Turkish foreign policy needs to change

Turkish foreign policy needs to change

No, the need is not only because of the vote in the German parliament on June 2 which labelled the 1915 killings under Ottoman rule as a genocide against the Armenian population; that is just another brick in the wall.

Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s attempt to modify the migrant deal with the European Union was perhaps a last attempt to save what was left from the better days of Turkish foreign policy. If that deal, which is in jeopardy now, worked, it could revitalize Turkey’s problematic relations with the EU and shift the focus from the Middle East, which has been the main stage of regression in the last few years.

Turkish foreign policy had reached its better days by 2008-2009, when former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül was elected president in 2007 and left the position to former Treasury Minister Ali Babacan, who already had a good reputation in political and financial circles abroad. The “zero problems with neighbors” motto of Davutoğlu, then foreign policy advisor to (then prime minister, now President) Tayyip Erdoğan was actually a rephrasing of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s “Peace at home, peace in the world” motto and seemed to work.

By 2008-2009 the Turkish government was in contact with almost all state and non-state actors in the region, covering a wide circle from North Africa to the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caspian and the Arab World. Joint cabinet meetings were held between the Turkish government and the governments of Syria, Egypt (both of which Turkey no longer has ambassadors to), Greece, Russia (with which relations have hit bottom), Iraq (at the verge of a break) and a number of others. Relations with the EU were distanced because of the French and German governments but not frozen yet. 

For the first time a diplomatic contact was established with Armenia and one of Davutoğlu’s first visits when he took over the Foreign Ministry post in 2009 was to Arbil to pay the first official visit to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. A dialogue process was started with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to find a political solution to the chronic problem. 

The star of Turkey was so shiny that newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama took his first foreign overseas visit to Turkey in April 2009 and showcased Turkey’s secular democracy and free economy as a Muslim country as an example to the Islamic world.

A number of unfortunate events started to take place in 2010. Two of them were important: The killing of nine Turkish citizens by Israeli commandos on board the Mavi Marmara ship on its way to break the blockade on the Palestinian Gaza Strip and the Arab Spring, which was triggered in Tunisia after a number of corruption files were revealed by WikiLeaks about its (former) president. The Turkish policy of not interfering with Arab affairs was broken in Libya in 2011. When the uprising started to hit Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood taking power was a possibility, enthusiasm dominated the decision making mechanisms, mostly Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). It was too late when the government found itself standing against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and observing in disappointment that the U.S. and the EU were not willing to use power there (like they did in Libya), while Russia (with its only military base in the Mediterranean and the Middle East in Syria) imposed itself into the picture. The elected president of Egypt was overthrown by a Saudi sponsored, U.S.-backed coup causing a collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood network not only in Egypt but also in Syria and the rise of Al-Nusra in 2012 and later on the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was observed in 2013, changing the entire outlook. Too much involvement in the civil war in Syria, with a 910-km land border in between, deteriorated Turkey’s relations with both the U.S. and Russia, without forgetting to mention Iran and Iraq. Relations with the EU are somehow tied to the migrant crisis as triggered by the Syrian war; Turkey is already hosting some 3 million migrants.

Now Davutoğlu is gone, but the state of Turkish foreign policy is not getting any better. Nationalist rhetoric helps Erdoğan keep public support high, but does not help stop regression and raise the credibility of Turkey internationally.

Turkish foreign policy needs to be updated and Erdoğan is left as the only person having the power to do that.