The reality that, following the Cold War, new powers which had global influence were entering the scene, and that there are more effective actors on the globe as compared to the Cold War era, does not mean that the influence of the US on world politics has diminished entirely. The US is an effective player, although it does not singularly determine the global political scene. Turkey, on the other hand, has maintained its strategic importance in both the Cold War years and its aftermath due to its geographical location. The fact that Turkey is at the center of the two large-scale military operations conducted by the US following the Cold War is proof of this.
However, the US’s ability to increase its effectiveness, as compared to before, depends more on its active cooperation with its allies during critical periods. The foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration had not realized this reality until the end of its term. However, the Obama administration has been aware of this from the very first day.
US diplomats in the Obama administration demonstrated that they are aware of this reality by remembering their allies and turning towards engagement politics. However, there is a reality about Turkish foreign politics that many American diplomats have still not come to understand. More clearly, we see that they are not able to fully comprehend the “zero problems with neighbors” approach formulized by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
The latest example of this became apparent during Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Michael Mullen’s visit to Ankara.
The subjects addressed during the meeting mostly centered on two of Turkey’s neighbors: Iraq and Iran. It seems the US, which has begun withdrawing its combat troops from Iraq, is asking Turkey for the right to pass through its territory while removing heavy equipment. As is known, Turkey did not allow that equipment and those soldiers to enter Iraq from its own soil in 2003.
However, the situation is different this time. US occupying forces entering Iraq is one thing and their leaving Iraq is another. If an agreement can be reached on modalities then there can be nothing more natural than for Turkey to allow this to happen. It cannot be expected that Ankara will categorically reject this request. In the end, transferring the administration of Iraq to Iraqis in every respect is one of Turkey’s basic policies.
Therefore, the problem in Mullen’s talks was not the Iraqi agenda. The part of Gen. Mullen’s request, which was “problematic” for Turkey, was regarding Iran. If Mullen really came with the request to place a missile defense system against Iran in Turkey, as covered in the Turkish press, the answer he will most likely receive is “no.” In fact, it must have been no. I had indicated that the US has a “problem of perception” when it comes to Turkey’s basic sensitivities and new principles. The latest example of this problem emerged with the US’s request regarding Iran.
Turkey has in the last eight years ceased to be a country that perceives its neighbors as threats. As a county that is trying to economically and socially integrate with its near abroad, Turkey will not think of placing a missile defense against its neighbor, be it Iran, Iraq, Romania, Greece or Georgia. US administrative circles may immediately interpret this as Turkey’s sensitivity towards Iran, but this would be a big mistake. This is the kind of mistake that keeps them from properly analyzing Ankara.
Turkey cannot accept something like this on principle. The faster the American administration understands this simple reality, the faster Ankara-Washington relations will carry on without a glitch. Both of these countries need one another.
However, it is wrong for the US to go to third countries with demands that will cause them to be perceived negatively by their neighbors. Turkey will not do this.
Let’s tell the Americans a secret. The “zero problems with neighbors” policy has stopped being a Justice and Development (AK Party) policy and has become a state policy. Both the state and the nation have seen how this policy has worked to their advantage and the service it has provided in aiding regional peace. It should not be thought that when this government changes down the road, this policy, too, will change. If such an attempt is made, there will be an incredible public reaction.
Our advice to American administrations is that they should come to Turkey with positive items on their agenda where Turkey’s neighbors are concerned.