Dangerous turns in the discourse of Turkish foreign policy

Dangerous turns in the discourse of Turkish foreign policy

Some fascinating concepts that have never been heard before have been edging into the words of the makers of Turkey’s foreign policy. One of them was “the zero problems with neighbors” policy. The other that is currently widespread is the “value-based foreign policy.”

What does a “value-based foreign policy” mean for a country?

According to the Turkish government’s coordinator of public diplomacy, the main elements of a value-based foreign policy are defined with reference to liberal, social and democratic principles, such as justice, legitimacy, equality, freedom and human dignity. For the Turkish government, those values are making Turkey a center of attraction in both the West and the East. They also provide a comparative advantage to Turkish foreign policy.

At first instance, the new discourse is advancing either some idealistic or constructivist perspectives abroad. From an optimistic point of view, someone might think that Turkey is discovering its Ottoman heritage in its region. This should be deemed normal as new policy-makers see Turkey as a stronger regional power in terms of the economy, defense and prestige. Turkey is ready to export its values to former territories. There should be no adversity in following a pioneering role in its region to make others more liberal-democratic societies in terms of Western standards. Nobody can raise any objection to this policy just because it appeals to some ideals and values.

However, idealistic discourses may trigger very realistic developments in relations among countries. I would like to note three examples in history; each of them consists of a further stage in expansionist foreign policy claiming to be value-oriented.

The first was Western colonialism, which claimed to be bringing civilization to barbaric people. The result was enslavement, exploitation, the extraction of natural resources and so on. Nowadays, proactive Turkish foreign policy doesn’t mean merely the exportation of values. More importantly, it means the exportation of Turkish products, culture and capital to the region. Which one should we believe in, hundreds of businessmen accompanying Turkish leaders’ foreign visits while carrying just values or enthusiasm to find new markets?

The second was the “Lebensraum” policy of Germany in the 1930s in Eastern Europe. Everybody knows the outcome. As the Turkish economy gains strength, the new Anatolian capitalist bloc is going to turn the country around to expand its production capabilities and market relations. They will also force the government to follow a more proactive foreign policy in the region to get more of a share of the market. In this way, Turkish industrialists may tend to see the region as their living space in terms of economy, which is absolutely softer and more peaceful than German Lebensraum.

Third was Italy’s concept of the “Mare Nostrum” in regards to the Mediterranean between the two world wars. As Turkey’s rising economic and cultural influence is felt more in the region, self-confident Turkish leaders are going to frequently remember the Ottoman legacy in terms of political domination. Accordingly, the country’s political influence may pervade the masses in the Middle East. Together with the discourse’s anti-Western and anti-Israeli elements, Turkey is likely to be the leader in the Middle East. This expansion is going to be legitimized through the Ottoman legacy by declaring that the region was already “our territories.”

In the last stage, the problem is whether the current leaders in the region and the West will be ready to accept the rising Turkish power as this would mean Turkey would go beyond the limits allowed by the hegemony. The country as a regional power has been considered by the U.S. since Sept. 11 attacks as a model for the region. If things go beyond what is originally expected, a regional modeling policy of the hegemony might turn into a regional containment of Turkey. But how will the region or the West contain, appease or resist Turkey?

In short, value-based foreign policy is going to lead to attempts to raise economic interests, then political domination. More importantly, it might revive the famous “eastern problem.” We shall hope Turkish foreign policy-makers are aware of where they are going.

* Davut Ateş is an assoc. prof. at Department of International Relations, Selçuk University / Konya