By Namık Tan
The global image of Turkish foreign policy doesn’t look good, with the country facing loneliness in diplomacy. Our embassies in Syria, Israel, Libya and Egypt remain closed and our ambassadors in Lebanon, UAE and Saudi Arabia, are there in name only. At the same time, we are experiencing a significant stagnation in our relations with the European Union (EU). While relations with some EU member states are better than others, relations with Greece and France have reached a point that the possibility of a military escalation is very real. More to the West, structural obstacles continue to challenge our relations with the United States.
Merely a few years earlier, analysts would refer to Turkey as an “island of stability” in a very difficult region. In fact, Turkey was a “model country” that had stabilizing effect on its neighbors. As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, Turkey has turned from the island of stability into an “island of loneliness”. Turkey has become a party to almost every single conflict in the region and even many of our old friends blame Turkey for being a source of instability.
Interior policies and loneliness
Despite the increasing regional challenges, the real root of the issue lies in domestic politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of President Tayyip Erdoğan, after almost two decades of single-party government, needed to consolidate its ranks and find ways to rally its base. Instead of opting for compromise and a genuine attempt to explain new realities, Erdoğan opted to leverage nationalism. Despite losing most major cities to the opposition in local elections, his strategy succeeded on a national level via a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But there is a heavy cost.
The country is now more polarized than ever and an environment of constant turmoil and bigotry defines Turkish politics. And in this environment, foreign policy is no longer guided by career professionals but by the whims of angry crowds.
Rhetoric replacing reason
Emotional rhetoric became more important than reasonable analysis. By saying the last thing first, we destroyed the room for maneuvering. Paradoxically, adversaries with similar tendencies are now heavily criticized by our authorities. Along with professionalism, diplomatic customs like preventing lower-level bureaucrats from addressing foreign leaders through social media and other sensible rules were abandoned.
Everyone at almost every level started making statements on behalf of the government; as long as they were Erdoğan fanatics and party loyalists. Similarly, the lines between politicians and bureaucrats no longer exist. Certain policy issues that should be voiced by politicians are communicated through bureaucrats or vice versa.
Diplomatic reputation and loneliness
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs now regularly publishes emotionally impaired, meaningless and inconsistent statements. At first journalists and other interested parties wondered whether the site was hacked by antagonists but it has become the new normal. Very few decision-makers seem to realize that these messages are undermining the credibility of Turkey’s leadership and the centuries-old reputation of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A relevant and timely example is a statement that was published criticizing Bahrain for establishing relations with Israel. The statement made little sense because Turkey itself formally recognized Israel decades ago. As someone who has worked in the corridors of this Ministry, I know that none of the career professionals would ever endorse such inconsistency. Presumably, political staff drafted and published the statement that will now haunt Turkey and the Ministry for decades to come.
Two coups and inconsistencies
Those of us who follow Turkey’s foreign policy closely were given little time to digest the Bahrain statement as the Ministry quickly issued another condemnation; this time for Morocco’s decision to open its airspace for civil aviation aircraft flying to Israel. As Turkey’s own flag carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) makes 14 flights a day to Israel, this condemnation once again raised eyebrows.
Internationally, all of the above has tremendously undermined Turkey’s credibility causing our messages to no longer be well-received by their addressees.
These examples serve to establish that Turkish foreign policy decisions are made based on short-term political considerations, aiming to save the day and for the purposes of domestic consumption. The inconsistencies in messaging have also undermined certain flagship principles of Erdoğan’s government. While persistently refusing to normalize relations with Egypt, because the current administration led by General Sisi came to power via a coup d’etat, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not hesitate to make statements in support of the putschists in Mali. Even worse, our Foreign Minister visited Mali and was hosted by the putschists.
As a result of such fundamental mistakes, we have lost serious grounds in our relations with traditional allies and with our neighbors. Our credibility and impartiality are on life-support and will only survive if drastic changes are implemented without delay. Otherwise, Turkey will become more and more isolated from countries that were once allies, now joining the already crowded ranks of adversaries.
Realizing such a turn-around will prove to be difficult with institutions that are now completely dysfunctional and personnel decisions depend on loyalty to the ruling party rather than expertise and skill. The government needs to urgently undo previous flawed decisions and reinstate career professionals to the certain key department, starting with the Personnel Department of the Ministry, which is transformed into a General Directorate led by a political appointee. Similarly, the decisions appointing former politicians as ambassadors to important capitals need to be revisited. These appointments not only eroded the historical institutional identity of the Ministry, but also weakened Turkey’s influence abroad.
Gunboat diplomacy with France and Greece
Finally, the government of Turkey needs to refrain from taking any foreign policy decision without defining a clear “exit strategy”. While important policy initiatives were taken that filled up significant political, economic and military capacities from the state, no such strategy was ever defined. For example, ordering Turkish Armed Forces to enter Syria and engaging in military operations in Libya, while also committing military capacity in the Eastern Mediterranean carrying out gunboat diplomacy with France and Greece, is going to prove difficult to sustain. Especially, while relations with Russia, the U.S. and the E.U. are already strained and Turkey’s economy is distressed.
Abandoning “soft power” and replacing it completely with “hard power” means that military deterrence rather than consensus is prioritized. While Turkey’s defense industry has made some impressive progress, it is not yet fully independent and still relies to a large extent on supplies that require export licenses from countries that we now risk will consider Turkey as an adversary.
Unless Turkey’s leaders quickly realize the magnitude of their mistakes, the current fragility in our foreign policy will become permanent. A renewed appreciation of recommendations by the professional staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be the first step in a much-needed recovery process.