Turkish Foreign Policy Normalizes

25 January 2010
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Turkish ambassador to Israel’s meeting with Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister touched off a diplomatic crisis. The short meeting has aggravated the already bitter relations between Turkey and Israel. This recent incident has also revived an ongoing debate between Turkish and foreign analysts. One camp, on one hand, argues that Turkish foreign policy’s axis shifts since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power. The other camp, on the other hand, argues that Turkey’s relations with the West are sound and axis shift is out of question. The second camp also argues that the difference is that Turkish foreign policy pursues more active and braver policies. In this article, I examine the axis shift thesis, why it is supported or rejected by Turkish intelligentsia, and the reasons that caused this perception.


The argument of axis shift is based upon two facts. These are improving relations with Turkey’s Caucasian and Middle Eastern neighbors and deceleration of relations with the EU. Examining these tendencies of Turkey can help us understand the current state of its foreign policy. Let me start with the first one.


New Friends and Possible Foes

The current government defined an objective in 2003: zero problems with neighbors. In this respect, AKP government initiated new processes in which Turkey and its neighbors are involved indirect talks in order to settle the long-time frozen disputes peacefully. The Erdogan administration used personal relations to develop sincere atmosphere between the leaders. This method includes invitation of Greek Prime Minister to the wedding ceremony of Mr. Erdogan’s daughter as well as visiting the King of Jordan for a dinner with family members. As a result of these relationships, Turkey and Syria settled the dispute over Hatay province. These countries were about to wage a full scale war over this province in the mid-1990s. Recently two governments signed an agreement whereby citizens of these states can enter to the other state without a visa. The case is very similar for Greece. Turkish and Greek societies are more close to each other than ever. They do not talk about the possibility of a war as they did in the 1990s.


States usually have better relations with their neighbors than other states that are geographically less proximate. Turkey could not develop mutually beneficial relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors due to the tension of the Cold War and some other reasons. Turkey’s trade to Europe and to Middle East is far from being balanced, and there is a disproportionate concentration of trade with Europe. Frozen conflicts were the number one reason for these stagnant relationships. Moreover, western states asked Turkey not to build friendly relations with these Middle Eastern states because they were enemies of the West. The majority of them were either in the axis of evil or a candidate to be one. Turkey did ignore its Middle Eastern neighbors for decades, and now it wants to recover. When Turkey was asked to stay away from Iran, Turkey’s energy dependence was overlooked. Iran can be a threat to Europe but Turkey has to get along with it because it is a neighbor and has gas. Many American diplomats and politicians understand this situation. Unlike the attitude of Bush administration, the Obama administration respect Turkey’s national interests and avoids to demand something from Ankara that will contradict with Turkey’s national interests. As long as they are contributing to regional and international peace and stability, Turkey’s improving relations should not harm the Western States. Stability and peace in the Middle East is also in the interest of Western states.


EU Train Decelerates

Proponents of axis shift thesis also use relations with the EU as evidence to show that with the AKP government, Turkey turns its back to the West. It is true that Turkey does not look as eager as it used to be during 2004-5 for reforms. It is also true that no other government in Turkey’s history strived for the EU membership than the AKP government.  We can talk about two main factors behind the worsening EU-Turkey relations. First one of them is about Turkey’s domestic politics.  Turkish media has revealed that several coup plans were prepared but (thanks to God) not implemented within last six years.  Some groups in Turkey and their supporters in some other countries have disliked the AKP government since the first day. While the government was dealing with such anti-democracy plans, terrorist organizations were trying to gain more leverage.

Second factor is about the EU itself and has created backlash in Turkish public opinion. The EU’s attitude toward Turkey has always been regarded as double standard. Turkey has been asked to meet several criteria that were neither stated in the international agreements (or the EU documents) nor were other candidate states asked the same. This double standard of the EU negatively affects Turkish public opinion. Polls show that percentage of Turkish citizens who believe that the EU will never accept Turkey as a member increases. It is for this reason that Turkish government made it clear many times that it does not need a favor or a special treatment. What Turkey asks for is a just and equal treatment like other candidate states.

Unfortunately, mistakes of the European leaders lend enough support for this claim. Two new governments in Europe (Merkel in Germany and Sarkozy in France) utter frankly that Turkey cannot be an EU member. When Turkey was declared as a candidate in 1999, then the Prime Minister of Finland, Mr. Lipponen wrote a personal letter to then Turkish Prime Minister Mr.Ecevit and made it clear that settlement of Cyprus issue is not a precondition. Yet, the next report of the EU Commission clearly stated that settlement of Cyprus issue is a precondition. Although the former French President Mr.Chirac supported Turkey’s EU membership, at his visit to Yerivan, he stated that recognition of Armenian allegations is a precondition for Turkey’s membership. His successor (Nicholas Sarkozy) even took it further and said that Turkey cannot be an EU member even though it meets all the requirements. In April 2009, during the election for the Secretary General position of NATO, EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement claimed that Turkey’s accession talks may come to a halt if Turkey vetoes Mr.Rasmussen.

All these examples and many others that I did not include draw our attention to two realities. First, Turkey has to solve its problems at home and concentrate more on the EU project. Second, and more important, the EU leaders must decide whether they want Turkey or not. There are documents signed and ratified by the leaders. Current statesmen cannot renege and assume that Turkey has not met all the requirements to be a candidate. European leaders should not use Turkey’s membership for their everyday political fights in their countries to gain more public support. This may be helpful in the short-run for their political carrier but obviously it is harmful for their country’s reputation and the EU’s prestige.



Therefore, axis shift for Turkish foreign policy does not reflect the reality. Then what is happening? Answer is short and simple: Turkey is becoming a normal country and adjusting its foreign policy. Turkey pays more attention to its Middle Eastern neighbors than the past because it has ignored them, not because of the worsening relations with the EU. Because Turkey’s geopolitical realities entail pursuit of active and multi-dimensional foreign policy. Recent developments in Turkish foreign policy are nothing but reflection of the new philosophy behind it. Axis shift thesis is not supported by the majority of Turkish intelligentsia and public. It is this philosophy that differentiates two camps. Current Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu’s “Multi-dimensional foreign policy” concept is essential to understand this philosophy. This is a new perspective for high rank bureaucrats because until the late 1990s Turkey either ignored the East or the West. This new perspective centers around the following core components: being conscious of Turkey’s soft power generated by its history, reconciliation with its Muslim identity while preserving secular regime, solving frozen conflicts with neighbors, and creating a reliable, honest and peaceful image of the country in order to gain more respect. For Turkey building sound relations with the East means building sound relations with the West, and the vice versa. In Mr.Davutoglu’s words, the more you pull the string, the more you bend the bow and the further the arrow goes.

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