Turkey needs to take foreign policy away from the street: Ex-envoy
Conducting foreign policy is not a matter to be decided by the street, according to former Ambassador Volkan Vural. The ruling Justice and Development Party may have received 50 percent of the vote, but it has been hampered by pursuing foreign policy goals as if it also has the support of half the world, he says. HÜRRİYET Photos / Levent KuluTurkey’s government must cease thinking foreign policy is something to be determined by the whims of the public on the street, according to former Envoy Volkan Vural.
“The AKP may get 50 percent of the votes in Turkey, but do you get 50 percent of the votes from the world? Today the votes Turkey gets from the world is less than 50 percent and even bordering on 10 percent at an optimistic scale,” Vural said, noting that Turkey had burned bridges with other regional powers with its policies.
What is your general evaluation for foreign policy in 2015?
The first item on our agenda should be to take the foreign policy out of the street and put it into a shelter or into a home. Foreign policy cannot be conducted on the street; that’s what we have been doing for at least two or three years, and it has not paid off. It has brought some popularity in some quarters but overall, it has not yielded any tangible results. It has eroded the credibility of Turkish foreign policy.
What do you mean by taking foreign policy out of the streets?
You cannot conduct foreign policy by addressing it in public; certainly the public has the right to know, but the public should not be decisive in the conduct of foreign policy. We have done this on many fronts; in relations with the EU, there were certain statements bordering on distancing ourselves from the EU process as we rebuked their interest in human rights and the rule of law as interference in our domestic affairs. First of all, the EU attention to Turkish foreign and domestic policies is not an internal affair; it is part of the Copenhagen criteria to which we declared our allegiance. This type of discourse is not conducive for a very healthy foreign policy.
When we look at the Middle East, our statements again are sort of a street-type debate. Attacking this or that person, this or that regime has not been conducive for following a realistic foreign policy; certainly we have every right to criticize others, but this criticism has to been seen in the context of overall relations. It is very popular to say that we are against injustice. If you follow this principle, you have to apply it everywhere: For instance, there is injustice in the Russian system as well, but we maintain and – rightly so – good relations with Russia. All these statements which I see as street battles have not helped Turkey’s credibility but alienated Turkey from following a realistic foreign policy.
The ruling political elites would think you are too elitist and say that foreign policy is appreciated given that the AKP [Justice and Development Party] gets 50 percent of the votes.
This is partly true, but rather than elitist, I would describe myself as realist. I look at the results; you may get 50 percent of the votes in Turkey but do you get 50 percent of the votes from the world? Today, the votes Turkey gets from the world is less than 50 percent and even bordering on 10 percent at an optimistic scale. The new bourgeoisie, the new middle class which has emerged recently, will bear the results of this situation more than anyone else. The new middle class has become richer due to the fact that Turkey has had good relations in the Middle East and Europe. They started to export to these countries; they are enjoying the fruits of their new-found richness, but suddenly all the doors are being closed. The West is sort of closed; our relations with the EU are not developing in a positive direction; the Middle East is closed; Russia is in economic difficulty. The old bourgeoisie can manage because they are already well-connected with certain quarters. However, the new ones are trying to develop their own relations and now find themselves in an awkward situation.
We tried to develop our relations with African countries, but we have to admit the pioneers of the African opening was the Gülen movement [with whom the government is locked in a bitter struggle]. Now this movement is discredited and that infrastructure is also collapsing. Our foreign policy is at impasse and it really requires a revision.
Let me challenge your analysis, where do you see problems with the U.S., for instance? The U.S. continues to work with Turkey as it needs Turkey’s cooperation in this volatile region.
First, no one can deny Turkey’s strategic location and its relevance to Western interests. With the U.S., we have shared certain values which revolve around the rule of law, transparency, democracy, et cetera. I see difficulties in those areas; the image of Turkey in the U.S. has been discredited. The current perception is that Turkey is not governed in a democratic fashion.
The U.S. works with anti-democratic governments. Why should they care about freedom of expression so long as business goes on as usual?
The perception in Turkey is that the U.S. is obliged to work with Turkey no matter what happens in the country. This is only partly true. What we had with the U.S. was a strategic partnership. That concept has been dismantled. We are no longer strategic partners; we are in a partnership in certain areas, and the U.S. will continue with Turkey no matter which government is in power, but to have a closer relationship, we need to change certain aspects of our domestic and foreign policy. It has narrowed down the scope of our cooperation.
But looking at the bilateral level, all the Western leaders are lured by large infrastructure projects. Their criticism is designed for their audience while the Turkish government believes they are queuing at Turkey’s door.
That’s true, but that infrastructure is realized again by credits provided by those countries. Turkey’s own saving ratio is not enough to realize these projects. Foreign direct investment rather comes from the West. If Turkey’s image is shattered in those quarters, those investors will be reluctant to provide credit no matter how attractive the infrastructure projects are. They want to see the return of their investment and if there is a dispute, they want to rely on a judicial system that is effective and just. They may go to other developing countries; we are a competitor in that sense.
How do you see Turkey-EU relations?
I believe Turkey will become part of the EU, but this depends partly on how the EU evolves. I am rather optimistic but for the long term. In the current situation, there is an illusion of a relationship which is not there. We have not been able to open chapters, and the debate in Europe is not working in favor of Turkey. We have to set our priorities right if we want to become an EU member. I think we still have a chance if we put our house in order.
What are the priorities to put our house in order?
An independent judiciary is very important. This is ultimately one of the most decisive elements of the EU process, while the second is transparency. The current perception of corruption in Turkey can only be eliminated by transparency. A checks-and-balances system is very important too.
How do you see relations with Russia?
Relations have to be balanced. When we signed the natural gas agreement in the 1980s, there was a clause on compensation; imports were compensated by Turkish exports and construction services, so this was a good deal; today the compensation clause is not working very well, and the gap is getting wider.
On the other hand, we cannot accept Russia’s expansion in Crimea and Ukraine; it should not interfere in the internal affairs of these countries. We have historical links with Crimea. Russian interference must be viewed with skepticism and we have to provide an adequate response – we cannot remain silent. While I believe that there is still much room to improve in Russian-Turkish relations, what we need is a new economy based on innovation and technology that comes from freer societies and the West. So we can’t overlook that.
How do you see the situation in the Middle East?
We have lost our ability to play a constructive role in the Middle East context by declaring certain countries as enemies, like the Syrian regime. We can’t burn all bridges [because] one day you may need them. Today we need bridges to Syria, Egypt and others.
Who is Volkan Vural
He entered the Turkish foreign service in 1964 and served in various departments in the ministry, as well as in Turkish missions in Seoul and Munich.
He worked in NATO’s international secretariat between 1976 and 1982. In 1987 he was appointed as ambassador to Tehran. He also served as Turkish ambassador to the Soviet Union and later Russia (1988-93). Between 1993 and 1995, he worked as the prime minister’s adviser. After working as Turkey’s ambassador to Germany (1995-1998), he then went to New York as Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations (1998-2000). Upon his return, he started working as secretary-general for European Union affairs, until 2003, when he was appointed as ambassador to Spain, where he served until 2006, when he retired.
He is currently the adviser to the president of the Doğan group of companies and member of the executive board of the Turkish Business and Industry Association (TÜSİAD). He is also the chairman of TÜSİAD’s foreign relations commission.