When we first started to organize the İstanbul Forum, we wanted to establish a platform on which to deal with the issues of the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. We thought İstanbul was the obvious venue for the enterprise, and that Turkey would be a gracious host for such gatherings. This year, we had high-level participation in the form of Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Şahin, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan.
Debate centered on the Arab Awakening and Turkish foreign policy responses to the multiple challenges surrounding it. It was important to include a panel on Europe, which we at STRATİM still value. Despite the misgivings of our EU minister about the European Commission’s latest progress report on Turkey, forum participants overwhelmingly came down in favor of Turkey’s EU membership vocation. But given current discourse on the EU, as well as recent public statements, there is no doubt that something is going terribly wrong on that front.
Turkey’s foreign policy identity was discussed throughout the İstanbul Forum as well. In fact, it was one of our aims to gauge regional sentiment about Turkey and its foreign policy. Unfortunately, this year our colleagues’ reactions were a far cry from last year’s optimism.
There is no doubt that the Arab Awakening has very much blurred and complicated Turkey’s role in its neighborhood, and Syria in particular is a monumental crisis we have to grapple with on a daily basis. Our Syria policy has led to the formation of regional alliances that seem intent on preventing the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah have sided with the regime in Damascus and have activated all of their resources in support of Assad.
Also, there was a troubling thread running through the forum, with many participants voicing concerns that Turkey has distanced itself from the West, identifying itself as a purely Muslim country preoccupied with the Middle East. Others noted that Turkey is experiencing a psychological break with its traditional allies. Both Turkish and foreign participants underscored their discomfort with an emerging Turkish self-perception accentuating differences over similarities. The question then becomes the following: How and why did this come about? What are the domestic dynamics that drive such a self-perception based on an “us versus them” psychology?
The forum raised further questions. Given the structural economic relationship, can Turkey really afford to downgrade its relations with Europe? How sustainable is it to center our operational relationship with the West on the person of the U.S. president? Is there not a need to work on establishing durable and stable relations with our Western partners? What if President Barack Obama loses the election? How will we pick up the pieces in the absence of what is a structural partnership? Is it enough for us to rely merely on our strategic value emanating from geography and a regional role? Even if the pieces are quickly picked up once more, why risk turbulence every four years when elections are held in the U.S.?
The growing self-perception that Turkey does not belong in Europe, that it is too different, that its relationship with its Western partners is increasingly precarious and not well understood points to a troubling “lone wolf syndrome.”
Given the increasing level of domestic polarization, I am afraid a significant build-up of ideological tensions is at hand. This is not only dangerous in terms of preventing measured debate on our foreign policy identity but has the potential to endanger our internal political and economic stability. A country’s foreign policy identity is a reflection of its domestic consensus. In the absence of such a consensus, it is futile to seek agreement on the government’s foreign policy behavior. Hence, we are back to square one: This country needs a political healing process which must be crowned by a political contract reflecting compromise about the fundamentals of this republic.
(Suat Kiniklioglu is a writer for the Turkey-based Today’s Zaman where this article first appeared on Oct. 11, 2012)