Will Turkey’s foreign policy change?

Will Turkey’s foreign policy change?

“If the wall ends up orange, although the initial instruction was to make it red, we explain the reasons to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s advisors and they go back to inform him. But if we explain the same to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s advisors, they tell us to go back and paint it red, in line with the initial instruction. And in the end the wall is painted red.”

This anecdote I was told by a diplomat gives an idea about the two men who have shaped Turkey’s foreign policy for more than a decade.

However, Davutoğlu, the academic turned politician, is slightly ahead of Erdoğan for having left more of a mark on Turkey’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. 

“Do you know why I held up my index finger when I spoke? It was to show that there is only one single truth in Islam,” Davutoğlu told his entourage after giving his speech at the U.N.

To me this shows the dogmatism that explains why there has been no effort to seek a change or reset in Turkish foreign policy, which has in recent years turned into a bitter disaster, especially in Syria.

Rift between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu

There are currently many speculations as to the reasons behind the rift between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, following the sacking of the latter by the former. Some have cited divergences of view in foreign policy. But I am among those who believe it was mainly domestic issues that were critical in Erdoğan’s allergy to Davutoğlu.

While divergences of view were clearly apparent in certain domestic issues - demonstrated by contradictory statements from both men in the Kurdish issue - we have not heard of any such rift in external affairs. 

At any rate, as the above anecdote demonstrated, Davutoğlu would not have been able to implement any foreign policy decision without Erdoğan’s approval.

Davutoğlu’s desire to meet U.S. President Barack Obama only shortly after the U.S. leader’s meeting with Erdoğan must have irritated the Turkish president. But that was probably the last drop in the glass.

Regarding Erdoğan’s criticism of the Turkey-EU refugee deal that he raised a few weeks ago, when he said he did not see moving the date for visa-free travel forward from September to June as a big deal, this was more of an effort to downgrade Davutoğlu’s efforts than a genuine dismissal of the agreement.

As to Erdoğan’s most recent reaction against the EU’s demand that Turkey’s legal definition of terrorism be kept limited as part of the deal, again that does not mean Erdoğan is against the agreement. That is the way he deals with the Europeans - he always keeps the bar high while negotiating.

Indeed, there have been rumors that some European leaders were thinking of trying to strengthen Davutoğlu’s hand against Erdoğan. But that was just a side effect of the deal. Unfortunately, Turkey’s free fall into authoritarian rule is less of a concern than the other issues that European capitals are dealing with. As a result, whoever is able to stop the illegal crossings into Europe will be the interlocutor of European leaders.

Diplomats on both sides could find common ground on the points of contention about the refugee deal. In the end, Erdoğan is unlikely to push away visa-free travel to Europe, which will be a great political victory for him, the benefits of which he and he alone will reap.