‘Disengagement from West weakens Turkey in Mideast’
Turkey’s pursuit of an independent policy is a potentially destabilizing factor for the region as it adds another independent variable to a region that already has too many independent variables, Evin says.Disengaging from the West weakens Turkey in the Middle East, according to Professor Ahmet Evin from Istanbul’s Sabancı University. “Being overwhelmingly optimistic led to being overwhelmingly self-confident,” said Evin, adding that international actors also encouraged Turkey to take a role that was bound to face limitations.
What kind of image is Turkey projecting to the world as the country enters a new period after the municipal elections?
It’s an unfortunate one, because there is a very strong response from the government to what it suspects is a deliberate effort to infiltrate its communications and to make it lose votes. The government is responding by diminishing the right to free communication through social media. Both Washington and European allies have been strongly condemning this. This is not the type of image that an EU negotiating candidate state or a NATO member country ought to project.
How is the picture with regard to foreign policy?
I do not understand Turkish foreign policy at the moment. I also had certain questions about it in the past, as I wondered whether both policy makers in Turkey and the international community were not being overly optimistic. The whole world and domestic public opinion welcomed the “zero problems with neighbors’ policy” when it was launched. There was an effort to project an image of a Turkey that is able to engage positively with all its neighbors and bring not only economic cooperation, but also something this region lacked historically; intensive communication between actors in the region. This was a positive perception, but I asked the question at the time about - however positive the ambition was - whether it was feasible, because the region is a Hobbesian region. It is difficult to maintain zero problems if there are many problems among your neighbors; and there are plenty of problems among them. In that perspective, I thought it was an overly optimistic wish. When we look back at that time, there is a remarkable difference now. Turkey is in a state of tension with probably all of its neighbors. The contrast is overwhelming.
Is overwhelming optimism the only reason why we ended with such a contrast?
Being overwhelmingly optimistic led to being overwhelmingly self-confident. There was a perception developed of Turkey as a regional power and that perception was in fact supported and reinforced not only by Turkey’s allies, not only by the EU or Washington, but also by world public opinion, among think tanks and experts. They ascribed a kind of influence, a kind of leverage, that is expected not only of a regional power, but a global power. Turkey naturally does not have the resources to exert that kind of influence in its neighborhood as a more powerful global power could, but that was ignored.
So you are saying Turkey’s role was also exaggerated by international actors?
There was incredible encouragement given to Turkey to be a regional leader. Limitations started to play a role, but they started later. There was also a third stage: Along with self-confidence, Turkey’s regional policy became disengaged from that of its allies: A “go it alone” aggressive pursuit of an independent foreign policy began to be pursued. That brought some challenges too, because one of the problems of this region is that there are too many independent variables. You don’t know which country, which tribe, which sect, which confessional group is going to rise up against perceived or real oppression, as we have seen with the recent uprisings.
Under these circumstances, Turkey pursuing an independent policy is in fact adding another independent variable to a region that already has too many independent variables. Therefore, this itself is a potentially destabilizing factor.
At one stage there was talk about a reset in Turkish foreign policy?
Turkey’s policies are changing, but I do not see the reset that is being talked about. The only kind of reset that would both strengthen Turkey’s ability to do something positive and project influence in the region, and do it in a coherent fashion, is to bring its policies more in harmony with the EU and its allies.
So you suggest we need a harmonization with the EU and Western allies.
Less of a hard power projection in the area and closely cooperating with the EU; that might be a role better fit to Turkish ambition. Going alone in this rather chaotic area not only does not serve Turkey’s interests; it actually weakens Turkey and does not serve regional stability.
Harmonization with allies would include developing policies in a positive, more effective direction and a more realistic manner. But this is not going to be easy because of what has been done since Turkey departed from that positive role to its aggressive independent actor role. In the process it has done two or three things that are difficult to turn around. Turkey had a significant role as a mediator between Israel and Syria. Turkey was able to do that and play this role because it was equidistant from conflicting parties. That has been increasingly abandoned by Turkish policy makers. It began by choosing particular countries or confessional groups to support, which further eroded Turkey’s overall network of relations in the region. By declaring itself a supporter of a particular set of groups, it basically put itself in a position of being in opposition to other groups. The result of this is not only sectarian preference, it goes beyond that.
The support for [Egypt’s toppled President Mohamed] Morsi did not diminish even after the regime change in Egypt, to the extent of the severance of diplomatic ties. Egypt is an important country in the world; Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood after it was discredited, or at least left power as interference, is considered an interference in domestic affairs. Turkey’s response went further than admonition for applying democratic principles, it actually took the post-Morsi regime as a target. However, major oil-rich countries in the Middle East consider the Muslim Brotherhood a potential destabilizer in the region. This led to a situation where Turkey was alienated not only from Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, apart from Qatar.
So you say it is going to be difficult to undo what has been done?
It can’t be changed overnight.
So what is your projection for foreign policy in the near future, since the country is set for two more elections?
If there is an insignificant drop in its votes, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is likely to continue its domestic and foreign policies in order to face the next elections. What might in fact bring a change in policies would be if there are repercussions in both foreign investment and soft money coming to Turkey because of the bans on Internet communications, etc. If the negative consequences are felt by the economy, then we may expect a turnaround in policies. Because Turkey now particularly needs financing, whether it is simply cashflow or foreign direct investment.
Who is Ahmet Evin?
Ahmet O. Evin, Jean Monnet professor of European Policy Studies at Sabancı University in Istanbul and co-director of the Anna Lindh-Caixa Chair for Euro-Mediterranean Studies, received his B.A. degree from Columbia University (1966) and a Ph.D. from the same university (1973).
He was the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabancı and serves as executive board member of the Istanbul Policy Center. He has been a senior fellow of the Transatlantic Academy (Washington, DC and Berlin) and an Alexander Onassis senior fellow at Eliamep, Athens.
He has previously taught at Harvard, NYU, University of Pennsylvania, the University of Hamburg and Bilkent University; he also served as the founding dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Sabancı University.