How not to win friends: Turkey’s foreign policy falls apart

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Over dinner a few days ago, as a group of Turkish journalists, we tried to count how many friends of Turkey were left in the region following more than two years of uprisings that rocked the Arab world. One said Somalia was still a friend, while another suggested Tunisia. Hardly anyone could mention a third country that has good ties with Turkey.

Ankara likes to present many of its neighbors, including even Iran, as friends “despite few differences in opinion” but Turkish diplomats start accepting that ambitious Turkish foreign policy has largely backfired. Turkey is not talking to Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, is having troubled relationships with Lebanon and Iran, and has failed to restore diplomatic ties with Israel and Armenia. Meanwhile, there is still long way to go to establish healthy relationships with Greece, Russia and the European Union at some point.

‘Not our fault’

This fact was also acknowledged by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose unprecedented diplomatic efforts to make the country what he often likes to call a “central state” in the region had long been hailed. “This is not our fault,” he frequently says to refer to severed ties between Turkey and many of its neighbors such as Syria, Iraq and Iran. Davutoglu and Turkish diplomats believe that once the oppressive regimes leave power, peoples in these countries will embrace Turkey and more lasting and healthy relations will be established. One tiny problem remains: It took a little longer for these regimes to leave.

Ankara likes to present many of its neighbors, including even Iran, as friends “despite few differences in opinion.”

Mahir Zeynalov

Soon after Davutoglu was appointed as a foreign minister in 2009, he had demonstrably overcome the inertia in the country’s foreign policy while tandem peace processes he facilitated in the country’s vicinity have catapulted Turkey into the position of being a strong and respected player in the region.

Not even a decade ago, Turkey’s ailing foreign policy was sick beyond description. The picture of late Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s timid stance, fingers locked, in front of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who is half-seated on the back of a couch looking at the Turkish prime minister with a partial air of arrogance at the Oval Office, swiftly resonated in the Turkish media and displayed a lean Turkish foreign policy. With the advent of Davutoglu's reformist government, this picture had started to change. Using Turkey’s long common history with its neighbors, Davutoglu converted this backwater country plagued with internal strife and inactive foreign policy into a regional powerhouse.

But why have a revisionist foreign policy undertaken by Davutoglu, who was praised as the best foreign policymaker Turkey has ever seen in its history, failed to yield fruits for several years now?

Supporting the ‘good guys’

First, Turkey has put too much emphasis on humanitarian values in its treatment with other countries. It is always hard to reconcile human rights agenda with national interests in foreign policy but Davutoglu believes that supporting people’s fight against tyranny places Turkey in the “right side of the history” and has long-term benefits for the country. The smooth-talking foreign minister with emotional and humanitarian appeal has largely designed Turkish foreign policy to support “good” guys in the region and most often overlooked the realist interpretation of international politics. He thought people in the region will readily embrace Turkey with its “foreign policy of penance” after Ankara ignored its Arab neighbors for decades. His plan to abolish what he calls “artificial state boundaries” and visa regimes, cultivate cooperation among the countries in the region, hold high-level political consultations and create free economic pools initially significantly improved ties between Turkey and its neighbors. But this strategy has become history after destructive mass upheavals gripped the region, ousting several leaders Turkey used to work too closely. It is always fine if countries can consider human rights and freedom agenda in their conduct of foreign policy, but national interests always should come first. It is, otherwise, hard not to seem hypocritical.

Another reason for failing foreign policy is Ankara’s resistance to change its firmly-held course. Davutoglu’s foreign policy didn’t come out of blue and it is a result of years of intense diplomacy even before he was appointed as a foreign minister. He traveled to Syria 60 times since his ruling party came to power in Turkey in 2003 but only 20 times to his hometown Konya, which is only three-hour drive from his office in Ankara. A foreign policy built on a principle that Turkey will have zero problems with neighbors through close people-to-people communication and deep trade relations is hard to change. Despite unceasing accusations that his already-defunct zero problems with neighbors foreign policy has failed miserably, Davutoglu rejects the blame and seems undeterred.

Third, Ankara failed to signal to neighboring countries that its recent rise in power and profile is a peaceful one and doesn’t pose a threat. Going through more than a decade of political turmoil and economic crisis, a government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put Turkey in the ranks of emerging nations, fixing its economy and considerably enhancing its chances to become a member of the European Union through a series of sweeping democratic reforms. Turkey’s rise could disturb countries in the neighborhood but Davutoglu’s peaceful tone in speeches made it clear that Turkey’s rise is only peaceful. He usually underlined the fact that Turkey is equal to other nations in the region and Ankara only wants to build relations based on mutual interest and cooperation. Turkey’s recent discourse, however, put many on the defensive and made them into thinking if their former Ottoman ruler has peaceful intentions.

Fourth, Ankara chose to ignore Iran as a destabilizing factor in the region and underestimated its confrontational policies against Turkey. Despite Turkey’s tooth and nail efforts to protect Iran from fourth round of sanctions in 2011 at the expense of deteriorating ties with its chief ally US, Tehran has done everything to bury Turkey’s successful foreign policy since then. With its proxy works and destabilizing efforts in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran successfully tied Ankara’s hands and made Turkey seem pursuing a pro-Sunni sectarian foreign policy.

Finally, Turkey’s refusal to work with some suppressive regimes and sometimes preferring to stand by non-governmental groups is another factor that damaged Turkish foreign policy. Particularly after an army intervention in Egypt on July 3 that removed President Mohammed Mursi, there is prevalent sense of defiance among Turkish public and in government circles for not working with oppressive regimes no matter how damaging it is for Turkey’s interests. It is astonishing because this government had not find it problematic to cultivate relations with region’s most authoritarian leaders – and rightly so – including Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey would otherwise wait for four decades in Libya and Syria, three decades in Yemen and five decades in Egypt to see a democratic government in place for having relations. This is not to suggest that Ankara should talk to Assad or Iraq’s divisive and authoritarian leader Nouri al-Maliki but consider working with regimes sometimes it doesn’t like. Just for the sake of national interests.

Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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