Are we really heading for a fresh start in foreign policy?

Are we really heading for a fresh start in foreign policy?

Turkey’s “precious loneliness,” a term coined by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor, İbrahim Kalın, to put a positive spin on Ankara’s growing international isolation under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has started to weigh heavily on the government.

As Murat Yetkin suggested in Hürriyet Daily News on Saturday, this precious loneliness has turned into dangerous isolation for Turkey. Ankara today is the loser on almost all counts in the domain of foreign policy.

Its Syria policy is in shambles, and the red lines it drew in that country to prevent Kurdish advances have not held. Meanwhile Ankara’s ties with the West in general remain strained over a host of issues, including the daily deterioration of democratic rights in Turkey. 

Ties with the EU are also heading for rock-bottom again. We not only have the unprecedented resignation of the EU’s top diplomat in Ankara, following his less than diplomatic views about the state of affairs in Turkey, but an Erdoğan who continues to brandish his verbal sledgehammer against Europe.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s statements seem to indicate that Ankara is aware of all this and is seeking a way out. From the day he was installed in place of ousted Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he has been talking about the need to “increase Turkey’s friends and reduce the number of its enemies.” 

This has left some seasoned Turkish analysts and retired ambassadors believing that we are on the cusp of a fresh orientation in foreign policy. The fact that Erdoğan has been lashing out less than usual at Israel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and others of late is also used to reinforce this view.

What Erdoğan says is much more significant, of course, than what Yıldırım says. Yıldırım was, after all, only appointed to humor the public with his affable ways, while carrying out Erdoğan’s orders. 

Erdoğan, however, has yet to provide real evidence, other than momentarily gagging himself on some issues, to indicate that we are indeed on the verge of a new start in foreign policy. He has to backpedal on so many issues for this to happen, that it will be hard for him - as a politician who thrives on populism - to come out looking good in the eyes of his Islamist constituency.

He also has to shed his authoritarian image to gain the respectability, and consequently any meaningful influence, in the West that he patently lacks today. This requires enhancing Turkey’s liberal democracy rather than undermining it on a daily basis. 

Put another way, Erdoğan has to swallow humble pie with regard to Russia, Syria and Egypt, come more in line with the EU on a host of issues, and reestablish the trust that is lacking today in ties with the U.S. An initial litmus test will be the result of the much-touted rapprochement process with Israel, which has still not happened despite daily claims that it is around the corner. 

In other words, for Turkey’s foreign policy to change and serve the country’s vital interests, Erdoğan will have to negate his Islamist-based populist persona and come out a new and democratic man. Anything is possible in this world, of course, but some things less so than others… 

It seems healthier, therefore, to maintain a cold-blooded, realistic approach to the topic, rather than cultivating a cautiously optimistic one, let alone surrendering to wishful thinking. If however Erdoğan does change despite the odds, then all the better. No one will regret having been wrong on this score.