Requiem for Turkish foreign policy? Not yet

Requiem for Turkish foreign policy? Not yet

The critics of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy are becoming more creative everyday.

Following their invention of the “zero neighbors policy,” they have recently come up with an even more sarcastic nickname: “Nothing but problems policy.” I find these critics out of touch since they completely ignore the changing regional context. However, this doesn’t change the fact that it is time for the architects to reconceptualize Turkish foreign policy.

The zero-problem policy was initiated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in the last decade long before the “Arab Awakening” and the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq. Those were the days. The actors and the rules of the game were predictable and sectarian tension had not yet become heightened. The foreign policy concepts such as “game-changer,” “order-setter,” “zero-problems policy” were perfectly suited for the context and achieved a significant breakthrough in terms of enhancing the economic interdependence and political ties with the countries in the region.

However, times have changed. The Arab Awakening and the U.S. withdrawal shifted the regional balance which had existed since the 17th century between Shiite Iran and the Sunni world in favor of the former. Sectarian violence was ignited not only within states, but also across the wider region. In short, an unknown number of “unknown unknowns” have emerged which have restricted Turkey’s room to maneuver, its control and its influence over the region to a great extent. The existing foreign policy concepts can now only give a sense of nostalgia. Hence, the urgency to update the conceptualization of Turkish foreign policy.

In this new environment, Turkey can certainly not set the order, change the game and preempt the crises. However, there are even more constructive and proactive roles Turkey could and should play in the region. In light of the super-fast changes unfolding in the region, the choice is not between supporting the ruling authoritarian elites or the rising opposition movements. Between taking a pro-regime stance or a confrontational attitude. Between acting unilaterally and over-assertively or playing a passive role within a multilateral initiative. The choice is not between black and white. Rather, there is a gray, niche, unique role out there waiting to be picked up by Turkey. 

Turkey can be proactive within multilateral initiatives by playing the “constructive leadership” role. This is not a vertical form of leadership, but a horizontal one: Relying on its unique soft power, Turkey should take the mediator role by initiating, endorsing and leading regional and international cooperation. In doing so, it would engage with all sides rather than getting over-engaged with just one side as it did in Syria which, in turn, immensely harms its soft power capacity. President Abdullah Gül’s suggestion last week to create a regional security organization in the Middle East similar to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) offers a golden opportunity to implement this regional role. Serving as the hub for negotiations for any regional dispute such as the initiatives on Afghanistan, nuclear talks with Iran and “Friends of Syria” falls within the sphere of this role. Likewise, mediating between states as previously done between Syria and Israel, the two Palestinian groups and within Lebanon would boost Turkey’s constructive leadership.

Turkey’s supra-sectarian stance should be another main element in its updated foreign policy narrative in light of the sectarian battle in the region. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remark in 2008 in Arbil as “I am a Muslim only, neither a Shiite nor a Sunni” and his call for secularism in Egypt last September served this end. President Abdullah Gül echoed this attitude during his recent visit to Tunisia when he warned Muslim countries against seeking to conduct religious-based politics.

Similarly, Davutoğlu very recently stated that Turkey would not allow any Cold War-like sectarian polarization in the Middle East and that Turkey should display its impartial attitude toward all religious groups. All of these fragmentary statements signal the fact that Turkish foreign policy has come to terms with the new reality. But these bits of rhetoric need to be pieced together under a comprehensive concept. 

Order, game, problems, these are all result-oriented concepts. Give them up. Instead, stick to process-oriented concepts such as cooperation, construction and mediation. Can’t set the order? Then set cooperation. Can’t get rid of the problems? Then mediate them. Can’t have zero problems with neighbors? Can certainly have zero problems with all sects. This is the only way forward if you want to survive as the fittest in the region through this massive storm. And don’t forget the bonus: You will rescue all of us from our existential crisis over the zero-problems policy.

Verda Özer is an international affairs analyst.