Turkey’s Unsustainable “Precious Loneliness”

June 6, 2016

On May 24, 2016, Turkey’s new Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım introduced his government’s program in the Parliament. Government programs hardly get any public attention because they routinely reiterate lofty principals, announce visionary policies and contain endless promises. This is Turkey’s 65th government. Had commitments by successive governments been fulfilled, Turkey would have been in the 22nd century today.

In the foreign policy section of his address, PM Yıldırım started off by saying that “Justice and Development Party (JDP) governments had institutionalized a visionary and realistic foreign policy tradition which saw no contradiction between Turkey’s national interests and the universal principles which reflect world’s shared values”. This overloaded statement was an attempt to whitewash the previous government of its many foreign policy mistakes. The PM did not have a choice. He also said, among other things, that Turkey’s EU membership remains a strategic objective; that our wide-ranging and close cooperation with the US will be further diversified; that Turkey would continue with the constructive and uniting role played by former JDP governments in the Middle East and North Africa; that ethnic and sectarian conflicts constitute a disaster for the world. He expressed support for Syria’s political transition. He voiced his hopes for improved cooperation with Iran and for normalizing Turkish-Russian relations. Nothing unexpected, but no bravado and no Assad bashing.

What political leaders said in recent days and the speculation this led to in some newspapers are more interesting. PM Yıldırım apparently said that Turkey needs fewer enemies and more friends. Deputy PM Numan Kurtulmuş reportedly referred to the need for foreign policy adjustments. The terms alternately used in newspapers were “retouche”, review, revision and restoration. One may take a look at these in reverse order, going from mission impossible to what is doable.

Any prospect of “restoration” should be discounted outright because the JDP will never, even for a moment imagine going back to what some refer to as “factory settings”, meaning Turkey’s traditional foreign policy. Neither would it consider going back to the policies JDP itself pursued during early years in power. Hubris remains an insurmountable obstacle.

“Revision” meaning remaking, remodeling is also out of the question in the short term. PM Yıldırım, despite his comments on the need for more friends, says that fourteen years of JDP rule, including foreign policy, has been a success story so why should anything be revised? Revision allows for recognition of mistakes and JDP leaders are well-known for their dislike for that.

Merriam-Webster’s synonyms for “review” are: “reappraisal, reconsideration, reexamination, retrospect, retrospection”. Carefully looking at or examining the quality or condition of Turkish foreign policy may appear to be a logical approach but this would be redundant because everybody, including JDP leadership, knows exactly what went wrong, why, when, where and how. For political reasons, however, success stories are sung in a high pitch whereas self-criticism, if ever engaged in, is expressed in whispers. In Turkish political culture bravado and courage are often confused. Here we don’t have the kind of courage that President Obama displayed when he admitted that he had learnt a lesson from the Libya intervention.

This leaves us with the word we have taken from French: “retouche” meaning “touching up”, “editing” and “alteration”. Though not a certainty, this is a possibility in view of the unsustainable political/diplomatic and economic cost our foreign policy mistakes.

According to recent reports the negotiations being conducted between Israeli and Turkish diplomats to put the “Mavi Marmara” episode behind may soon yield fruit. Turkey had previously set three conditions for normalization of relations: a formal apology, compensation and the lifting of the Gazza blockade. On March 20, 2013 President Obama was in Israel. From there he called PM Erdoğan and handed the phone over to PM Netanyahu who reportedly apologized. The question of compensation also appears to have been resolved. So, all that remains is finding the right wording with regard to the Gazza blockade.

Turkey’s “precious loneliness” and the growing international criticism of PM Netanyahu may encourage the parties to close the deal soon. However, this will not change the bad chemistry between the two capitals.

More importantly, the downing of the Russian Su-24 warplane for having violated Turkish airspace for 14 seconds has resulted in a great setback in Turkey’s relations with Russia. Moscow wants an apology, compensation and punishment of those responsible. Following the incident, PM Davutoğlu had said that he had personally authorized Turkish Air Force’s “rules of engagement”. So, his departure may leave us with apology and compensation. Since a visit to Turkey by President Obama and a call from here to President Putin following the Mavi Marmara example are “highly unlikely”, Russia and Turkey are left to their own devices on these two issues. Negotiations with Israel on the “Mavi Marmara” incident might provide the Turkish side with clues. But again, the settling of scores with Russia will not change the bad chemistry between Ankara and Moscow.

Actually, turning the page with Israel and Russia would be important developments going beyond “retouche”, deserving to be called “revision”. And if that were to happen, Ankara would somehow manage to claim victory, in more subdued tones perhaps in the latter case, only to be applauded by JDP supporters.

At present, Turkey’s relations with the EU and the US can at best be described as mutual dislike/distrust. Turkey’s internal developments and foreign policy choices have certainly not helped. And, Europe’s lack of vision and double standards have become all too obvious. Since further deterioration will serve neither side’s interests, Turkey’s relations with the West may gradually show some improvement. This, however, will be in limited scope and dictated by concrete overlapping interests. It will not represent profound change. It will not change the chemistry.

Building a positive image, particularly as an international actor, takes more than decades. It can be destroyed in no time. Under Atatürk’s leadership Turkey wrote an exceptional success story of global importance. That was nearly a century ago and one would only have to take a look at the current Middle East turmoil to understand the significance of what he had accomplished. Later, Turkey started having its ups and downs. Nonetheless, the momentum created by his reforms continued to carry Turkey forward. Turkey’s failings were attributed to parties, leaders, military coups. This time, however, we are dangerously close to failing as a nation; not like Libya or Syria of course. But, we are about to destroy the image which has brought us thus far. And the new image we have started projecting will take us nowhere. Restoring Turkey’s credibility as an ally, neighbor and partner, and above all giving full proof of the irreversibility of our democratic path are daunting tasks. Turkey has no time to lose.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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