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July 30, 2010
Summary: The debate on the course of Turkish foreign policy heated up again in the wake of the Gaza flotilla catastrophe and Turkey’s no vote at the UN Security Council on sanctions against Iran. To argue as some do that Turkish foreign policy is guided solely by ideological considerations and by Islamic solidarity betrays a careless, ahistorical, and far too partisan a view of the current government’s record.
After the Storm
by Soli Özel
In a recent On Turkey piece, “Rethinking Turkish-Western Relations: A Journey Without Maps,” Ian Lesser convincingly explained why Turkish foreign policy choices may not always be in total harmony with those of its allies, particularly the United States. He argued that developments with Iran must be seen as the outcome of Turkey’s aspirations as a regional power in a world where such powers do not always or even generally follow the policies of the West automatically. Lesser goes on to state that TurkishAmerican relations will be shaped and defined in the future by these altered circumstances, and that “comprehensive notions of strategic partnership… risk sounding hollow in the current environment.” In other words, rather than allies acting in unison on every issue, there will be selective partnerships depending on the case at hand. Where interests clash, one should expect less than total cooperation and a lot of bargaining before an agreement on a common policy is reached. This reflects quite a shift in the relative powers of the United States and Turkey in their bilateral relations. At the end of the Cold War, Washington could expect and usually did get the junior partner to follow its lead. Nowadays, Ankara pursues its own interests in a more determined way. This necessitates a redefining of what constitutes the common interests of the two countries and where each will yield to the demands of the other. Therefore, on each separate topic, the two sides need to bargain anew and strike new deals. This shift in the working relationship stems from Turkey’s emergence as a regional power, albeit a vulnerable one due to the still unresolved Kurdish problem. This new profile and the direction of Turkish foreign policy reflect three fundamental dynamics: the shift in the strategic center of gravity of the international system from Europe toward the East, notably the rising importance of the wide area between the Caspian basin and the Persian Gulf to which Turkey is a neighbor with historical ties; the changing strategic balance in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf partially as a result of both the U.S.led war in Iraq and the disarray of the corroding Arab state system; and, finally, the internal transformation of Turkey where, in addition to geopolitical assertiveness, a new economic dynamism and an emerging provincial entrepreneurial class push for engagement with surrounding regions. Some of these dynamics have been influential since the mid-1980s. Much
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of what the AKP government is doing is indeed a continuation of trends that began either during the rule of the late President Turgut Özal or in the latter half of the 1990s. A cursory look at the speeches and writings of the late İsmail Cem, the former foreign minister, will show that many ideas currently identified with the AKP government have been expressed earlier. What truly distinguishes the current government from its predecessors is its innate and tireless activism in all the regions that surround Turkey and its unwillingness to be left outside of any development in the vicinity. It is in view of these realities that one must debate the issue of Turkey’s place in the West and whether or not its foreign policy has been hijacked by an ideologically committed party intent on taking Turkey in a different direction. *** In the wake of the Gaza flotilla disaster and the United Nations vote on Iranian sanctions, the Turkish government saw and understood the limits of its prowess and the boundaries of its autonomous room for maneuver. At the end of the day it proved less easy to break relations with Israel, even for this government. After all, the radicalism of the government’s discourse appears to have backfired, as a significant part of the public showed unease with the hijacking of the Gaza issue by radical Islamists. On Iran, Turkey’s realization that it found itself isolated finally sank in, even if this is not to be openly acknowledged and even though there will be some continued role for Ankara to play on this issue. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, the importance of Turkey’s Western ties and its place in the Atlantic alliance as the anchor of Turkish foreign policy was enhanced within the country in the wake of these developments. There was a realization that it serves Turkey’s purposes far better to move in a more coordinated fashion with allies, particularly with the United States. A sense that Turkey might be pulled into the quagmire of the region without its Western anchor was enhanced, partially because of the incessant debate abroad about its direction. In an interview with Newsweek, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, put the matter most succinctly: “We are a part of the West. If the West sees us as outside and an object that can be lost or won, their logic is wrong. We have an equal right to speak in NATO as any other country. No one has the right to see the Western alliance as its domain and name another as inside or outside of it. If Western values are soft power, economic interdependency, human rights, then we defend them. We, however, are now facing a test. Nine civilians were murdered on the high seas [during the flotilla incident]. Are we going to voice objection when human rights are violated by an Eastern or Muslim country but remain silent when Israel violates human rights? If this double standard is a Western value, we are not for it.” In the rest of the interview though, when addressing Turkey’s policies towards Muslim countries, Davutoğlu made himself vulnerable to charges of double standard as well. When he dealt with the human rights record of Muslim countries and his government’s record of dealing with the likes of Sudan, Iran, and others, he betrayed a bias based on religious affinity, but the gist of his argument in this particular quotation resonates with the Turkish public. The reneging of major members of the EU on their promises to Turkey, combined with Turkey’s own domestic struggle to define its identity and the Turkish public’s perception of American policies, account for this reservedly antagonistic approach to the West. Under the circumstances, the EU’s internal focus, and the resulting lack of impact on Turkey’s domestic developments, the country’s relations with the West will primarily consist of bilateral relations with the United States. In that regard an interview given by the outgoing American ambassador James Jeffrey highlighted the administration’s outlook vis-a-vis Turkey’s recent foreign policy steps. Ambassador Jeffrey argued that “the question about [Turkey’s] orientation is one that could have been posed to De Gaulle’s France in the 1960s…nobody questioned whether France was part of the West and many people in Turkey take umbrage of that and it’s their right to… therefore, we don’t worry too much about the big picture but in terms of Turkey’s specific set of policy options under given governments, sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t agree.” President Obama, who since the beginning of his term tried to build a tighter relationship with Turkey, addressed all these issues in a recent interview with the Italian daily
Corriere della serra. Reiterating the “positive influence on the Muslim world” Turkey can have so long as it remains a secular, democratic country with a Muslim majority, the U.S. President observed “I don’t think Europe’s slow pace or reluctance is the only or the principal factor behind some of the changes we have observed recently in Turkey’s orientation… In my view, what we are seeing is democratic confrontation inside Turkey. If they do not feel part of the European family, then obviously they’re going to look elsewhere for alliances and affiliations.” Since the twin crises of the flotilla and the UN vote on Iranian sanctions, the Obama administration made its position very clear as to how it wishes to engage Turkey. In response to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s complaints that the United States did not do all it could in helping Turkey fight the PKK, and despite Erdoğan’s insinuations that the PKK was a subcontractor for unidentified others (which to Turkish ears meant Israel and Western allies, including the United States), the administration is raising the level of its assistance to Turkey in their fight against the PKK. Ambassador Jeffrey explained that the United States was extensively “deconflicting airspace in Iraq” and making new platforms available to the Turkish military. The AKP’s main foreign policy goal is to make Turkey a regional power that has a say over global issues. To that end it always sought to work closely with the United States and to never alienate Washington. Following the flotilla disaster and the UN vote, the two sides are once more taking stock. The United States does and will need to continue working with Turkey in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on energy issues. Washington, despite its displeasure, responded to recent developments by increasing its commitment to the eradication of the PKK in northern Iraq. It may yet find a formula for the formation of an international commission to investigate the flotilla incident. Such a move will lower tensions between Israel and Turkey, and will postpone Ankara’s decision on the future of the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Such a development will also unload a big issue from an already overburdened relationship. As for the AKP, the road map consists of synchronizing its foreign policy objectives and actions with its domestic discourse. This necessitates both a different type of dialogue and coordination with allies, and a reformulation of the rhetoric used vis-a-vis the United States. In other words, a government that seeks and demands American support for many of its problems should first stop being a major source of anti-American sentiment in the country.
Soli Özel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Haberturk
Soli Özel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is a columnist for the national daily Haberturk and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.
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