Turkish foreign policy now at a crossroads – III

Turkish foreign policy now at a crossroads – III

Turkey is deeply wounded in its “zero problem with neighbors” policy, which is somewhat similar to Atatürk’s “peace at home, peace in the world,” principle, albeit a low-key version. This motto was a well-intentioned phrase coined by the foreign minister in order to erase existing prejudices and demonstrate good will. It is not yet clear whether these wounds will lead to permanent damages or not. Actually, attributing serious meaning to such slogans, which do not go far from being merely a hint of goodwill, would not be reasonable.

However, when concrete policies are considered, it is evident that Turkey was not able to resolve any of its deeply-rooted problems in recent years. Let alone in the complicated Middle East and the body of issues that divide Turkey and Greece remain to be solved. The protocols signed with Armenia are in a deep freeze. The good neighborly relations with Iran have cooled off due to the Syrian policies. Our relations with the Central Government of Iraq are turning into open hostility. Of course, all these negative developments cannot be ascribed to Turkey’s policies.

However, it is possible to see the effects of a historical and romantic foreign policy view that regards the Middle East as the backyard of Turkey and misplaced assumptions. It is true that our policy planning has become more individual, public discourse has substituted diplomacy and early positioning has reduced flexibility.

As we are evolving from a bipolar world order to a multi-polar and flexible order (or disorder), the examples clearly show that no country, not even the United States, can act as a sole playmaker and shape a new order by itself. As once happened in the Balkans, a lot of water has flowed beneath the bridge and ethnic and denominational distinctions have become clearer in the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. New actors such as European colonialism, Israel, the United States, the USSR and then Russia, nationalist Arab regimes and the Iranian Islamic Revolution settled in the region, with gaining access to energy sources becoming the dominant element of geostrategic balance.

In this geography, which is shaken by the Arab Spring this time, Turkey has adopted a basically correct policy advocating freedom and human rights. It was for this reason that it severed its close ties with Syria. But in moving further it became an active party to the inner conflict and made the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime a criteria of success.

I wonder if it was really hard to foresee that unlike Tunisia and Libya the change of regime in Syria would be more difficult to achieve due to its internal structure, ethnic balances and strategic partners, including Iran. Assuming that a new democratic and peaceful order will prevail in Syria once the al-Assad regime falls could not have been a realistic expectation. Unfortunately, maybe a bloodier civil war and a sharper polarization that would make things harder in the region are awaiting us.

No one could approve of the suffering of the people in Syria. Turkey has all the right to denounce the regime. Opening our borders to welcome the Syrian refugees is the right thing to do, but becoming an active party to the domestic conflict goes beyond prudence.

“Moderation and sober deliberation” preserve their place in the literature of Turkish diplomacy. Activism for the sake of activism could call for disaster. As in human relations, empathy in foreign policy could prevent unnecessary mistakes.

In addition to the crucial issues of Syria and Iraq, other problems awaiting Turkey will be on the agenda. One of them is related to Iran’s nuclear program. Both the United States and Israel announced they would not consent to Iran’s nuclear armament. If a diplomatic solution is not found to that matter, it will be necessary to take the words of the United States and Israel seriously.

The damages caused in Turkey’s relations with Israel over the Gaza blockade and Israel’s attack against Turkey’s Mavi Marmara aid ship remains unrepaired. Apart from its regional implications, this poses a problem in advancing Turkish-U.S. cooperation.

Due to the ongoing and potential new conflicts in the Middle East and the current state of play in Turkey’s accession process in the European Union, there appears to be a need for a fresh review of Turkish foreign policy.

The level of disappointment over foreign policy increases when high blown theories and catchy slogans could not be matched by deeds. Like in other areas, Turkish society becomes more polarized on foreign policy issues as well.

This environment calls for a sober analysis leading to a more realistic foreign policy and setting our priorities right. An EU-centered multi-stakeholder policy could be our best option. To achieve this, however, there is a need to refrain from rhetoric and slogans, value secular practices that are the basic tenet of Turkish diplomacy and reduce the level of ideological inputs injected in foreign policy. It would be useful to keep in mind that perhaps more than the content, the type of discourse plays a more important role in the perception of foreign policy.

But foremost Turkey, in this state of polarization on practically every issue needs a more unifying direction. It must therefore re-adopt its reform agenda.

 Re-visiting the Copenhagen political criteria could be instructive in determining our position and calculating the length of the road to be travelled.

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