the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts. So, the West needs to be careful in its policy towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Belarus.

December 17, 2020 marked the tenth anniversary of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s setting himself on fire, triggering the Arab Spring. On that day, the Guardian    published a far-reaching poll of 5,275 people across genders and age groups suggested the feelings of hopelessness and disfranchisement that have fueled this turbulent chapter in the Middle East have only increased, even if most people do not regret the protest movements – except for, notably, in the countries where they led to civil war.[i] The feeling of being worse off than before the Arab spring was unsurprisingly highest in Syria (75% of respondents agreeing), Yemen (73%) and Libya (60%), where street protests gave way to civil wars and foreign intervention that have shattered each country.

In other words, if the people of Syria were told today that the last eight years were nothing but a nightmare, and by a wave of a magic wand they would go back to the days before the uprising with those years of bloody conflict erased from memory, the vast majority would be delighted. 

Regardless, fighting is still going on in all three. Millions are displaced, without food, water, and medical care. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is closer to victory and the US closer to admitting it, struggling for an honorable exit. With Covid-19, these conflicts have taken the back seat.

Middle East countries remain unable to face the challenges of the day let alone determine the future on their own. Their administrations are undemocratic. Their economies are stagnant. Corruption and nepotism remain major problems. There is no transparency, no accountability. Thus, the Middle East deserves being called the “Miserable East”.

President-elect Mr. Biden’s saying it is time “to turn the page” is important and likely to be of consequence. Because the hand holding the pen to write the new pages is also important. Middle East leaders hardly ever mention “turning the page”. Unfortunately, even if they did, their narrative is unlikely to change.

In September, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House. Soon after, Sudan and Morocco also agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

Morocco’s having diplomatic relations with Israel is more significant. Because Al Quds Standing Committee of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation), established in 1975, has since then been chaired by the King of Morocco.  Moreover, in 1995, the Bayt al Mal Quds Agency was founded upon the initiative of the late King Hassan II. The objectives of the Agency are: “To salvage the city of Al Quds Al Sharif (Jerusalem); To extend assistance to the Palestinian population and Palestinian institutions in the holy capital; To safeguard and restore the Al Aqsa Mosque and other holy sites in the city as well the city’s cultural, religious, cultural, and architectural heritage.”

On the one hand, one must admit that the Abraham Accords constitute a remarkable diplomatic achievement for PM Netanyahu. He took the initiative and successfully guided a more than willing White House towards the destination he chose. Israel and Arab countries having diplomatic relations is a positive development.

But, on the other hand, if the intention is to isolate Tehran, build an anti-Iran block, and draw new battle lines in the Middle East, then it is something else. When the assassinations of Qasem Soleimani and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh were attributed to Israel, the authorities did not bother to deny the allegations. These killings were blatant violations of international law and a bad investment in the future.

It is clear that redefining US policy towards Tehran and the JCPOA would be one of Biden administration’s early foreign policy tests.

In the past decade Turkey’s democratic decline continued unabated. Thus, Ankara lost its strongest card on the international stage. This created an overarching chemistry problem with the West. Obituary for the EU accession process is written except for the date. Relations with the US are at their lowest point in decades. CAATSA sanctions were condemned by Turkey’s political parties. To corner the government, the “wily” main opposition even called for the immediate activation of the S-400 missiles purchased from Russia. Moscow also expressed its disapproval of the sanctions. Every time Secretary Pompeo mentions Iran and China, he underlines their “malign activities”. Had Mr. Trump stayed in power, Mr. Pompeo’s list could have extended to Turkey as well.

Yes, the EU was never sincere about Turkey’s accession process. Brussels is wrong to side with Greece and the Greek Cypriots no matter what. The EU lacks strategic vision; it is only after economic gain. Yes, Washington refused to sell us Patriot missiles and share technology. A NATO member is being sanctioned by another for the first and probably the last time and that is incompatible with alliance spirit.

But are we always one hundred percent blameless? When some in Europe raised questions regarding our EU membership, did we not say that we would simply call the Copenhagen criteria “Ankara criteria” and continue with democratic reform? Does anyone remember those lofty statements? Do we know exactly why the US refused to sell us Patriot missiles? Was the problem price, technology transfer, economic gain, or confidence? As a neighbor why did we take part in the regime change project in Syria? Was Syria’s territorial integrity in question in 2011? Why did we shoot down a Russian military plane for having violated our airspace for 17 seconds? Why did we not make a diplomatic protest to avert the recurrence of such violations? What is the threat analysis underlying our purchase of S-400s? Our NATO allies sent their Patriot batteries when we needed them. So why did we spend billions on S-400s? Why have we changed from a country with many friends to one with none? Why does the main opposition not ask if we already have changed axis or about to do so? Why not have a profound debate in parliament on Turkey’s foreign and security policy? For once, a debate focused on national but not party interests? A debate without time limits?

Such questions without answers can make an endless list. But there is an answer good for all and that is the failure of our democracy.

Soon after the new year, the Biden administration and the EU will have consultations to chart a common Turkey policy. Then, there would be some high-level Turkey-US talks of no consequence. But the Gordian knot, though unlikely to be untied, will wait for a Biden-Erdoğan meeting.

New Year’s Eve is a time of hope and accounting. Though I wish the past decade had been different, I am confident that at some stage Turkey will restore democratic rule. But to get there as a nation we need to account for our mistakes and change course before it is too late. Compared to the challenges we faced during our War of Independence fought under Ataturk’s enlightened leadership, this is but a crossword puzzle.

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[i] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/17/arab-spring-people-middle-east-poll?CMP=share_btn_link

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