What is to Be Done?

February 22, 2021

Since Turkish foreign policy has remained at a dead-end for a decade, the question “what is to be done?” defines the essence of our monotonous debate. Since we are a people with a short memory, how we got here is of no relevance. Some suggest that the remedy is “going back to factory settings” which is unlikely because this would require more than cosmetics. It would call for a recommitment to the founding principals of the Republic, prominently among them secularism, the antidote to the sectarian strife which has ever plagued the Middle East. The so-called Organization of Islamic Cooperation is a nonentity because secularism is anathema to it. This is also why our foreign policy prioritizing ideology over national and regional interest has ended up at a dead-end.

The challenges facing Turkey are known, so are the solutions.

According to Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index, China overtook the US in 2019, with 276 embassies and other representative offices globally. They are followed by France, Japan, Russia, and Turkey. Ranking 6th in this Index but enjoying “precious loneliness” is a contradiction.

Many countries are involved in bilateral and regional disputes. Many engage in competition. But most take care to keep the channels of communication open with adversaries. Our clash of interests with Egypt or Israel are not more intricate than those between the US and Russia or China. They neither recall ambassadors nor close down embassies.

At regional level, we can start by sending ambassadors to Israel, Egypt, and Syria. If ambassadors are of no importance in the conduct of foreign relations why have so many embassies? Every hotel has a manager. Every bank has a director. Every newspaper has an editor-in-chief. And every embassy must have an ambassador.

We must remember that Middle Easy dynasties and Egypt consider the Muslim Brotherhood an existential threat. Until we recognize their concerns, they would not appreciate ours.

On a broader level, we need to look at our relations with NATO. Some in the West as well as in Turkey are now discussing whether Turkey should remain in the Alliance. For seven decades NATO has been the main pillar of our institutional relationship with the West. Even speculation over a rupture with the Alliance runs counter to Turkey’s foreign and security policy interests. We need to strengthen our relations with NATO which is also West’s principal political forum.

The overarching problem with the Biden White House is Turkey’s democratic decline.

On September 24, 2013, President Obama, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, had said:

“The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.  Nevertheless, we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent, or supporting the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Last Friday President Biden addressed the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference. After mentioning the conflict between autocracy and democracy he said:

“Historians are going to examine and write about this moment as an inflection point, as I said.  And I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail.  We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.  That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident.  We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.  We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of our history; it’s the single best way to revitalize the promise of our future.  And if we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, I know that we’ll meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.”

In brief, the US will continue to work with Middle East regimes but membership in a democratic group of nations entails a different set of obligations.

The S-400 conundrum and US support to the PYD/YPG top the long list of issues with Washington. There is a tendency in Turkey to see the former as essentially a bilateral issue between Ankara and Washington. However, how Moscow would react to a “compromise”, if one were to be found, is also critical.

On the latter question, Washington with 2,500 troops in Iraq and less than 1000 US military personnel and contractors in Syria is more likely to continue providing assurances to Ankara regarding the link between the YPG and the PKK than disowning the former.

Turkey had developed a reasonable relationship with Moscow even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Starting from the early 1990s, our cooperation expanded. Now it is a complicated relationship, again because of our role in the regime change project in Syria. We must do everything possible to achieve a peaceful solution in Syria; endeavor to create common ground between Moscow and Washington. After all we share a 910-kilometer border with Syria and Syrian peace is more important to us than others. It should not become a hostage of Russian-US tug-of-war.

On February 10, Turkish security forces carried out a rescue operation in northern Iraq to save the thirteen hostages who had been in the hands of the PKK for years. All were killed by their captors before Turkish forces secured the cave where they were kept. The opposition called the operation a failure. They questioned its timing, planning and whether domestic political considerations played a role. The ensuing discussion and the language used confirmed yet again that acute polarization is Turkey’s number one problem and with Covid-19 and economic downturn foreign policy is becoming a secondary issue for the public.

Nonetheless, some keep the door open to surprises.  Until a few months ago, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government was dead set against raising interest rates. Overnight, policy changed. This, however, was a sovereign decision. Foreign policy decisions are a category of their own and come at a price. This is why foresight, prudence, in-depth analysis, and thinking twice before acting remain the basic tenets of conventional diplomacy.


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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