Turkey at a Dead End

October 26, 2021

On October 19, the European Commission published its “Turkey 2021 Report”. For a first impression I took look at the “Key findings of the 2021 Report on Turkey”. The word used to characterize our democracy, civil society issues, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, social policy, media, and EU-Turkey political dialogue on foreign and security policy was “backsliding”. In the report the word was used thirty-three times. Then I checked the report for the word “progress” and saw that it was used twenty-seven times. Unfortunately, however, it was mostly preceded by words like “no”, “some”, and “limited”.

Turkish Foreign Ministry reacted to the Report. It rejected EU’s double standards and said, “The EU’s willingness to conduct ‘give and take’ relations on a daily basis with Turkey only in areas of its own interests is unacceptable.”  Nonetheless, it reiterated Turkey’s strategic commitment to EU membership. EU’s double standards and anti-Turkey bias are well-known. They have not changed but Turkey has.

To measure the extent of our change, I looked at the 2005 Report issued shortly after the launching of the accession process in October of that year. “Chapter 31: Foreign, security and defense policy” says, “… Turkey has been actively involved in peacekeeping and stabilization efforts in the Balkans. It has also remained committed to the stabilization of its neighboring regions including the Caucasus, Central Asia as well as the Middle East. Bilateral relations with neighbors have continued to improve, in particular with Syria and Iran where Turkey used its influence to convince the leadership of that country to abide by the request of the international community. Concerning Iraq, Turkey has continued to express concerns about the situation. At the same time, Turkey makes an active contribution to the stabilization of the country in particular by deploying diplomatic efforts targeted at all Iraq’s neighbors.”

If anything in the 2021 Report has delighted Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership, this must be the reference to “Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy”. BecauseMerriam-Webster defines the word “assertive” as “disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior”. The problem is, assertiveness by itself does not necessarily yield results or guarantee success, as we now know very well.

So much for our relations with Europe. With our erratic domestic  agenda, the “Turkey 2021 Report” will be forgotten in a few days.

Presidents Erdogan and Biden are  supposed to meet in Rome at the end of October.

Lately, President Erdogan has signaled another  operation against the PYD/YPG in northern Syria.

On October 14, 2019, by Executive Order 13894  President Trump had declared a national emergency pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the situation in and in relation to Syria.[i]

The Executive Order said:

“I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that the situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the recent actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”

On October 7, 2021, President Biden using exactly the same language, announced that he is continuing for one year the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13894 with respect to the situation in and in relation to Syria.[ii]

Are we supposed to say that we enjoyed a good relationship with Mr. Trump, and we are lucky to see President Biden following his footsteps?

Supposedly, the US and Turkey are NATO allies, but the former is repeatedly accusing the latter of directing an unusual and extraordinary threat to its national security and foreign policy. Mr. Biden is not referring to China, Russia, or ISIS, he is talking about Turkey. And Turkey is upgrading its air defense by Russian S-400s.

In order to provide a nuanced evaluation of the state of trans-Atlantic relations now and over time, Brookings’s Center on the United States and Europe has launched the Trans-Atlantic Scorecard, as part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative. The Center on the United States and Europe polls its own resident and nonresident experts as well as select other scholars quarterly on the state of U.S.-European relations—divided into overall, political, security, and economic relations—as well as on the state of U.S. relations with Germany, France, Britain, Turkey, Russia, and the European Union. Scholars are asked to rate the state of relations on a scale from 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent). According to the latest scorecard, bilateral US-European relationships are rated as follows: Germany 6.4; France 3.6; UK 6.5; Turkey 3.5; Russia 3.2; EU 5.7.[iii] That US-Europe relations are experiencing a downturn is no secret. So is the frustration of France with the AUKUS submarine deal. And yes, Turkish-US relations are crippled by a multitude of problems. But Turkey’s and Russia’s relations with the US being rated at the same level should be sobering.

Our domestic agenda is erratic because one day it is the free fall of the Turkish Lira, the next day it is the revelations of a Turkish mob boss and whistle-blower. The following day it is the price of bread. The day after, it is Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, putting Turkey on its “grey list” for failing to head off money laundering and terrorist financing.

Last week a new diplomatic crisis took over everything else. President Erdogan to  the surprise of everyone declared, “I gave the instruction to our foreign minister and said, ‘You will immediately handle the persona non grata declaration of these 10 ambassadors.’”  His words made headlines. The opposition said this was a domestic policy stunt to divert attention from Turkey’s economic decline.

The ten ambassadors he referred to were the ambassadors of the US, Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. They had issued a statement calling for respect for the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and a speedy conclusion of the case of civil society leader Osman Kavala, who has been in prison since 2017.[iv] Implementation of the Court is an obligation under Turkey’s Constitution.

Is the issuing of such joint statements a conventional diplomatic practice? No. Is it possible that the ambassadors issued this statement without instructions from their capitals? No. Was declaring the ten ambassadors persona non grata the right response? No. Because, a Turkish proverb says, “elçiye zeval olmaz” meaning “do not shoot the messenger”. In other words, the proper response would have been instructing the Turkish ambassadors in those ten capitals to call on the foreign ministries and convey Turkey’s views on their joint statement. If this were the case, what could be reaction of the ten capitals? They would probably have repeated what was said in the joint statement; remind their Turkish interlocutors that the contents of the joint statement had been brought to the attention of Turkish authorities many times at different levels to no avail; and draw attention once again to Turkey’s contractual/constitutional obligations.

Finally, after what must have been hectic behind closed doors diplomatic talks, “a solution” was found. The embassies in question declared on twitter their compliance with article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which says that diplomats have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the country where they are serving. Western media said this was a U-turn by President Erdogan. Pro-government Turkish media declared victory.

Turkey should not have become the recipient of such a statement in the first place. What is clear is that such a crisis was the last thing we needed. This will not make things any easier at the Biden-Erdogan summit.

Surely, all the afore-mentioned issues on our erratic domestic agenda are problems of consequence. Yet, if there is a will there are ways to overcome them. But there are others which may haunt us for centuries.

Turkey is suffering from a severe draught. We need to focus on the problem, explore ways of providing our cities and farmland with adequate supplies of water, adopt advanced agricultural methods. Yet the JDP government’s the top infrastructure priority Canal Istanbul. Since the Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Marmara, nobody understands the logic such an incredibly expensive  project; nobody really knows what its environmental implications would be, but the JDP leadership is determined, and surprisingly the issue has moved down on our agenda.

In brief, our priorities are distorted. We are distracted. Our span of attention is dangerously short. We are unable to focus on our challenges. Our domestic politics are sterile. Foreign policy has become a mere tool of domestic politics. We are at a dead end.

October 29 is Turkish National Day. This Friday will mark the 98th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic under the leadership of  our national hero and greatest ever reformer Ataturk. We, as a nation, must prove that we are worthy of his achievements.


[i] https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/10/17/2019-22849/blocking-property-and-suspending-entry-of-certain-persons-contributing-to-the-situation-in-syria

[ii] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/10/07/notice-on-the-continuation-of-the-national-emergency-with-respect-to-the-situation-in-and-in-relation-to-syria/

[iii] https://www.brookings.edu/research/trans-atlantic-scorecard-october-2021/?utm_campaign=Brookings%20Brief&utm_medium=email&utm_content=173516302&utm_source=hs_email

[iv] https://tr.usembassy.gov/statement-on-four-years-of-osman-kavalas-detention/


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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