The pitfalls of Turkey’s ‘honorable foreign policy’

The pitfalls of Turkey’s ‘honorable foreign policy’

Normally the right thing to do for a government that is confronted with multiple threats is to put the national interests first, and the ruling party’s political interests second, especially in the foreign policy domain. 

This, after all, is an area that requires a degree of continuity. Governments come and go, but the issues a country faces remain the same. For example, the Cyprus issue did not change form or disappear when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. The solution sought by Ankara is still the same.

This is only one example. Similarly, Turkey always faced the need in the past to maintain good relations with neighbors, and, in doing so, to secure the best results for its vital interests, no matter who was in power in Ankara.

Everything became confused, though, under the AKP, which actually started off well in trying to maintain Turkey’s interests in the international arena, but gradually slipped in this regard, leaving the country with the major problems it faces today.

Any government would have had to face these problems, of course, especially those stemming from Syria or Iraq. But past Turkish governments found consistent ways to work with allies in order to minimize the damage. 

The AKP, however, amplified the problems faced by Turkey. It began to gradually impose its Islamist-based ideological agenda on the foreign policy domain, especially after 2009. This relegated vital issues to do with the national interests to the background.

AKP supporters say Turkey has a foreign policy today it can be proud of. What they mean is that this policy is bravely defiant in the name of “standing one’s ground honorably,” even if it results in a loss of friendly ties with other countries. 

In other words, we are talking about what İbrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s key foreign policy adviser, once referred to as “honorable loneliness.” 

What he meant was that Ankara stood its ground honorably against Israel, against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, and even against a superpower like Russia, while others pandered to them for the sake of their crass worldly interests.

This is hollow rhetoric, of course, because pursuing worldly interests is what countries do. Sensible governments strive to maintain realistic policies which address factual circumstances with the ultimate aim of securing these interests. 

Given the millions of refugees we can’t look after, the unprecedented terrorist attacks in our major cities by groups linked to Syria, the lack of proper relations with many of our neighbors, the loss of direction in our EU membership bid, and the tensions with our Western allies, there is little success the AKP can realistically claim for its “honorable” foreign policy.

We see Erdoğan is trying his hand now at the leadership of the Islamic world again. His remarks at the recent summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and at the opening of the Turkish-Arab Congress of Higher Education last week point to this. 

He even wants to get the “Arab League” to change its name to the “Islamic League” in order to prevent it from appearing as an exclusively Arab organization, and thus playing a divisive role in the Islamic world.

One does not have to underline how unrealistic all this is and how it is out of touch with the Arab world, let alone the world at large. But the need to be realistic has never prevented Erdoğan from reaching for unrealistic targets even if it is at Turkey’s expense.

There is no indication that Erdoğan is willing to change his approach to foreign policy. All the signs are that he will continue with the present course until he has to change it due to the sheer force of circumstance.  

That, however, does not signify an administration that is in control of developments, but one that is driven by them, after having obstinately refused to understand the underlying flow of events.