Turkey’s new foreign minister commands skills for the job

Turkey’s new foreign minister commands skills for the job

Özdem Sanberk
Until the Nov. 1 general elections are conducted and a new government for Turkey is announced, the country will be ruled by a neutral interim government. But these are tough times in the Middle East and even if Turkey stops to wait for its election, the rest of the world will not do so.      

So the appointment of Turkey’s new foreign minister, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, is an encouraging indication that Turkey’s friends and allies can be sure there will be a strong hand at the helm in the next few months as far as our foreign policy is concerned. Though it is only now that he is making his debut as minister, Mr. Sinirlioğlu has been undersecretary at the Foreign Ministry for the last six years – an exceptionally long period reflecting his outstanding skills as a foreign policy-maker and diplomat.      

Sinirlioğlu is known among his colleagues for his “hands-on” approach when trying to resolve international problems. Unperturbed by the storms which invariably accompany international crises and diplomatic negotiations, he is often willing to travel himself in pursuit of a quiet behind-the-scenes settlement. He is also skilled in recognizing serious problems before they happen – and doing whatever can be done to avert them. And he has a vast network of friends and diplomatic contacts in Turkey and across the world to assist him in that work.  

However, despite his many talents and strengths, the new minister faces a tough agenda. The challenges of Turkish diplomacy have been immense for some time now, and the stakes are high for several reasons. Some of the sticking points perhaps arise from our policies while others are not of Turkey’s making, above all the Middle Eastern turbulence which followed the Arab Spring and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Add to all this the growth of religious radicalization and resurgence of sectarian strife in the region.

It is hardly realistic or fair to expect a single foreign minister (no matter how skillful) to sort out all this tangle. But on top of it there are some serious divergences of strategy both with our Western allies and our regional partners. Uncertainties about long-term strategic objectives and the short time priorities of Turkish diplomacy since 2010 blur diplomatic action and generate confusion and or even incoherence. These in turn create an atmosphere of misunderstanding and mistrust in the outside world.  

To fully cope with these issues, Turkey requires a strong government, one made up of harmonious members who are able to look forward to several years in office and with a smoothly functioning decision-taking process at the various levels of government. But that lies in the future. At this point in time, we can only discuss what can be done by a neutral interim government made up of disparate partners during a short period. The uncertain debate about whether Turkey should continue with a parliamentary model of democracy or switch to a presidential system in the country will also adversely affect foreign policy decision-taking processes for some time to come.

To tackle such titanic challenges, the new foreign minister has a few but strong assets: a very professional and intrepid staff at the Foreign Ministry and the solid premises on which Turkey’s diplomacy is always based. Turkey’s foreign policy is founded not upon religion, sectarianism or ethnicity, but on Turkey’s strategic, economic and security interests. These do not change very easily and have acted as a guarantee for Turkey’s security and well-being in a dangerous part of the world, a guarantee which has continuously renewed itself over the last 90 years.

The question which remains to be seen is to what extent the new foreign minister will be allowed to make used of these assets.     

The term of an interim election minister is short. If the elections produce a clear-cut result, a new administration should be in place by the second half of November. But it is a useful interval in which an experienced minister, who knows the workings of his ministry inside out, can make useful small reforms to streamline administrative and decision-making processes and eliminate at least some imperfections from the system in the way that only an experienced administrator can do when he gets the authority.      

So while almost all eyes in Turkey are likely to be focused on the political arena and the struggle there in the next few weeks, Turkey’s diplomats can look forward to a constructive and innovative period.

Özdem Sanberk is the president of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) and Turkey’s former undersecretary for foreign affairs.