‘Local diplomacy’ lays ground for a democratic foreign policy

April 08, 2012, Sunday/ 14:45:00/ GÖZDE NUR DONAT

Increased participation by local governments in Ankara’s foreign policy decision-making process would result in better democratic governance and should be guaranteed in the new constitution currently under discussion, experts have said.

Local governments have contributed to many international cooperative efforts supported by Turkey’s central government in the past, which have encompassed economic, cultural and social policies. Now many local administrations say they should have more of a say in the formulation of Turkey’s foreign policy. They should also be further empowered in their relations with central authorities by extending their area of economic influence and acting as an intermediary in mechanisms established for solving global issues, such as the environment and development, said Professor Recep Bozlağan, secretary-general of the Union of Municipalities of Marmara.

Turkey has employed a unitary administrative system since its foundation, and central institutions have held almost total power over their local counterparts, acting as the ultimate arbiter on their economic and social policy decisions. However, as the policy of empowering local governments has gained popularity around the world, local administrative units in Turkey have similarly enjoyed some sort of increasing autonomy over conducting initiatives in cooperation with their counterparts in foreign countries.

Experts claim that local administrative, social and economic institutions need to have a larger impact on diplomacy, just as they have expanded their economic and financial importance at the regional and national level. They are also being impacted by many national policies on issues such as development and the environment; therefore, it is only natural for them to be represented in the structures that make decisions on national and global political issues.

“There is a lack of coordination between central and local institutions in Turkey,” Bozlağan said, stressing that those two types of administrations are uninformed about each other’s initiatives in foreign countries. Bozlağan said alternative platforms, through which both local and national institutions can harmonize their policies, should be established.

Diplomacy and cooperation at the level of local institutions, these being the closest administrative units to the public, are also seen as an important asset for public diplomacy, according to experts.

Bozlağan added that those platforms would foresee local administrative bodies being included in the decision-making process when developing foreign policy. Taking the example of the Syrian crisis, he claimed, “Before deciding to implement sanctions against Syria, there could be more consultation with local governments in the border provinces.”

He added that even though relations between Syria and Turkey have deteriorated and there is little diplomatic contact, border provinces can still maintain ties with its neighbors. “Border cities have a common fate. They are even closer to each other than they are to some cities within their own country’s borders. What impacts one will certainly have an impact on the other. For example, in times of natural disaster, such as fire or earthquake, how could it be possible for them not to cooperate?” he asked.

But Bozlağan ruled out that those “local” and “provincial” types of diplomacy might come up against the national foreign policy interests of the country in question. He explained that when it comes to major diplomatic crises -- such as the ongoing one between Turkey and the Syrian regime – border cities should not expect any exemptions from having to sever their ties with their neighbors. Gökhan Bacık, lecturer in the international relations department and head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, said he appreciated the potential for local institutions to participate in international economic and diplomatic cooperation and criticized the central government’s strong supervision of local authorities’ partnerships with foreign institutions.

Bacık claimed that Turkey’s central authority has not been able to relinquish its stronghold over local institutions, claiming that the country has yet to accept the necessity of interaction between different actors during the policy-making process. “The participation of local governments in the process of developing foreign policy has to be guaranteed by the constitution,” he said.

He also said local authorities have to enjoy more autonomy in building cooperation in the fields of trade, education and other fields with their counterparts in other countries, as long as they remain dependent on the central government for more critical foreign policy decisions.

“The empowerment of local institutions to build their own diplomatic relations should always be used in a complementary way and should not contravene the position of the central government. However, Turkish central authorities also have to realize that strengthening local institutions does not mean compromising the state’s unity,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, KONDA polling company General Manager Bekir Ağırdır claimed that Turkey has to first solve its Kurdish problem in order to implement a more democratic process of developing foreign policy, adding that this can be achieved by transferring some power to local institutions.

“The most important obstacle at hand is the Kurdish problem. Under the shadow of the Kurdish issue, Turkey would always be hesitant to give some autonomy to local institutions and to allow them to conduct their own international activities, because there would always be a fear that such autonomy could be manipulated against Turkey’s unity,” Ağırdır stressed.

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