The Unsustainable Cost of Turkey’s Assertive Foreign Policy and Democratic Decline

May 23, 2022

A country’s foreign policy is shaped by its identity, sense of belonging, world outlook, and geographic location. This last one is a constant; the others are subject to evolution, change, and definition/redefinition within the limits of reason. In today’s polarized Turkey, we do not have a consensus on any of the first three and the last one happens to be a double-edged sword. In countries enjoying such consensus, the task of governments is to merge these with national power into policies designed to maximize national interest. This requires realism, calm, poise, prudence, consistency, and determination.

A sound foreign policy’s worst enemies are rashness, aggressive rhetoric, and bravado as we have bitterly come to learn in Turkey. Unfortunately, all of these have come to characterize the Turkish government’s ideological foreign policy in the past decade. The government proudly calls it new Turkey’s “assertive foreign policy” but in reality, it has proved a loser. That is why our relations with regional countries and “traditional allies” are at their lowest level ever. And that is why Ankara is now trying to mend fences with limited success so far. That is bad enough. But that is not all.

Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and NATO, both committed to upholding democratic values. But again, unfortunately, the past decade has witnessed Turkish democracy’s decline.

The combination of the government’s ideological, temperamental, “assertive” foreign policy and Turkey’s democratic decline has led to our international isolation. Turkey has become dangerously unpopular to the delight of our adversaries. Our most understandable concerns, expectations, and interests are shunned by others.

I am no stranger to the EU’s double standards and profound anti-Turkey bias. I also know from my days in Washington as a young diplomat that President Biden, throughout his political career, has been a strong supporter of Greek interests. He is the best friend Greece has ever had and would have at the White House. His seemingly more friendly approach to Turkey under President Obama was pure theatre. No wonder why Prime Minister Mitsotakis, during remarks at a White House reception on May 16 to honor Greek American relations said:

“Mr. President, by saying that you recognize many Greek American friends amongst this gathering tonight.  You’ve mentioned several of them by name.  They call you “Bidenopolous” — (laughter) — for a reason, although I suggested that maybe you should be called “Bidenakis.” [i]

Would the Greek American celebrations in Washington change the fundamental reality that the only path to lasting solutions on Greek-Turkish issues is bilateral diplomacy? No. I would be more interested in seeing how Moscow would perceive Athens’ recent “less friendly toward Russia” shift in foreign policy. After all, Russia has been a consistent supporter of Greek interests for centuries.

Regardless, we Turks need to ask ourselves why we face a broad front against us on almost every issue. Are we secretly enriching uranium? Are we after producing nuclear weapons? Are we testing intercontinental ballistic missiles? How is it that we have reached a point where even our understandable concerns are met with hostility, at best with indifference? Why are our allies more often than not keeping us at arm’s length? Because the combination of our ideological “assertive foreign policy” and democratic decline alienates everybody.

Last week, “Turkey is following the discussion over Finland and Sweden seeking to join the alliance, but for now, does not have a positive view,” said President Erdoğan. Later, he stated that there is no point in their sending delegations to Ankara for talks.

In defining an emerging crisis, the international media used words such as “blackmail”, “bargaining”, and “brinkmanship”. Only a few admitted that Turkey might have a point.

On May 18, Finland and Sweden simultaneously handed in their official application letters to join NATO.

President Niinistö and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson met with President Biden at the White House the next day. The readout of President Biden’s meeting with the two leaders said, “… At this historic moment for both Finland and Sweden, the President underscored his commitment to support both countries as they seek formal NATO accession, including by working with NATO Allies and Congress to welcome them into the Alliance as quickly as possible…” [ii]

At their joint press conference Mr. Biden said:

“And today, the President, Prime Minister, and I committed that we’re going to work together to remain vigilant against the threats to our shared security and to deter and confront any aggression while Finland and Sweden are in this accession process.”

President Niinistö stated the following about Turkey:

“Finland has always had proud and good bilateral relations with Turkey.  As NATO Allies, we will commit to Turkey’s security, just as Turkey will commit to our security.

 “We take terrorism seriously.  We condemn terrorism in all its forms, and we are actively engaged in combating it.

“We are open to discussing all the concerns Turkey may have concerning our membership in an open and constructive manner.”

And Prime Minister Andersson said that Sweden was looking forward to a swift ratification process by NATO members and having a dialogue with all NATO member countries, including Turkey, on different levels to sort out any issues at hand.[iii]

President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has provided Washington with an opportunity to put the invasion of Iraq, the Libya intervention, AUKUS, and failure in Afghanistan behind, and to expand NATO. Regardless of the pros and cons of further NATO expansion for Europe, the Biden administration would not let this opportunity slip by. So, the question is “what now?”

Would President Erdoğan venture veto the applications unless his demands are met? Would a “diplomatic solution” be found as in the crisis about declaring ten Western ambassadors to Ankara as persona non grata? Are his objections linked to domestic challenges? Does this new Turkey-West confrontation have a Russia/Putin dimension? Would Ankara relent on the Finnish application but stand firm on the Swedish one? Could President Erdoğan be waiting for President Biden to step in to find a way out? Is this just about the PKK/YPG or more? What are the other issues on our list? Eastern Mediterranean? A more reasonable and less costly pipeline project going through Turkey to Europe for Israeli natural gas?  S-400s/F16s/F35s? Feto?

It seems that one would have to wait and see, though not for long. One thing, however, is clear: It would have been preferable for Ankara to take the same position through diplomatic channels first rather than going public immediately.

As for the war in Ukraine, the questions raised and the views expressed by the New York Times Editorial Board on May 19 are most worthy of attention. [iv] Indeed, the time for the Ukrainian leadership to make some tough decisions is fast approaching. Differences are starting to emerge among the members of the EU. The impact on transatlantic and China-Russia relations, and the war in Ukraine of President Biden’s statement that the US would use military force to defend Taiwan remains to be seen. A global food crisis is looming. And the loss of life and devastation in Ukraine is continuing. A cessation of hostilities or a cold peace could be a better option than an endless hot war. After all, this is Kyiv’s war, no one else’s.







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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s