Turkey’s foreign policy at crossroads (I)

Turkey’s foreign policy at crossroads (I)

I would like to divide, in general terms, the foreign policy performance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into two distinct periods. The policies pursued roughly between 2002 and 2008 were innovative, groundbreaking, consistent with the domestic reform agenda and defined political choices without raising any doubts about Turkey’s priorities.

On the most fundamental issue of the period, the AKP took a bold stand, risking the reactions that could come from its rank and file. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attendance as the Party Chairman to the EU’s Copenhagen Summit, together with the then-Prime Minister Abdullah Gül in December 2002, as well as his diplomatic initiative to visit a series of EU capitals ahead of the summit, was an important demonstration signaling commitment to the EU membership. I took part in most of these visits and saw at first hand how Erdoğan impressed his counterparts as a reformist and popular political figure.

By accepting the Annan plan, the AKP government turned around the argument that blamed Turkey for the impasse on the resolution of the Cyprus issue. Although this plan was based on the common elements arrived at over years of negotiations under the auspices of the U.N. by both parties in the conflict, it was not easy to break the strong bureaucratic resistance at home.

This resistance, however, saved the Greek Cypriot Administration from choosing between accepting the Annan plan or sacrificing the EU membership in the Copenhagen Summit and at the subsequent conference in The Hague.

After securing EU membership, the Greek Cypriot Administration was emboldened to reject the Annan plan and is now insisting on its own terms for a political solution on the island. It is blocking Turkey’s accession negotiations on the grounds of non-compliance to the Customs Union.

Over this period, we have seen a consistent and multidimensional foreign policy with well-defined priorities. When selective memory is put aside, we can see that Turkish foreign policy has always been multi-dimensional. For instance, during the Cold War, Turkey’s most important heavy industry was realized through technical and financial assistance from the Soviet Union. Turkey’s construction sector also started to complete projects abroad due to the efforts of Bülent Ecevit, while its opening to the world was shaped by Turgut Özal’s vision. The Middle East and the former Soviet territories became the main areas of focus for Turkish business, and the tangible results of these efforts added new perspectives to Turkey’s economy and foreign policy.

The AKP came to power as a majority government against the background of long political instability and economic crises. It adopted and set out to implement the economic stability program prepared by the previous coalition government to recover from the 2001 economic crisis. It also accelerated the democratic reform process by adhering to the EU National Program left over by the coalition parties, including the Copenhagen political criteria. The steps taken for democratic reforms, and the achievements in economic growth and stability served to underline Turkey as a rising power.

Interestingly, Turkey’s main attraction in the Middle East was not the result of its resemblance to other regional countries. On the contrary, it stemmed from the fact that it does not resemble them, despite the common cultural heritage. Improving and enlarging the scope of individual liberties, freedom of expression and thought, and achieving stable economic growth has drew widespread attention in a geography where authoritarian regimes have generally prevailed.

The question marks on Turkish foreign policy and speculations on the shift of axis do not pertain to this period, but were raised after 2008. However, it would be unfair to lay the blame on Turkey alone for some of the erratic policies currently pursued.

Immediately after the opening of accession negotiations, two key founding members of the EU, Germany and France, began questioning Turkey’s membership qualifications. They opened a debate on Turkey by coining an ambiguous concept such as “privileged partnership,” and hindered the discussion of some basic negotiation chapters. The European Council, on the other hand, was unable to resist the Greek Cypriot blocking of Turkey. In fact, the EU had overlooked its own criteria when admitting Cyprus as a member, simply in order to pave the way for the membership of Central and Eastern European countries.

It is evident that the importance ascribed to EU membership, which is often reiterated by the Turkish Prime Minister, is accompanied by a strong feeling of disappointment. It is possible to say that both this disappointment and the increasing national self-confidence play a role in the descriptions of the economic crisis experienced by the EU countries.

Foreign policy, however, can not rest only on emotions. Statements intended for self promotion are not viewed kindly by others. I vividly remember reminding my bureaucrat friends and politicians that when Turkey is referred to as “the major power in the region” it should come from others, not from us.

*Volkan Vural is a retired ambassador and former secretary general for EU affairs