An Evaluation of the Last Decade of Turkish Foreign Policy

İlter Türkmen 
Retired Minister/Ambassador, Member of Wise Men Board at BILGESAM

One can evaluate the last decade of Turkey’s foreign policy within two categorical contexts: the pre and post Arab spring eras. An overall assessment shows that with­in these contexts, Turkey’s foreign policy in the pre-revolutionary era had proven more successful and fruitful. In contrast, however, the same could not be said of the post-revolutionary era; the Arab Spring distraught Turkey’s foreign policies and was the proverbial breaking-point for its continued stability and success.

 

By no means were Turkey’s foreign policies within the last 10 years stagnant or ill adaptive, for even before the Arab spring Turkey’s policies swayed considerably. Under the tutelage of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s foreign political track was lead relatively well within the first term of the administration. It was within this same term that the AKP embraced the idea of aspiring to join the European Union (EU) and gained — with considerable success — pivotal ac­complishments in doing so. Aspiring to join the EU by 2006, the AKP launched a series of reforms aiming to align Turkish law with that of the European acquis communitaire. The observable improvement of the human rights record within this period deserves a special mention. Moreover, the AKP ensured that Turkey maintained good relations with European states and backed any Cyprus solution initiatives together with the Annan proposal that would eventually culminate with the 2004 Cypriot popular referendum. Even though the Turkish faction voted in favor, the referendum failed to pass due to Greek Cypriot blockage and, with it, the prospect of obtaining any solution to Cyprus passed. Regardless, Turkey’s constructive engagement demonstrated its good will at the international level.

 

Be that as it may, however, the fact that Greek Cyprus was admitted to the EU in 2004 and without having established a peaceful resolution on the island vastly complicated Turkey’s possible accession to the EU and ever attaining a solution on the island. Turkey’s accession to the EU is now dependent on whether or not Cyprus will ever achieve peace. Needless to say, however, Cyprus is not the only obstacle within the context of Turkish-EU relations. However, it is an obstacle that can derail Turkey’s accession; even if Turkey were to successfully comply with the acquis, and if negotiations between the EU and Turkey were successfully conducted, the Cyprus issue could still effectively hinder Turkey’s accession.

 

One must acknowledge the successful and engaging Turkish foreign policy of the last 10 years; the results yielded from the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ foreign policy is encouraging and certainly constitute a positive development for all involved. Turkish relations with nearly all Middle Eastern states substantially improved during this time. The same could be said of Turkey’s relations with both Balkan states and the Russian Federation. Though occasionally suffering from problematic developments — such as the Armenian issue — Turkish-American relations were well maintained and quite well balanced. Of particular importance to note were Turkey’s diplomatic overtures in Africa: not only did Turkey reverse its seclusion from African affairs, but developed prospering relations with various African states — a much needed and cunningly executed diplomatic maneuver.

 

These aforementioned diplomatic maneuvers were succeeded by a series of eco­nomic engagements with these parties. These economic deals vastly benefitted all of the parties involved, but were of particular benefit in sustaining Turkey’s continuing economic growth. What these engagements meant for Turkey was encapsulated within bilateral trade agreements, foreign direct investments and industrial involvements. All these complimented the already prospering Turkish economy that had been in growth at a healthy rate for the last decade.

 

The advent of the Arab Spring seriously distraught these policies and, to an ex­tent, effectively negated them. At the immediate outset of the revolutions, how­ever, these effects were not clearly observable for the Tunisian crisis was resolved without really inflicting much damage. With regard to the Libyan situation — and though having initially doubted any form of involvement — Turkey was able to rally to NATO’s call and partook in the operations and reconstruction process without suffering from any noticeable consequences. Nevertheless, the situation in Syria remains perilous and continues to adversely affect Turkish regional poli­cies. In this regard, Turkey’s foreign policy continues to be threatened by the Syrian situation.

 

Perhaps a humanitarian crisis could have been avoided and the territorial sovereignty of Syrian maintained had Turkey persisted with continuing its distanced yet advisory approach towards Syria. Turkey justifies its policy towards Syria with President Bashar Assad’s continued brutal and dictatorial rule. Be that as it may, however, one should not forget that Assad is not the only dictator in the Middle East nor does the democratization process get established so easily. Egypt offers a case in point of such an example: the old regime there was toppled, elec­tions held and a new president chosen and, yet, Egypt’s revolution is still in limbo. Furthermore, and much to Turkey’s chagrin, the Syrian case hold the potential to antagonize Turkey’s relations with Russia, Iran and some other states. Even though Turkey and Iran had labored to establish good relations, the Syrian crisis has upset these relations to the point of outright animosity. These upsets constitute a good enough reason and inventive for Turkey to maintain a cautious yet vigilant stance towards maintaining good relations with Syria.

 

The assumption that Turkey’s involvement in Syria had improved — either di­rectly or indirectly — the human rights situation there is skeptical at best and should be taken with a grain of salt. Rumors at the international level have it that Turkey not only aids the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with organizational wisdom but with arms and arms smuggling as well. Furthermore, groups such as Al-Qaeda — a notorious terrorist organization that had struck Turkey as well — is allegedly active in Syria is disconcerting. Therefore, Turkey needs to exercise more caution and prudently plan its aid for its Syrian allies. It is now evidently clear that Turkey was caught unaware and unprepared for the events in Syria. Even though more than 60,000 people have lost their lives in Syria, Assad still remains in charge and control of the government. Turkey miscalculated Assad’s sway over his military and even the resolve and strength of the Syrian armed forces — particularly its well-installed missile defense systems. Turkey should have pursued a strategy of an advisory position instead of insisting on Assad’s elusive abdication. Not only has such an abdication not materialized, but Turkey now faces the unraveling of its previous successes. Therefore, Turkey needs to recalibrate its Syrian policy and secure its hard earned accomplishments of the last 10 years.

 

An analysis of the situation in Iraq apropos Turkish policy warrants a bifurcated approach. It would have been highly unwise for Turkey to not have supported the Kurdish initiatives in northern Iraq. In this regard, Turkey acted prudently and did the right thing by supporting such measures. However, the fact that Turkey and the central Iraqi government had a fallout is certainly not a welcoming develop­ment. Further complicating and vexing development for Turkey and Iraq alike is the diminishing authority of the Iraqi central government. As the Iraqi government loses legitimacy in the provincial areas of the country, it losses with it legitimate sovereignty. Perhaps in vain — with Maliki’s election victory — Turkey meddled far too much in the internal affairs of Iraq. Iraq did not appreciate these meddling interferences and relations between the states are more than wanting at the mo­ment. While it is important to remember and praise Turkey’s active foreign policy, some of these policies were far too intrusive of other state’s internal affairs. These intrusions should certainly never happen. Always speaking out against foreign interferences in domestic affairs — Turkey did not practice what it preached and acted far too intrusively in Iraq.

 

In addition to the state-to-state relations, Turkey maintained successful public re­lations within its foreign affairs; Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan maintains re­spectful prestige amongst Palestinian and the general Arab public. However, Tur­key need not be too hasty and draw premature conclusions too early. Public opin­ions tend to be fickle; under duress from their governments, publics can change opinions as these opinions are volatile and capricious in nature. Consequently, serious challenges to the established public relations could undermine Turkey’s standing amongst the populations of the Middle East. Though approving Israel’s approach to the Palestinian question is hardly acceptable, the fact that Turkey has suspended its relations with Israel in its quest for public approval was ill advised. Turkey even out preformed other Arab statesmen in this regard. While other states exercised caution, Turkey over-engaged yet again and has regulated itself far too much as a partisan faction. The Palestinian issue is, above all, an Arab issue that should primarily concern neighboring Arab states such as Egypt. The resolution of this issue benefits mostly other Arab states and the Arab nation as a whole. Turkey, not an Arab nation, should not be directly involved with the matter.

 

 

The relations Turkey developed with Israel were and still are important. Conse­quently, and as a direct result of its good-standing relations with Israel, Turkey was one of the few states that could act as an intermediary between Israel and Arab states. Turkey’s relations with Israel were multifaceted: ranging from eco­nomic ties to military hard and software transfers, Turkey and Israel were strate­gic partners — even during the earlier years of the AKP administration. What is surprising, however, is how durable this partnership proved itself to be; despite the political crisis between the two states, economic ties have not been severed and, in fact, continue to prosper. It is in this sense that both Turkey and Israel need to improve their important relationship and consequently maintain its status with outmost care and vigilance.

 

One the other hand, the beneficial economic agreements Turkey was able to secure with Middle East states yielded dividends far more than expected. Turkish-Gulf states’ relations have substantially developed and improved within the past de­cade. Capital inflow and direct investment in Turkey by Gulf States aided Turkey to drastically improve its account balance and ameliorated its economic stand­ing within the Middle East. Nevertheless and perhaps contrary to expectations, neither the United States (US) nor the EU were uneasy with Turkey’s new found regional confidence Turkish-EU and Turkish-American relations could at times be aggravated by certain challenges such as the Cyprus and Armenian issues, respectively. These moments of crises do not, in any way, adversely influence the opinions of these states within the context of Turkey’s Middle Eastern en­gagements. For example, though Turkish-French relations are strained, these two states are able to pursue parallel objectives with regard to the situation in Syria.

 

Several surprising developments have occurred recently. Turkey has entertained, at the behest of its prime minister, notions of seeking out alternatives for the EU and, in light of this, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has received attention as one such alternative. However this organization cannot be considered as a replacement to the EU. The EU is a peace project. Under this guise, peace has been brought to a whole continent and the world’s greatest economic bloc been created. Turks still go to Europe for their professional, scholarly and vocational needs and leisure. Europe has been the proverbial guarding star for the Turkish republic since its advent in the early 20th century. With all these in mind, entertain­ing such notions with alternative scenarios is simply unrealistic and would hardly offer any benefits for Turkey.

 

It is evident that the EU faces certain domestic crises that it must overcome. Among them the economic challenges loom large and seriously hinder the EU. The dire economic situations in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy and a few other important economies of the EU member states cer­tainly raised questions for the future of this bloc. Such challenges raise doubts in countries like the UK where rhetoric on leaving the EU is frequently heard certainly not an encouraging development. However, one must not forget that the UK was never nor will it ever be fully European. European states — such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium — would stand firm and defi­nitely not secede from the union. The same holds for Eastern European states. In fact, a former Polish president once claimed that Poland’s entry into the ‘western fold’ — with NATO and the EU — was an event comparable to when the Poles opted for Christianity. Oppressed by either the Germans or the Russians, Eastern European states would not dream of seceding from the EU.

 

Therefore, one must take the popular yet ill advised anti-EU sentiment in Turkey with a grain of salt. In doing so, one must critically question whether or not the demise of the EU would be a positive or negative development for it. Nearly half of Turkey’s trade is with the EU. The EU is still the single largest economy in the world and has an astounding infrastructural network. If this vast economic neighbor of Turkey were to cease in existence, it most certainly would be an adverse development for Turkey — in every conceivable way possible instead of engaging in apocalyptical discussions about this union’s demise, Turks should focus their attentions on how both parties would stand to benefit from their mutual integration.

 

At the grand analysis level, one could argue that Turkish foreign policy of the last 10 years has been remarkably successful. Turkey has vastly diversified its foreign and economic portfolio and has accomplished a considerable amount of agree­ments that, for most part, greatly advanced its regional and economic clout. Be that as it may, however, certain unforeseen developments have complicated, if not derailed entirely, Turkish accomplishments in the region. The Arab Spring and its aftermath continue to trouble Turkey. Resilient, Turkey continues to engage with both regional and international actors as never before. Turkey’s clout is now felt and Turkey has become an important international actor itself. The French have a saying that roughly means trust your own abilities and judgments; Turkey must continue doing so and engage with both governmental and non-governmental ac­tors — ranging from NATO to the EU, global to the most micro-regional in na­ture. In this regard, Turkey should not neglect the three fundamental principles of foreign policy. Primarily that the realm of foreign policy should be governed by rational actors with realistic objectives. Secondly, and though engagement is much appreciated, Turkey must never meddle with the internal affairs of other states. Not only would such interferences end without results, but it risks an­tagonizing the opposing parties. Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, the inter­national arena can never tolerate undue zeal. Regrettably Turkey has done so in more than more occasion, but it must not forget that such overbearing meddling behavior almost always produces undesirable consequences.