It was about a year ago that I had the honor of hosting a dear friend from Washington D.C. Like me, she is a foreign policy pundit and a Turkish American. We share many common interests, but rather different perspectives on life. During our lovely dinner I was a gracious host, listening to her vent about one crisis after another between Turkey and the United States. Of course I understand that being from D.C. is drastically different than living in the laid-back sunny Southern California. Sadly, about 25 minutes and a few Micheladas later I had to interrupt her by saying, “one cannot have so many crises.” She stopped, stared at me and commanded “fine explain.” I assure you this does not sound any gentler in Turkish.
I tried very hard to explain to my alpha female friend that referring to every single tension as a “crisis” was a sign of weakness. That many countries have minor and sometimes major conflicts in their foreign policy, but they rarely call them “crises” in the mainstream media. This was not a personal criticism against her, but one that was reflected in the mainstream Turkish media specifically, and in Turkey-focused Western media in general. The news has all been framed through a lens of “here-goes-another-crisis.”
It is difficult for me to understand because I try to track foreign policy change over time and I try to codify the extent of foreign policy change. Not all change is equal and size matters. In international relations literature we are taught, and now we teach, the idea that crises are rare and traumatic events. They shake the system and usually cause dramatic changes afterwards. If unresolved they can lead to war. They are the turning points of political history.
Now try to apply that definition when you are studying Turkish foreign policy. That is a tall order. That is precisely why I was so frustrated that every single event in Turkish foreign policy was referred to and accepted as a crisis.
At the end of our dinner, my friend confessed that maybe she had expected the AK Party foreign policy to fail in a big way and so jumped onto the bandwagon with the news and other pundits in calling every single diverging interest a crisis. When every instance is a crisis then a macro question is applied into micro cases. For every single instance the similarly unnecessary and frankly very unproductive style of question was born: “is Turkey shifting from the Western axis,” “who lost Turkey,” “did the zero problems with neighbors’ policy collapse.” Seeing every single tension as a crisis generates painfully wrong questions, (definitely not in line with the national interests of Turkey). As we turn around those questions trying to figure out Turkish foreign policy, the sands in the region – both in the EU and the Middle East – have shifted dramatically.
I was therefore proud of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s press conference, held in Istanbul right after we learned the sad news of a Turkish reconnaissance plane being shot down by Syria with the two pilots lost. Now this is a real crisis, an unexpected event, at a time when tensions have been building up between the two nations, when neither country had diplomatic representation in the other’s capital. It was nail-biting time. However, Prime Minister Erdoğan was calm and collected. As I typed on Twitter his answers to members of the press I realized the reporters’ (at least six or seven of them got to ask questions) voices were trembling. They were in a state of shock, panicked and quite nervous. That is when I realized how calm and level headed Erdoğan was in answering such questions. Known as a very passionate and personable leader Erdoğan’s voice was not trembling. He was deeply upset, but also very confident that Turkey had a solid plan. He even explained this in his own way in response to a question. “The state apparatus functions wherever we are,” he said. For me this was a turning point, a crisis that was met with calmness. I sincerely hope our press follows his lead and reports major foreign policy matters in a respectful and calm manner. Believe me when I say the sky is not falling down.