West’s Turkey Dilemma

April 26, 2021

Turkey’s joining the Council of Europe and NATO in 1949 and 1952 respectively, and the launching of the EU accession process in 2005 had provided a progressive institutional framework for Turkey’s relations with the West. But our democracy started to falter as the Arab spring threw the region in turmoil. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP), lacking foresight, put all its eggs in the Muslim Brotherhood basket. It assumed a leadership role in the regime change project in Syria. Non-interference in Arab affairs ceased to be an axiom of Turkish foreign policy.

The JDP, enraged by a string of foreign policy failures most of which are its own doing, started engaging in belligerent language until there were no more bridges to burn, turning the so-called “precious loneliness” into self-inflicted isolation. Our problems from A to Z were attributed to conspiracies by foreign powers desperate to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power. The government’s fight against such dark schemes was even likened to our War of Independence, defying reason. Although names were not called everybody knew that what was meant by those centers of evil were Western powers. Failures on a broad front brought authoritarian tendencies to the surface. What the government started calling “Turkey’s battle for survival” called for a strong leadership, extraordinary powers.

Today, our democracy is in free fall. Our economy is in trouble. Fight against Covid-19 is far from satisfactory. Yet, the government is about to launch the canal İstanbul project. Why we need a canal remains a mystery.

Our relations with the West are at their lowest point in the history of the Republic. The S-400s, US support for PYD/YPG only top a long list of problems with Washington. The EU accession process is over and done with. Lack of good chemistry between the EU and Turkey has started to adversely affect our relations with NATO. After all, 21 of the 27 member states of the EU member states are also members of NATO and drawing a line between the two is becoming increasingly difficult.

On the one hand, most Western governments now regard JDP’s Ankara only a “nominal ally” if not an adversary, but they cannot turn their back on a country which enjoys a geo-strategic location surrounded by three seas and joining Asia and Europe, when tensions with Russia are on the rise. Turkey is a unique window into the Middle East. Sadly, it has also acquired a critical role in Europe’s dealing with its refugee problem. Moreover, Turkey has a history of a democracy despite its ups and downs. Despite its economic difficulties it has important investment and trade relations with Europe. And more than half of Turks wish their country to restore democracy and go back to its Republican traditions.

On the other hand, JDP’s anti-Western rhetoric has found a receptive ear among the party faithful. Anti-Western sentiment is also on the rise among those yearning for Turkey’s return to the democratic path. Many believe that the West has no interest in Turkish democracy so long as the country remains “anchored” in the West and “behaves”. Some, to prove their point, draw attention to the fact that the West enjoys cozy relations with Middle East countries with no history of democracy, no respect for rule of law. While their disappointment is understandable and largely justified, they tend to overlook the fact that none of those authoritarian Middle East countries are members of either the Council of Europe or NATO and that a total rupture with the West would mean a final goodbye to democracy.  

Thus, sanctioning Turkey has increasingly became a balancing act between targeting the JDP government and not alienating the Turkish people. Now, however, Western approach appears to shift towards confronting Turkey.

Last Thursday, European Parliaments Committee Foreign Affairs adopted a report on Turkey. The rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor said: “This report is probably the toughest ever in its criticism towards the situation in Turkey. It reflects all that has unfortunately happened in the country in the last two years, in particular in the fields of human rights and rule of law, which remain the main concern for the European Parliament, and in its relations towards the EU and its members. We hope Turkey will definitively change course and put recent expressions of good will into concrete action. We urge the other EU institutions to make any positive agenda they might pursue with Turkey conditional upon democratic reform.”

On Friday, President Biden called President Erdogan.  On Saturday Mr.  Biden declared the events of 1915 a genocide. It is clear that Mr. Biden called his Turkish counterpart to inform him about what was to come the next day.

Throughout his political career Mr. Biden was the leading adversary of Turkey in the US Senate. So, his decision comes as no surprise. Furthermore, there are no friends of Turkey left either in the administration or in the Congress who could advise him otherwise.  If Mr. Biden chose to punish Ankara by this decision, he picked the wrong tool. If he intended to give Armenia a shot in the arm following its defeat in the last Armenia-Azerbaijan war, he closed whatever window of opportunity existed for regional peace in the foreseeable future. His decision will leave a lasting scar in Turkish people’s mind who would see it as another example of the West’s lasting enmity towards Turkey.

Mr. Biden said that the American people honor all those Armenians who perished 106 years ago. Sometime in the future, he should also consider honoring the innocent Iraqis who perished since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq of which he was such an ardent supporter.

In an earlier post I had said, “Soon after the new year, the Biden administration and the EU will have consultations to chart a common Turkey policy. Then, there would be some high-level Turkey-US talks of no consequence. But the Gordian knot, though unlikely to be untied, will wait for a Biden-Erdogan meeting.”[i]

That common Turkey policy of the US and the EU now appears firmly in place. In readouts of last Saturday’s Biden-Erdogan telephone call it was announced that the two Presidents agreed to hold a bilateral meeting on the margins of the NATO summit to discuss the full range of bilateral and regional issues.

This summit will take place on 14 June 2021 at NATO HQ in Brussels. It is abundantly clear that the two Presidents will not be able to discuss meaningfully the full range of bilateral and regional issues on the margins of a one-day summit. So, the Brussels meeting is likely to be just an inauspicious start.  

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[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2020/12/22/more-than-a-lost-year/#more-1684

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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