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Disorientation of Turkish Foreign Policy

Foreign policy is the political field that is very important and vital for every country with its predominant technicality and necessity towards being affected as minimum as possible from the ideologies. Foreign relations are the center of importance due to the fact that it is directly related to the security of the state.

One of the important conditions of being a state is the central government’s ability to make contacts with other countries inside a bordered piece of land. Every state tries to provide maximum security against the international system which suffers from the lack of normative compulsiveness since the law is supported by minimum enforcement. Albeit qualified as independent, the states are obliged to consider the large and effective universe that exists apart from themselves while they make foreign policy. In this regard, foreign policy is not an absolute effective field, but also a reactional one too. In other words, the states cannot take arbitrary actions while they make foreign policy. They also get affected by the behavior of other actors of the international system; they handle the international system as a whole while they generate moves, actions, and strategies. 

The international system is formed around the axis of cooperation and competition. It is assumed a foreign policy is successful if it is capable of maximizing the cooperations while minimizing the conflictions. To make it clear, the interests formulated by the states about their relations is very determinant. The states, which behave aiming for the best possible profits in accordance with their interests, unavoidably start competing and conflicting with each other sometimes in a world where there are limited sources. Sometimes the potential conflicts get escalated and this leads to hot conflicts.

States often carry out diplomacy while they have a scrape with each other because of their conflicting interests. They try to balance the hostile state(s) by building bridges, cooperating, and even making allegiances with other states. When they achieve to do this, we say the power balance is established. The states build their resolution process on these power estimations. The success of the states, which are well aware that they cannot just get anything they want, lies behind the accuracy of their diagnosis towards their own and the other players’ power. In other words, not exaggerating their own power and formulating balanced interests in accordance with their power should be the base of their strategy. Although apprehension is important in foreign policy; it must be balanced with rational wisdom. 

Turkey is located on a very strategic piece of land inside the Anatolian geography. Due to its borders located inside a circle that connects three different continents, this Anatolian geography witnessed many migrations, intense power struggles, and also battles throughout history, and it does not contain the states within which are not capable of balancing their powers and objectives. Such states just vanish in time. They might experience existence problems due to the fact that either they still want to continue their same attitude after they become weak or follow the same objectives incompatible with their power after they become weak. Today, Ankara’s approach towards foreign and security policies filled with inconsistencies, and foreign and security policies out of proportion to its power are typical examples of the decision makers endangering their own countries.  

The Ottoman Empire collapsed after having a major influence over the geography they had been existing since 1299 due to its failure to proportion its power to the foreign policies at the end of the 1800s and the first twenty years of the 1900s. As of the establishment of TBMM (Grand National Assembly of Turkey) in 1920, the militaristic-bureaucratic republican elites administrated the foreign policy with a down-to-earth and consistent approach. Turkey managed to provide domestic consolidation thanks to this rationalized approach which was purified from the dreams of an empire and the syndrome of Sevres.

Without losing further land and power, Turkey chose to gain strength within its Misak-i Milli (national pact) borders. They tried to provide security against the gradually increasing instabilities of the 1930s by embracing cooperations by courtesy of treaties both in Europe and the Middle East. They did politics in proportion to their power and in a stable manner with the Soviets, English, French, Germans, and Italians under the skin of these agreements. When Soviets did not extend the Turkish-Soviet Treaty of Brotherhood after the war and gazed upon the Turkish lands and the straits, Turkey diagnosed that they could not manage to stand against this great power alone and approached the Western alliance which was led by the US in order to neutralize the Soviet threat.

Thus, Turkey received intense support and guaranteed territorial integrity and security in the scope of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in exchange for closing down the Black Sea – Mediterranean line to the Soviets. There are no friendships between states; there are only interests. This is one of the fundamental approaches taught to students who study international relations during the introduction classes. Turkey had known that the country was getting into a power hierarchy when they made an alliance with the US and West.

Alliances are not love marriages. They are convenience relationships where there are expectations. Turkey had always considered this reality towards their alliance and cooperation with the US and West. Until the last periods of AKP (Justice and Development Party)! While the NATO membership guarantees Turkey’s territorial integrity and security, the US and NATO naturally appointed some functions over Turkey.

First of these functions is to stay as an anti-communist country and keep control of the Black Sea – Mediterranean passage line in favor of the West. This is one of the most important geopolitical roles of the Cold War. Ankara was well aware of this responsibility. The necessity of security required them to take responsibility. However, the country was also receiving the privileges of improving multi-party democracy and human rights as a side benefit. Because the Cold War had an ideological extent. Market economy and liberal democracy (an independent country status where fundamental human rights and freedoms are guaranteed) were the preconditions for the Western club.

As a matter of fact, NATO membership could have been a chance for the Turkish intelligentsia, which had not targeted these values neither during the Ottoman political system nor in the 1920s and the early Republic era in the 1930s. Turks, who were accepted as a Western in this league, could have changed into a more developed and democratic community like the other countries that managed to convert their NATO memberships into security and stability. However, the external dynamics (NATO membership and Turkey’s relationship with the Western club) were not enough singlehandedly in order to provide this development. Nevertheless, this foreign policy option (Western tendency) was a chance for Turkey.  

The US and NATO have never tried to hurt Turkey. On the contrary, they were the safety fuse for the Turkish territory to avoid getting invaded by the Soviets between 1945-1991. Despite Johnson’s letter, Cyprus crisis, embargoes, opium crisis, hood event, and other dual-multiple problems, Ankara sustained the US and NATO relationships and Western tendency as a priority for foreign policy. Turkey modernized, trained, and equipped the army. Furthermore, the Kemalist elites perceived this foreign policy with the Western tendency as a lever towards reaching Ataturk’s “contemporary civilization” objective. They used Turkey’s Western integrated attitude and its membership status in the Western institutions as a dynamic influence towards the modernization of Turkey. The country legitimized the fact that Turkey was a Westerner in all Western relationships including the EU tendency together with this security and foreign political identity. 

If this foreign and security political tendency had not existed, the Russian influence, which had been turned into a vital threat as of the final century of the Ottoman Empire, would not had been balanced. Russia’s request of land from Turkey and gaze upon the straits and Marmara consecutively had been eliminated by courtesy of the US and NATO alliance.

At the same time, NATO was representing a group supporting the status quo just like it had been during the time of Ataturk in Turkey. In other words, they were opposing the borders to be changed and establishing a status quo front in order to avoid the same fate of Eastern Europe, which had been invaded by Russia, not to be duplicated in Western and South-Western Europe. Turkey has been a pro-status-quo power since the first TBMM government in 1920 and the Turkish Republic in 1923. They did not think of changing the status quo until the Cyprus crisis at the end of the 1950s. Neither the returning of 12 islands from Italy to Turkey after World War II nor Cyprus or the Balkans had been Turkey’s foreign policy objectives.

However, Turkey suddenly started to be interested in the Aegean and Cyprus together with the Democrat Party government in the 1950s and conjectural incidents. Nevertheless, they did not make a move until the operation in 1974. They had relieved the Turkish Cypriots by stopping at the first operation in 1974 and overthrown the coup plotters in Greece. Moreover, the Nikos Simpson coup had collapsed in Cyprus too. However, deep state in Ankara could not manage to slow down. They used this as an excuse and invaded 40% of the island with the second operation and captured all of the zones of TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus). But this move was not welcomed warmly by the West. 

Thus, the perception of “the West is against our interests” settled in Turkey. Nobody questioned this perception. While Ecevit was deemed as the conqueror of Cyprus, nationalist reflexes towards the center-left wing approach became dominant. In other words, the Turkish left-wing evolved into a perception favoring both Marxist and Kemalist-nationalist anti-American reflexes. This perception gained strength after the US supported or turned a blind eye to the coup attempts in the third world countries and Turkey. 

Turkish right-wing became a social base where anti-US and anti-West streams easily got rich with Islamist and Panturkist interpretations. Turkish-Islamist circle always tried to keep their bases dynamic with the “Turks-Muslims returning to self” rhetoric which interpreted the Western relations with anti-semitic and anti-Dar-al-Harb (house of war) reflexes. And they were successful. 

Nevertheless, the main tendency in the country continued with NATO influence. Both the army and the bureaucracy could not manage to put their longings of “new pursuits” into practice revealed after 1991. However, they needed to determine their position after the increasing US influence over the foreign policy became determinant and the US made it clear that they were expecting serious democratization after the 1999 Helsinki Summit. By the way, Kurds and the Islamists (two ideologic groups marginalized out of the system) discovered that they could be able to extend their areas of freedom thanks to the EU values.

Kurds had already gained a serious lobby by making decent contact with the West as of the 1990s. After the Refah (Welfare) Party’s 28 February experience, new AKP had understood the importance of building good relationships with the EU and US. They hold onto this after 2002 and followed the strategy of terminating military domination through the EU. The deep state was following these events with bated breath. They were getting insignificant and Turkey, the country they wanted to indoctrinate, was stepping into danger. Kurds were obtaining new rights and Islamists were converting the solid-secular state. Therefore, the anti-EU wing that had revealed its first reflexes on 28 February evolved gradually into a more anti-Western tendency. Especially the imprisoned military officers (Ergenekon supporters), who planned a coup, sadly found out that the norms of a Western tendency would reset their own influences in Turkey.  

Dynamics of the EU Process

EU, Gulen Movement, liberals, Kurds, minorities all supported AKP during this process and got reactions from the deep state structure. When AKP bargained with the deep structures supporting the Ergenekon after December 17th 2013 corruption scandal and delivered the main foreign policy tendency decisions of the state to the deep structures; all of these groups turned against the deep structures and AKP and became their natural enemies. However, in order to eliminate these groups, they needed Turkey to part ways from the Western norms. This only could have been achieved with a breakpoint. July 15 2016 is a breakpoint. July 15 coup attempt legitimized this 180-degree veer. The player which will balance the Western resistance is Russia.

According to the deep elites, it was impossible to get out of the gravitational field of Europe without entering Russia’s orbit. Thus, the deep structure was converted into Eurasianists. Moreover, because of the US and West hostility of Eurasianism, Islamists, chauvinists, and nationalists could manage to unite around the same objective. They changed the foreign policy altogether through this consensus. S-400 crisis is the outpouring of this. Final resistance of the Western is the S-400s.  

Russia is just like a pit bull; does not back off easily. Turkey’s imagination way beyond its power and opportunities is Russia biggest chance. Moscow knows Turks’ weakness. Just like the Germans did in World War I and World War II; they are selling geopolitical dreams to Turkey. Eurasianists, Erdogan, Islamists, Idealists, and the Turkish “left-wing” have already taken Russia’s bait. The Turkish intelligentsia, which exaggerates its power and underestimates the opposite powers, started a ruleless game with the Russian.

By this means, Russians prepared the best grounds for their own interests by tempering the foreign policy of Turkey the way they wanted. Turkey is isolated. As long as Turkey welcomes the directives forwarded from Kremlin, this ruleless game will somehow continue. But whenever Russia brings a request which will be too difficult to handle for Turkey and Ankara sidesteps; then this great isolation will become a serious threat to Turkey’s existence. That day is not far away. 

Foreign policy is a technical field. It does not accept mistakes! This kind of foreign policy that makes mistakes over and over and sways from side to side will only bring disappointment and sorrow. 

Turkish version of this article appeared at TR724.com.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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