Turkey Needs to Pivot to Diplomacy

June 22, 2020

Ataturk was the hero of our War of Independence, the founder of the Republic and Turkey’s greatest ever reformer. His motto was, “peace at home, peace in the world”.

Suffice to say, we no longer have peace at home. Our democracy is in steep decline and we are polarized like we have never been.

Neither the world is at peace. Particularly in the Middle East internal strife and proxy wars are taking their toll on the unfortunate masses.

Turkey’s nowadays reviled traditional foreign policy put the emphasis on regional peace, stable if not always friendly relations with neighbors and diplomacy. Turkey once used force and once threatened the use of force.

In the former case, Turkey intervened in Cyprus in 1974 under the terms of the Zurich and London Agreements which had established a partnership state between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

In the latter case, in 1998, Ankara after years and years of trying to convince the Hafez Assad regime that it should end its support to the PKK, finally warned Damascus that it was going to take military action. Syria immediately complied, sent PKK’s leader Ocalan out of the country, and committed itself to a fundamental shift of policy under the Adana Agreement negotiated by Ugur Ziyal, a career diplomat, at the time Turkey’s ambassador in Damascus. With the coming to power of President Bashar Assad, the two countries turned the page.

In the 1980s, Bulgaria launched a campaign to force ethnic Turks to change their names to ensure their assimilation. Tens of thousands of Bulgarians with Turkish roots fled to Turkey. Following the fall of the communist regime the two countries turned the page.

In 1999, Turkey and Greece also went through a PKK/Ocalan crisis. Soon after, they launched a period a dialogue. During the earthquakes which hit both countries soon after, they did their best to support one another. At the time I was fortunate enough to be Turkey’s ambassador to Athens and witnessed how the two neighbors turned the page.

Interestingly, in these three cases it was our neighbors who changed policy and we showed a readiness to move on. It was the right thing to do. Because, dialogue is always better than confrontation unless it is exploited a cover for hostile policies like Hafez Assad did during his rule.

Mr. Hoshyar Zebari, a colleague of Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had made many visits to Ankara before the US invasion of Iraq and we sometimes agreed sometimes did not. After the invasion he became Iraq’s foreign minister. On his first visit to Turkey in his new capacity, he told Minister Gul that having full access to the files of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was now in a position to say  that we had all along been very consistent and transparent in what we said on regional problems, that we had never engaged in double talk. Whether we always agreed or not was another matter.

Some days ago, in a small get-together of retired career diplomats, a colleague who had served as ambassador in an EU member state, told us that during the conversation after he presented his credentials to the country’s president, the latter  made the following observation:

“I do appreciate Turkey’s skillful foreign policy. On the one hand you are a member of NATO, a candidate for EU accession, thus you are part of the West. On the other hand, you have good relations with Russia. You have a special relationship with the Islamic world, but you also maintain good relations with Israel…”

Indeed. For example, Ankara followed a policy of “active neutrality” during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war gaining the trust of both sides. So much so that, Turkey represented Iraqi diplomatic interests in Tehran and Iranian diplomatic interests in Baghdad.

It was a decade ago that Turkey was acting as a facilitator between Syria and Israel. Our relations with neighbors were characterized by a determination to open new avenues of cooperation reflecting shared interests. Syria was a friend. Turkish-Egyptian business relations were booming. In April 2009 Turkey became the second country to host President Obama on a bilateral visit, the first being Canada. Our words matched our deeds. We avoided rhetoric. We promoted dialogue. Our policies were complementary not contradictory. This earned us friendships.

Today, we have no friends. Former friends have become adversaries. Our relations with the US and Russia are a roller coaster ride. We constantly engage in rhetoric. We claim that “external powers” are trying to prevent our rise as a global actor. So, one is tempted to ask which countries are supporting our ascent. The ruling Justice and Development Party says the era of apprenticeship is behind and they have mastered statecraft in all its dimensions including the conduct foreign policy. They overlook the fact that institutional wisdom needs more than two decades to mature. Moreover, they seem to have made a pivot from diplomacy to military force, be it the regular army or proxies.

This is not to say that at a time of turmoil in a turbulent region we can be lax on defense. Of course, we must maintain a strong deterrence. Yes, a strong military is an important element of national power, but we also need national solidarity, consensus on more than lowest common denominators, unity of purpose.

Now that is has given its military messages both in Syria and Libya, Ankara must put the emphasis on diplomacy, sooner than later. It must advocate dialogue. Because, military operations are costly, difficult to sustain in the long run and in the final analysis soft power and peacemaking earn a country more points than military interventions.

The following is from the April 2016 Obama interview by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic:

“… There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions…”

At the time of the interview, Mr. Obama was the 44th President of world’s leading power and the commander-in-chief of the strongest military.



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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