Turkish Foreign Policy

September 28, 2020

At present, tension characterizes Turkey’s relationship with the EU. Ankara’s relationship with Washington is a rollercoaster. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put Turkey in the same category with North Korea, Russia, and Saudi Arabia as Ankara is holding its breath on the result of the upcoming US presidential election. Moscow is putting up with Ankara because it has far-reaching policy objectives which obscure its frustration in Syria and Libya. Our relations with NATO lack mutual confidence. Our relations with Middle East countries are at their lowest point ever. We are dangerously involved in regional conflicts. We are diplomatically isolated. Most importantly, we are a polarized nation.

Despite this bleak picture, the government is far from admitting that our diplomatic isolation is the result of a disastrous combination of democratic decline and misguided foreign policy. Turkey’s breaking this vicious circle depends first and foremost on the restoration of parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, this is not in the cards for the foreseeable future. And again unfortunately, our foreign policy debate has turned into routine and repetitious criticism of government policy to which the government responds with nationalist rhetoric blaming all our problems on foreign hands, dark forces which are determined to stop Turkey’s rise as a regional and global power. And this often marks the end of the discussion. Because Turks are preoccupied, more than anything else, with our economic downturn and Covid-19. And our foreign policy mistakes and corrective measures are more than obvious. Moreover, since foreign and security policy challenges keep mounting, we tend to focus on the latest, seldom asking the question “how did we get here?”. Some years ago, our top agenda item was Syria; then it was Libya; and now all we hear is eastern Mediterranean. Idlib is hardly mentioned. If incremental progress were to be registered on any one of these issues, the government would be more than likely it present it as a landmark diplomatic achievement. Yet, largely because of our government’s own making, Turkish foreign policy is at a dead end. This calls for the reinstitution of the principles and polices which had achieved power, influence, credibility, and trustworthiness for Turkey in the past.  In brief, to get out of the dead end we must turn back.

The principals and policies below were listed in a co-authored post five years ago[i]. At the time we had mentioned “keeping the EU accession process on track” as one of those principals. Today, this is chimera. But the alternative cannot possibly be confrontation.

  • Restoration of Ataturk’s dictum “peace at home, peace in the world” as the cornerstone of our foreign policy.
  • Readiness to contribute the peaceful solution of conflicts in Turkey’s immediate vicinity and beyond.  In practice, this would mean doing all it takes to bring peace to Syria and Libya.
  • Non-involvement and non-interference in intra-Arab conflicts.
  • A reasonable working relationship with the EU based on common interest.
  • Relations based on mutual trust with the US and other traditional allies.
  • A steady relationship with Moscow.
  • An honest cooperation with international organizations such as the UN and NATO which allows for a reasonable amount of mutual criticism provided that the public discourse remains constructive and in harmony with diplomatic courtesy.
  • While not disputing that foreign and domestic policies should be mutually reinforcing, foreign policy cannot be made hostage to domestic policy requirements, neither could the latter be allowed to overshadow the former.
  • Granted that pragmatism may be indispensable in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, it would be impermissible to eliminate the principle of national interest as the paramount factor that drives foreign policy. It is only publicly endorsed national interest that renders foreign policy to become truly national rather than one which yields to the limited perspectives, parochial interests, and ideological obsessions of a political party.

If there is a will none of the above would be mission impossible. And the price Turkey would pay would be incomparably lower than what we have paid for the perilous journey of the past decade.


[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2015/06/15/turkeys-elections-and-foreign-policy/

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 he held 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 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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