The Year 2021 in Retrospect

December 22, 2021

The top foreign and security policy item of 2021 was the strategic competition between major powers. Its subtitles were “China’s ascendancy”, “Russia’s resurgence” the “waning of American power”. The rise of authoritarianism, democracy’s decline, the failure of multilateralism, and climate change remained subjects of philosophical debate. Needless to say, Covid-19 is still the common enemy but the world failed to close ranks against it.

The year started with the changing of the guard at the White House. President Biden took the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, two weeks after the assault on the US Capitol. On February 19, he addressed the global community for the first time. At the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, he claimed, “America is back.” He defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”

A Washington Post article reporting on the Munich Security Conference was titled, “Biden Tells Allies ‘America Is Back,’ but Macron and Merkel Push Back”. Other observers said Europe welcomed the Biden administration but remains cautious.

On July 8, 2021, President Biden delivered remarks on the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan. He said, “It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.” On August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul. On August 30, the last American soldier left Afghanistan. Washington’s European allies were disappointed by the lack of consultation regarding the withdrawal.

On September 15, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US.  Mr. Morrison said that the first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. Paris was furious. It called the deal a “betrayal of trust”. Transatlantic relations suffered another setback.

On December 7, Angela Merkel left the Chancellor’s office after a 16-year tenure. On December 9, President Macron called on the European Union to change from a “Europe of internal cooperation to a powerful Europe active in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choice and master of its destiny.”

In brief, the West was in confusion throughout the year.

During the past two decades, the US engaged in military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and in Syria. The Trump years led to confusion in Washington’s domestic front and foreign relations. This is why some observers expressed the view that the Biden administration’s “America is back” policy should start by addressing America’s internal problems, healing its polarization, strengthening of the economy, and restoring America’s global image. Despite the assurances of President Biden and his senior officials, doubts regarding Washington’s foreign and security policy commitments linger.

Regardless, the US is a democracy despite domestic challenges. Otherwise, the New York Times would not be able to publish a report titled “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes”.[i] This may reflect negatively on the Pentagon, but it is freedom of the press, anathema to the authoritarian regimes.

The EU has not succeeded in getting even close to the US, China, or Russia as a global actor. More often than not, it is the individual capabilities of its members, prominently among them Germany, rather than the EU’s own weight as a bloc that matters. EU’s priority has always been economic/commercial gain. During the past decade migration from the Middle East and Africa has become a major headache, underlining the wrongness of Arab Spring interventions.

Moreover, the external threat analyses of EU members do not overlap. For Poland and the Baltic states, Russia is a threat. Not so much for those in the south. Thus, despite President Macron’s emphasis on European defense, this not likely to lead anywhere in the foreseeable future.

China, while rising as a global economic power, has continued to refrain from getting involved in international conflicts and remained principled and predictable. Beijing has focused on its economic development. It has built economic bridgeheads across the world becoming the number one trading nation. Senior American officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking has not allowed regional questions to turn into crises. It has not resorted to force. Chinese officials have reacted to such allegations in measured language because China’s public diplomacy is generally reserved, cautious. However, the foregoing is not to say that Beijing would refrain from the threat or use of force if developments regarding Hong Kong and Taiwan were to take a turn for the worse.

President Xi Jinping’s emerging as China’s “leader-for-life” has disappointed those who believed that China would become more democratic as it became wealthier. Nonetheless, that Beijing has now emerged as an equal of Washington and will become the world’s number one economic power in the next decade is widely accepted. For a huge country with the world’s largest population, this also means military power.

In Russia, President Putin has been in power for two decades. Although much has been said about his unpredictability, he has remained on a steady course in restoring Russia’s global status as a major power. And he has seized the opportunities offered by the West, in Georgia and Ukraine. In other words, he has been predictable, perhaps not in ways that the West would have liked, but he has.

On December 7, 2021, Presidents Biden and Putin had a two-hour video conference.

According to the White House readout of the meeting, “President Biden focused on what he described as “threatening” movements of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and outlined the sanctions the United States and its allies would be ready to impose should the situation escalate any further.”

Kremlin readout of the virtual summit said, “In response, Vladimir Putin warned against shifting the responsibility on Russia since it was NATO that was undertaking dangerous attempts to gain a foothold on Ukrainian territory and building up its military capabilities along the Russian border. It is for this reason that Russia is eager to obtain reliable, legally binding guarantees ruling out the eventuality of NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive weapons systems in the countries neighboring Russia.”

The next day, in response to a question regarding the possibility of sending US troops to Ukraine to stop an invasion, Mr. Biden, in recognition of the fact that none of the three major powers are able to undertake decisive military interventions of the other two, said: “That is not on the table.”

On December 15, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping also had a virtual summit. In the beginning, Mr. Putin said, “China and Russia are firmly supporting each other on matters concerning the other side’s vital interests and are protecting their national dignity and common interests.” Mr. Xi said, “China and Russia are firmly supporting each other on matters concerning the other side’s vital interests and are protecting their national dignity and common interests.”

And only two days after this display of solidarity, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made public its proposals for expanded legal security commitments from the US and NATO.[ii] It is more than likely that President Putin informed Mr. Biden about his intentions during their video conference.

The Russian draft texts show that Moscow is moving beyond the standoff at the Ukrainian border, trying to take advantage of the fissures in transatlantic solidarity and testing Western resolve.  Thus Mr. Putin keeps the West guessing. The Russian draft “Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” reaffirms the 1997 “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” but it is clear that Moscow wishes its draft Agreement to replace the latter. The future of Nord Stream 2 will present Europe with tough choices.

Throughout 2021, the Middle East has remained a region plagued by sectarian conflict, fratricide, proxy wars, and authoritarianism. Peaceful resolution of the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan remains an illusion. The talks to revive the JCPOA have resumed without significant progress so far. It was reported in mid-December that Defense Minister Benny Gantz notified US officials during meetings in Washington that he had instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for a strike against Iran. In a briefing with reporters, he said the order he gave was to “prepare for the Iranian challenge at the operational level.” If this is more than an attempt to persuade Iran to be more forthcoming at the Vienna talks, the Middle East should brace for another disaster.

As for Turkey, the phrase defining the pitiful state of the Turkish economy is “the free fall of the Turkish lira”.

Turkey’s democratic decline is the mother of all of the problems. It started towards the end of the 2000s.  It gained momentum with our assuming a leading role in the regime change project in Syria. It passed the point of no return with the constitutional referendum of April 2017 which resulted in our leaving the parliamentary system and adopting the so-called “presidential system” by a slim majority. 51.41% voted for the new system, 48.59% against it. Today, the separation of powers is a myth. The parliament is marginalized. The country is ruled by decree. No minister can make an authoritative statement without the blessing of the President. Trust in the judiciary is low. Allegations of corruption, nepotism, cronyism never end. The State institutions are weak. The independence of the Central Bank is over. The Directorate of Religious Affairs is politicized. In the last municipal elections, opposition candidates won in Turkey’s major cities. But the government and the AKP groups in municipal councils raise obstacles to every project designed to improve municipal services. Our education system is failing. We are polarized. And worst of all, assaults on Ataturk’s legacy and the very foundations of the Republic continue unabated.

The EU accession process is over and done with. We are on a confrontational course with the Council of Europe. Decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are ignored, rejected. Our membership in NATO is being questioned. Our relations with the US are at an all-time low. Our relations with Russia are problematic. China is calling on Ankara to abide by international law in Syria. In brief, Turkey’s foreign and security policy is in disarray.

The world is going through critical times. Major powers are recalibrating their relationships. But as a matter of policy, all countries including the major powers are seeking the support of their allies, friends, and the like-minded.  

Russia and China, despite differences, are trying their best to display solidarity against the US. Similarly, Western powers are trying to close ranks in the face of the Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine. Four Arab countries and Israel have established diplomatic relations. Because making allies, striking partnerships are thousands of years old ways of advancing national interests. But this requires a minimum of solidarity and a sense of belonging together, be it in defense of democracy or promotion of authoritarianism. This is what Secretary Blinken said yesterday at a press availability:

“It’s been quite a year… When I walked into the State Department on my first day as Secretary… Our relationships with our allies and partners were badly strained… So much of our work this year has been about rebuilding the foundations of American foreign policy… That started with restoring and revitalizing our network of alliances and partnerships – and re-engaging the multilateral system, where so much of the day-in, day-out work of diplomacy takes place…”

Today, the Turkish government claims that it is on the path to becoming a global power. But it immediately adds that external powers, centers of evil are trying to block that path which sounds more like an admission of failure than anything else. The reality is Turkey has lost its sense of direction and belonging. Are we still a member of the Western community of nations? Are we still among the committed members of NATO? Have we joined the authoritarian axis?  Do have strong relations with any country or group? No one can give a clear and convincing response to any of the foregoing.

The AKP has been on the wrong path for more than a decade. The people of Turkey are not happy with this state of affairs, but somehow, we have got used to it. Thus, we watch not only the free fall of our currency but also the free fall of our country with a blank stare. The opposition offers scant inspiration. They need to offer a better vision for Turkey’s future and stop making the failures of the AKP their only political capital. At present, six opposition parties are trying to reach a common understanding regarding Turkey’s return to the parliamentary system. That is a must. But their real test will come when their leaders will have to rise above personal ambition and agree on a candidate to challenge President Erdogan at the ballot box.

We are approaching New Year’s Eve with little to celebrate. All we can think of is putting this horrific year behind, with discouraging signals as to what the next one portends.





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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