The foreign policy of any country is shaped by a medley of factors: principles, values, domestic and regional issues, challenges, opportunities, power balances, national security, external threats, geopolitical conditions, demography, the economy and so on.
Selecting one or two of these factors and turning them into absolutes is a common mistake in foreign policy analyses. Academic and popular analyses on Turkey are no exception.
The current Turkish foreign policy is shaped by ideas and principles as well as the real conditions on the ground. Turkey has always maintained certain values and principles as the basis of its foreign policy, but it has also been shaped by the responses it has given to structural changes in the global order. Over the last three decades, four major ruptures have shaken and redefined the existing global order: the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990; the Sept. 11 attacks on the US in 2011; the global financial crisis since 2007 and most recently the Arab Spring, which began in earnest in early 2011. Turkey has responded to each rupture in its own way and faced both challenges and opportunities at each turn.
The first rupture that led to the reshaping of the international order was the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new multi-polar world system. The Cold War had its own conveniences, and its borders were more or less clearly drawn. As a member of NATO, Turkey belonged to the Euro-American block against the Eastern-Soviet bloc. The end of the Cold War created new opportunities, and Turkey quickly adapted itself to the new realities of a multi-polar world. It embraced globalization and began to develop relations with various countries around the world, including the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Globalization in Turkey in the 1990s meant moving in multiple directions and exploring different possibilities in diplomatic, social and economic realms. While Turkey acted with the Western bloc, led by the US, in the first Gulf War of 1991, it continued to develop deeper relations with key players in the Arab world, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Turkey questioning its own identity
Internally, Turkey’s embrace of multi-centered globalization led to a questioning of top-down modernization-cum-Westernization, and initiated a serious debate about Turkey’s own identity, on the one hand, and the overcoming of Euro-centrism on the other. By turning globalization into an opportunity, Turkey expanded its foreign policy horizons and repositioned itself as a pivotal country at the nexus of Asia, Africa, the Balkans and Europe.
The second rupture after the end of the Cold War was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The attack was a turning point at the very beginning of the 21st century and sent shockwaves around the world. The terrorists, believed to be “irrational actors” acting on instinct, designed the attacks in such a way as for them to be a “spectacular event.” The horrifying image of two airplanes flying into the tallest buildings in NY like missiles, the awful collapse of the twin towers, the profound agony and helplessness of people were meant to challenge US power on a global scale. We all watched it in horror.
The fact that people watched in horror all over the world was a global postmodern moment; it was real and unreal, terrible and spectacular, simple and sophisticated, local and global, past, present and future all at once. It was clear from day one that nothing would ever be the same again, for those who carried out the attacks or for those who were targeted. The implications of 9/11 extended well beyond the US and its War on Terror. It changed the prevalent threat perceptions on a global scale and ushered in a new era of what experts call “securitization.” The Bush administration reacted to the attacks by introducing such draconian measures at home as the Patriot Act, and by invading two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2003, in the name of the so-called Global War on Terror. The Bush administration policies tipped the balance towards security at the expense of freedom and civil liberties, and this was picked up by regimes around the world to consolidate their authoritarian power. The so-called Global War on Terror became a common, unquestioned policy, a powerful tool to suppress freedom, democracy and civil liberties, even in places where no threat of terrorism existed.
Introducing a number of democratic measures
Turkey responded to this imbalance between freedom and security in the post-9/11 world by expanding the sphere of liberties and new opportunities both at home and in the region. Turkey introduced a number of democratic measures in regard to the country’s judicial system, the Kurdish issue, non-Muslim minorities, Alevis, freedom of the press, free political association, zero tolerance for torture and the fight against coup attempts. Turkey also implemented these reforms as part of the Copenhagen criteria, and established a healthy balance between freedom and security. It should be noted that these democratic measures were introduced despite the unremitting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism and several coup attempts aiming to overthrow the democratically elected government.
The third major rupture that shook the international system was the global financial crisis, which began as a mortgage crisis in the US and quickly spread to Europe, becoming a eurozone crisis. The crisis affected the global economy in many ways and forced governments to take new measures. Particularly in Europe, it caused both an economic and political crisis, leading to the collapse of several governments, with austerity measures being introduced despite widespread popular protests.
Turkey faring better than many Euro-economies in face of crisis
Being part of the Euro-economy, Turkey has naturally been affected by the financial crisis, but has fared better than many economies. As a matter of fact, the Turkish economy has continued to grow, and has remained the second-fastest growing economy over the past several years. This economic success, combined with political stability and good governance, has been essential to Turkish foreign policy and enabled it to expand in multiple directions and gain depth in several key regions, including the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. At a time when countries have reduced their diplomatic presence in Africa and other places because of the economic crisis, Turkey has expanded its embassies. For instance, in Africa alone Turkey has opened close to 20 new embassies and consulates, bringing the total number of diplomatic missions to 32 this year. A key component of this success is Turkey’s ability to diversify its regional and global markets in recent years. While about 45 percent of Turkey’s foreign trade is with European countries, it is developing strong trade relations with other regions and attracting investment from all over the world.
The fourth and final rupture that I will mention here is the Arab revolutions, which began with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in early 2011 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. A year-and-a-half later, despite some pessimism, the Arab world has already been transformed by the Arab revolutions. Dictators have been removed and people from all walks of life have claimed political agency to create a sociopolitical order based on justice, equality, transparency and accountability.
The Arab revolutions have taken the world by surprise. We have been witnessing a dazzling shrinking of space and time where the pace of history has accelerated and thrown old centers of power off balance. Regional and global powers are readjusting themselves to this new reality. The Orientalist myth that Arabs and Muslims cannot rule themselves, that they are happy to live under authoritarian rule, that their religion and culture teach them nothing but submissive acceptance of oppression, etc., has been shattered.
The frequently asked question of whether the Arabs are ready for democracy has already been answered by those who have sacrificed their lives for freedom, dignity and honor. The question is not whether Arabs are ready for democracy; they have already said yes to it. The more relevant question is whether the West and the big powers of the globe are ready for democracy in the Arab world. In other words, will outside powers that promulgate democracy recognize the free choice of people in Arab countries, and work with elected governments on the basis of mutual respect and reciprocity? The way in which Europeans, Americans, Russians and others answer this question will shape future relations between Arabs and Muslims on the one hand and the Western world on the other.
This is not merely a rhetorical question. The old power structures in the countries in which the Arab revolutions have taken place remain the primary obstacles to democracy, the rule of law and economic recovery. The danger is not Islamic or popular movements, as some claim, but the deep state structures that refuse to give up power to the people and their elected representatives.
During this extraordinary historical moment, Turkey has chosen to be on the right side of history by standing with the Arab peoples in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Turkish policymakers have never hesitated in the assertion that the will of the people is sacrosanct, more important than the security of the state. They have never doubted that people’s deep wisdom will give them the moral and political means to overcome oppression and injustice.
Turkey has chosen a similar path in Syria, with which it has been developing a special relationship since 2005. This relationship is based on the principle of mutual interest and respect. It is grounded in the deep historical, cultural and human relationships between the Turkish and Syrian peoples.
Turkey used its good relations with President Bashar al-Assad in the hope of convincing the regime to start a peaceful process of reform and change. The regime refused. Turkey then appealed to other countries, and sought to use diplomatic channels to put pressure on the regime to stop killing people, attacking cities, arresting and torturing civilians. Again to no avail. In the end, Turkey was forced to cut all diplomatic relations with Syria in September 2011, when the number of people the regime had killed had reached over 3,000.
The Arab League and UN initiatives have also been met with defiance, lies and more violence from the regime. Despite promises made in April, the Syrian regime still refuses to implement the six-point peace plan of Joint Special Envoy of the UN and League of Arab States Kofi Annan. Hence the suspension of the UN monitors’ mission over the last three weeks. In the last year, around 15,000 people have been killed in Syria. As of today, around 33,000 displaced Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey. The Geneva meeting on Syria, which took place on June 30, has not produced any tangible results, even though the formal inclusion of Russia and China in the international negotiations is a positive development.
Syrian regime a liability
The shooting down of an F4 Turkish reconnaissance jet by the Syrian forces on June 22 has confirmed a fact many have been aware of for some time: The Syrian regime has become a liability and danger not only to Syrian people fighting for their freedom and dignity but also to Syria’s neighbors. As the regime in Damascus loses its legitimacy and control over the country, it is becoming more aggressive and hostile.
This is a result of the regime’s growing sense of insecurity. The Syrian regime has been fighting against its own people for more than a year. It is a brutal and dirty war, and the result of the Baath regime’s refusal to recognize the people as the only basis and source of political legitimacy.
Turkey has no intention of escalating tensions with Syria or any other country in the region. Turkey has no interest in other countries’ internal affairs and respects the political sovereignty of all nations. But this does not give the Syrian regime license to kill its own people.
The entire Middle East region is undergoing a historic change. Despite some doubts and pessimism, a lot has already been achieved over a short period of time. Yes, there are many challenges, but they can be overcome through rational policies, good governance, national dialogue, transparency and accountability. Middle Eastern societies possess the human capital and natural resources to make the region an oasis of justice, freedom, democracy, prosperity, culture, civilization, pluralism and coexistence.
Turkey has become a pivotal actor in its region and in the international order based on the principles it espouses and the responses it has given to the major changes in the international system. As Turkey remains committed to a proactive and multidimensional foreign policy, it will continue to develop new capacities and mechanisms to deal with new challenges and capitalize on new opportunities.