What’s wrong with Ankara’s foreign policy?

Criticisms directed towards Ankara's foreign policy both domestically and from abroad, »»

Criticisms directed towards Ankara's foreign policy both domestically and from abroad, which were actually never lacking, are on the rise. The main argument is that Turkey's “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy paradigm, designed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has led to total failure, his vision has proved to be in conflict with the realities on the ground. Joost Lagendijk's column titled “Zero neighbors without problems,” published in Today's Zaman on Nov. 2, 2011, perhaps best summed up the criticisms leveled at Ankara from abroad.


The harshest words against the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) foreign policy were expressed by the main opposition People's Republican Party's (CHP) spokesman, former Ambassador Osman Korutürk, during a recent foreign policy debate in Parliament: “Such policies have rendered Turkey a country that scorns international legitimacy, fans war, leaves open the question as to what it will tomorrow call those it calls ‘brothers' today, changes direction with the direction of the wind, [rendering it] unreliable and even one whose friendship and closeness is dangerous. Our foreign policy is a complete failure. Our policy towards Syria particularly is a total fiasco.”

In assessing foreign policy I am in favor, as in all other issues, of an objective and fair approach that distinguishes achievements from failures, right from wrong and short-term from long-term perspective. I have no doubt that the “zero problems with neighbors” policy of the government has helped Turkey adapt to the post-Cold War international environment, and in the first decade of the 21st century largely contributed to strengthening its economy, democracy, security and enhancing its international prestige. This policy was fully in line with national interests and an independent stance, helped Turkey converge with the European Union, and rendered all talk about leading Turkey away from the West empty. With the Arab Awakening, the common interests of Turkey and the Western alliance have become increasingly clear. (See. Nathalie Tocci, “Partners in Need: Turkey, the European Union and the United States face the Arab Spring”, Open Democracy, March 7, 2012.)

The Arab Awakening has, however, led to a tectonic context shift in the international environment that affects not only the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is true that the Arab Awakening has confronted Ankara with a number of difficult problems in its efforts to adapt to the evolving balance of power in the region, as all other international actors. I believe Ankara can successfully adapt itself to the new regional context only by sticking to the main principles of the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, that is insistence on the resolution of problems through diplomacy and dialogue, promotion of freedom and democracy, standing equidistant to all parties involved, and avoiding taking sides along ethnic or sectarian lines.

In view of those principles, Ankara was entirely correct in giving unequivocal support for the people's revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It was not wrong for Ankara to first try to convince the regimes in Libya and Syria to change and meet the demands of the people for freedom. It is true that Ankara may have been too hasty in calling for the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and in declaring its borders open for those fleeing Syria. It could have sought cooperation with Russia and Iran to put more pressure on Damascus to avoid violence and adopt reforms. And it is absolutely true that Ankara should now avoid all steps that would involve it in an eventual civil war in Syria. It could not and should not, however, have hesitated in taking sides with the people against tyranny.

Turkey's ever closer economic and political relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is surely one of the most successful results of the “zero problems” policy. There is nothing inconceivable in Ankara's distancing itself alongside the Kurds, the Sunni and even part of the Shiite Arabs in Iraq from the increasingly authoritarian stand of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad that threatens internal peace and territorial integrity of the country. In assessing Ankara's foreign policy initiatives, it is necessary also to distinguish between short- and long-term consequences. There can be no denying that by opposing Israel's uncompromising policies towards the Palestinians and by taking sides with the people's revolutions Turkey has won the hearts and minds of the Arab people to an extent unheard of in its history.

What worries me in Ankara's foreign policy are the claims made by Davutoğlu recently that Turkey will lead the tide of change, is going to be the vanguard of the building of a peaceful order in the Middle East, that the AKP government has a mission to create a new Middle East just as to create a new Turkey. I hope these far-fetched, over-ambitious and unrealistic claims have no other meaning than simple rhetorical statements to compensate for the fact that foreign relations are confronted with many difficult challenges. I constantly urge, along with many others, the AKP government to, before all else, achieve domestic peace and lead Turkey to reconstitute itself as a citizen's state, that stands equidistant to all citizens irrespective of political creed, ethnicity or religious belief. That is the key to success in foreign policy, too.



Columnist: ŞAHİN ALPAY