The reason/desire gap grows in Erdoğan’s foreign policy
Turkish foreign policy is heading toward a crossroads, as the country heads for its critical presidential election next month.
Actually, it would be more correct to call it Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policy. This is because:
1) It would be unfair to call it Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s policy, just as it would not be correct to say it is Nabi Avcı’s national education policy, or İsmet Yılmaz’s national defense policy, or Ömer Çelik’s culture and tourism policy.
2) The Foreign Ministry no longer plays the dominant role in Turkey’s foreign policy. The influence of the military in foreign policy has been reduced and the influence of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) has been boosted. There are also new actors on stage like now, such as the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA), the Energy Ministry, Turkish Airlines (THY) and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).
The sub-contractor role of the Fethullah Gülen movement, with its schools and trade connections abroad, is now seen as something to get rid of, following fall-out from the corruption probe last year, which Prime Minister Erdoğan considers a coup attempt against himself.
3) But it is possible to talk about a foreign policy line of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) after 12 years in power. The activation of the 10-year-old Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) in the current presidential election campaign is one of the first indications of this.
Considering the dominating power of the AK Parti in Turkish politics, the party’s demands from the Foreign Ministry, the MİT, THY or Diyanet (as institutions with exterior branches) could easily be perceived as something natural.
That is why it is safe to talk about an “Erdoğan foreign policy,” instead of a “Turkish foreign policy.”
Now, let’s consider the outlook of Erdoğan’s foreign policy in practice:
4) Davutoğlu’s “Zero problems with neighbors” policy reached its zenith in 2009, until which Davutoğlu was serving as Erodğan’s chief advisor. The zenith was reached when then-Foreign Minister Ali Babacan and President Abdullah Gül visited Armenia and Davutoğlu visited northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the same year.
5) There are five developments to explain the regression of Turkey’s foreign relations. 1- Israel’s massive Gaza operation in late 2008, which came amid Erdoğan’s mediation between Israel and Syria and which was followed by the “One minute” incident in early 2009. 2- The Mavi Marmara flotilla disaster, in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish civilians on their way to break the Gaza blockade in 2010. 3- The Arab Spring trauma in 2011. The length of time between Erdoğan’s rejection of the idea of a NATO intervention in Libya and Turkey’s major contribution there was no more than two weeks. 4- The Syrian civil war and Turkey’s active involvement in it. 5. The Saudi Arabia-backed coup in Egypt that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government. (It is worth mentioning that all these are related to greater Middle East geography, rather than Turkey’s relations with the West, to which it is supposed to be linked in political and economic terms.)
So, the recent fluctuations in Turkey’s foreign relations were not only caused by the reduced role of Foreign Ministry, but more because of the rapid fluctuations in the international environment and Ankara’s reading of them.
6) Davutoğlu was rightfully proud of the fact that Turkey was able to talk not only to all governments, but also to all warring factions of the Middle East as a respectable partner, when he was took the helm at the Foreign Ministry in 2009. But here is the scene now:
- Turkey has no ambassadors in Egypt, Syria or Israel.
- Forty-nine Turkish citizens, including the Turkish consul general in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, have been in captivity since June 13, held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is a byproduct of the Syrian war. Erdoğan is grateful for the offer from Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani for assistance to save them.
- Turkey’s main trade routes with Syria and Iraq (and thus the rest of the Arabian Peninsula), which have an important share in Turkey’s exports, have been practically cut.
- Turkey has almost no traditional links left to extend a helping hand to the Palestinians in need of humanitarian and political support.
- Turkey’s facilitator role in Iran’s relations with the U.S. and the EU are no longer as relevant as before, since Iran’s Hassan Rouhani has had direct relations and dialogue with U.S. President Barack Obama. Qatar, which has struck up unique financial links to Turkey under Erdoğan, seems to be the closest friend in the region for the time being.
- Turkey’s links with the U.S. tend to go back to the military-to-military level of Cold War times, with the U.S. administration tending to consider Erdoğan as the leader of a NATO ally “drifting towards authoritarianism.” The efforts of the Foreign Ministry undersecretary and his team, and groups of businessmen, are often overshadowed by political remarks made by Erdoğan or other AK Parti officials.
- Relations with the European Union do not show any sign of getting better, as Jean Claude Junker, the new president of the European Commission, has closed the doors for at least the next five years. Five years also marks the end of the first term of the next Turkish president.
- Energy dependency on Russia has prevented Turkey from taking a more active position regarding the Ukraine-Crimea crisis.
Winning consecutive elections endorses Erdoğan’s “winner takes all” outlook in domestic politics. But his justification of foreign policy moves through his domestic successes doesn’t work in international relations, due to factors he cannot control.
It can be seen that this foreign policy line is now reaching its limits, despite defensive efforts by Erdoğan’s advisors to describe the current position as “worthwhile loneliness.”
It is possible that Erdoğan wins the presidential elections in the first round on Aug. 10, as a number of polls show. But whether or not he wins, he might be forced by circumstances to soon make a choice between following a “head” or a “heart” foreign policy: His heart might tell him that he should follow his desires and keep up with his ideologically-motivated policy line. His head might tell him to follow reason, and to resume Turkey’s role as a Western power in the region that can talk and make business with all parties. Obviously, that path cannot mean trying to assume the role of being the voice of all the oppressed of the Muslim world in the eyes of the West.
Our desires tell us that there should be no limit to what we want to achieve; our reason tells us that there might be some limits. If the gap between the two grows we become unhappy and strained, which is not the best condition in which to make successful decisions. The same goes for governments.
The growing reason/desire gap in Erdoğan’s foreign policy is Turkey’s most strategic problem as it heads to the presidential election.