Military activism in Turkish foreign policy: End of soft power approach?

Military activism in Turkish foreign policy: End of soft power approach?

October 23, 2011, Sunday/ 17:04:00

There has been increasing military activity in Turkey’s foreign policy for the past couple of months.

First, the installation of NATO’s missile shield project radar in Turkey has come to the agenda. Following a protocol signed by Turkish and US diplomats, it was decided that the radar would be placed in Malatya’s Kürecik township. Then came Turkey’s announcement that it would not remain silent on Israel’s blockade of Gaza and would take the necessary measures in the eastern Mediterranean. With the Greek Cypriot administration launching exploratory drilling for oil in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey sent two warships to the region with a seismic research vessel. Later, the Turkish military’s planned exercises were carried out on the border with Syria at a time when tensions had reached a height in that country. Finally, Parliament extended the authorization for the government to launch cross-border operations if and when necessary for another year.

All these developments led to criticisms and questions both at home and abroad. First and foremost among them was whether Turkey, which has long presented itself as a regional soft power committed to the primary aim of building peace, was entertaining a change of principle in its foreign policy and abandoning its stated mission. On the other hand, how far the manifestation of Turkey’s military power will go is a matter of curiosity. What is being debated now is whether Turkey is going to take the risk of military confrontation and using force in the face of the five examples we have given.

To begin with, we would like to explain the predominant approach in Turkey’s foreign policy referred to as that of soft power, employed by Turkey for quite some time both in both discourse and practice. Turkey has determined its position in international relations as a peace-loving or pro-peace country. In this framework, it is in favor of all international problems, including those with its neighbors, being resolved peacefully and diplomatically, examples of which have been seen in such policies as zero problems with neighbors, settlement of the Cyprus issue with the Annan plan, foreign policy openings and removing visa requirements.

Meanwhile, Turkey, owing to the reforms it has enacted during the process of its EU accession, has become a more democratic, civilian and lawful country, at least compared to what it was before. Turkey has pursued bilateral or multi-lateral policies in its approach to regional problems, integrating itself with the peace process that includes a set of countries from Iran to Palestine to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Soft power does not mean unarmed power

All that does not mean, of course, that Turkey has become an unarmed and defenseless actor, reduced to a passive and ineffective position in the event of its security and peace being threatened. For example, it opted for the use of military might in its fight against outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism both at home and abroad, assumed a tough attitude when nine of its nationals were killed by Israeli security forces on the Mavi Marmara aid vessel and continued to modernize the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) on the basis of the requisites of its NATO membership. As being a soft power does not mean being an unarmed power, we do not think these developments are worrisome.

However, we would like to add that there is a fine line between the implementations of a soft power and a hard power. This line is in fact hidden in the intentions and vision of decision makers. A country that maintains its intentions and efforts to resolve basic disputes through dialogue and diplomacy even if it has a highly advanced military might is still a soft power. When viewed from this perspective, it is hard to say that Turkey’s military activity is the result of a change in intention or determination on the part of the Turkish government or decision makers. We can cite the following as proof of what we have said.

The first is that all military activities are the result of certain developments outside of Turkey which have had an unfavorable impact on Turkey. They are not unilateral initiatives Turkey has launched of its own accord. The second is that none of the military activities are large-scale and influential, nor do they aim to intimidate a certain country involved in the matter. In other words, Turkey does so to deter the other side.

The third is Turkey’s efforts to simultaneously keep all its channels of diplomacy and dialogue open and resolve the disputes peacefully. The fourth is that we do not observe any shift towards bellicosity and violence in the performance of the government that adopted Turkey’s soft power approach. On the contrary; the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, while exerting efforts abroad for enhanced democracy on the occasion of the Arab Spring, is endeavoring to have a new constitution drawn up at home in order to resolve terrorism-related issues through peaceful and diplomatic channels. What is more, there is not an underlined tendency toward pursuing a bellicose foreign policy in Turkish politics and society.

Despite all that, Turkey, with its government and public, should never give up being cautious. Although there is no inclination or intention to implement a policy of hard power at the moment, even the seemingly most trivial and little tensions in international relations have the potential of turning into a disaster and spiraling out of control. There are many examples of this. It is very possible for a crisis between two countries to unexpectedly deteriorate into a conflict or a hot confrontation. What is more, an artificial crisis can be stirred up intentionally with the provocation of actors from inside and outside of the country. Therefore, we are of the view that Turkey is or should be rational enough not to carry its military activities to further levels under any circumstances. Additionally, we also believe that Turkey is or should be aware of the fact that tumbling into a military confrontation is bound to result in all the gains and advantages it has scored in recent years going down the drain.

* Professor Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Abant İzzet Baysal University.

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