Classically defined, foreign policy is “a system of activities evolved by communities for changing the behaviour of other states and for adjusting their own activities to the international environment.”1 The function of Turkey’s foreign policy, however, has gone beyond this definition.
Ali Balcı published a dictionary in 2013 that can help us understand Turkey’s foreign policy. As he published it at an institution directly associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,2 he can be seen as a credible reference. In his column titled “Is the ‘zero problem policy with the neighbours’ just a principle of foreign policy?”, published in 2012 in the government affiliated Star daily, Balcı describes “zero problems with the neighbours” as a “discursive strategy.”
Balcı suggests that this tenet, long claimed to be the fundamental approach of the foreign policy of the AKP,3 should not be criticized on the basis of its concrete implications for foreign policy. The reason is that the real goal of the policy is to transform the power relations within Turkey and it cannot be ignored that the strategy has been successful in this regard.
Balcı also suggests that it would be wrong to read the aforementioned principle and the “discourse and practices” of the foreign policy determined accordingly through the “lenses of national interests.” Furthermore, he states that “the elimination aimed by the zero problem policy with the neighbours4 has been successful and this policy has therefore lost its most important function,”5 that is, “fulfilling its mission….In its place a new discourse” is being established.6
In other words, the main goal of Turkey’s foreign policy does not have to do with influencing the behaviour of other states or adjusting the activities of Turkey to the international environment (namely, to the structure and restrictions of the international and regional systems, etc). The main concern of Turkish foreign policy is its internal political impact.
Foreign policy: a tool of international relations for the AKP
Considering the aims and objectives of the last decade of Turkish foreign policy, we can state that the main impetus behind it has been to reinforce the AKP’s power. It appears to be a tool for the AKP to manage its international relations rather than the foreign policy of Turkey. Instead of rationally evaluating the limitations and priorities imposed by the conditions and managing policy issues, priority is given to the popularity of the decision and its value in reproducing power relations in domestic politics. These limitations refer to the structure of the international system and the current and potential strength of Turkey and its rivals.
There are two criteria determining the rationality and effectiveness of a foreign policy act. The first is the effectiveness of a certain decision to incite/force “other states” to change their behaviour and preferences to a maximum extent. The second is the ability to keep the costs as low as possible while “aligning and organizing” the country’s own policy to the conditions of the “international environment” and encouraging others to “alter” their policies in the desired direction.
Inevitaby, “foreign policy is an integrated piece of the regime which is unique to each state and it reflects the special conditions of the state.”7 Moreover, foreign policy cannot be thought of separately from domestic politics. It is natural that the foreign policy of every state is also shaped by the preferences of the political actors in power. Finally, the aim and responsibility of those in power should be to develop suitable prospectives and capabilities in order to increase the country’s influence in international politics.
Foreign policy based on “Islamic and humanitarian” values
All these factors, however, do not mean that it is possible to disregard the limitations. The foreign policy of Turkey has been controversial with regard to its benefits for some time now when viewed through the glasses of foreign policy management. It has been marked by a process prioritizing the decisions which have evidently been domestically valuable to the AKP government.
Balcı’s trivialising attitude to the notion of national interest is confirmed by the discourse established by the senior managers and consultants of the AKP in addition to other non-governmental actors surrounding them, all of whom refer to a necesssity of managing the foreign policy on the basis of “Islamic and humanitarian” values in their statements.8
The rhetoric of certain organizations can also be viewed as examples of this approach such as Özgür-Der (Association for Free Thought and Educational Rights), which seems to play an effective role in the AKP’s Syrian policy, or the IHH (Foundation for Human Rights and Liberties and Humanitarian Relief), which played a very effective role in Turkish foreign policy through a single action (the Gaza flotilla and Mavi Marmara in 2010). Previous to this event, no other non-state organization had been able to create such a significant impact in foreign policy.9
The writer of this article joined the discussion show Bıçak Sırtı on Ülke TV on 21 September 2011. After the discussion with Rıdvan Kaya, who is the Chairman of Özgür-Der, Kaya expressed “he understands that [the writer] views foreign policy from the perspective of interests but he, nevertheless, considers islamic priorities to be the most decisive factors, followed by humanitarian priorities.”
The prism of the ümmet (Muslim community/ummah)
All these statements essentially represent a view which sees the Middle Eastern geography in the first place and the world in general through the prism of the ümmet (Muslim community; from the Arabic ummah). Davutoğlu and Erdoğan consistently underline “humanitarian and conscientious values” specifically in their discourses on Syria as well as the Middle East in general.10 Their rhetoric explicitly or implicitly refers to the notion of “interests” with a negative connotation.11 The similarities between the discourses reinforce the idea that the AKP is sensitive to its core supporters’ priorities and take these into consideration in the planning of the party’s public appearances.
The dependency of Turkey’s foreign policy on domestic politics has increased rather than decreased as the political environment has been aggravated by the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.The previous foreign policy principles from which Balcı has departed but from whose ashes he expects the new ones to arise, however, have not been renewed.
The transformation of Turkey into a passive actor
The path dependancy of Turkey has increased and there are few alternatives. Furthermore, the foreign policy has lost its strategical quality, depth and maneuverability in the turbulence created by the ideological and domestically-based political decisions, which are compounded due to the Syrian issue. It seems that after all these interventions, Turkey has become a passive rather than an active player, although it continues to be a party to the discussions due to its geopolitical importance.
Additionally, due to the polarization in domestic Turkish politics, it has become quite difficult to find a topic on the public agenda that appeals to the common psychology of society as a whole. Foreign policy is no exception to this. The rhetoric used has made a havoc of the domestic and foreign politics with respect to symbolic political meanings. Foreign policy has turned into an ideological platform for domestic political change, making it more difficult to change foreign policy.
The Syrian issue used to be the popular advertisement of the zero problem principle, and it remains the most striking example of the approach to foreign policy, that prioritizes domestic political concerns and certain ideological preferences. The AKP’s foreign policy has been underscored with transnational connections and affinities since 2007, and was received fairly positively by the public until 2010.
At the time, it seemed that the increasing number of commercial relations established in the Middle East and the discourse on the role of Turkey as a leader in the region had been convincing to the public. However, things have changed as anxiety about the events in the region increased, which implies that the priorities of Turkey have been consistently downplayed after the Arab Spring.
The major developments in this context can be summarized as follows: The aggravation of the Syrian refugee problem, the shooting down of a Turkish aircraft over the Mediterrenean, the Reyhanlı bombings, ISIS’ takeover of the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, the establishment of the Kurdish cantons in Northern Syria, the battle in Kobani and, finally, the relocation of the tomb of Suleyman Shah. All these developments have helped to gradually increase the perception that the security of Turkey is directly threatened and that support for the present foreign policy is waning.
Wrong calculations come to light
The AKP’s foreign policy regarding the Middle East was determined on the basis of transnational connections and affinities from the very beginning. The goal of the foreign policy on the Syrian issue seemed to be to soften the regime through dependency and an affinity to be established through relationships with the Ba’ath regime. The idea behind this was a desire for a a new regime in which the Syrian Muslim Brothers would be a part of the power structure.12
However, the wave triggered by the Arab Spring has ironically disrupted the scheme: The policy based on the sustenance of the status quo, depending on a particular perspective on Syria, has been going through a stress test. This perspective saw Syria as a springboard to the Middle Eastern basin and as a region where there were supposed transnational dependancies and affinities with Turkey, such as the Muslim Brothers. The fact that the status quo is not sustainable in the future has rendered the transformation desired by the AKP unfeasible. As a result, the AKP has paradoxically switched from the evolutionary transformation it had originally aimed for to a revolutionary revisionism.
The initial goal was a fast and conflict-free tranformation in Syria as a way of handling the stressful situation. We can argue that the AKP government’s advice of moderation to the US at the outset essentially had to do with the same reason. Had Assad given consent, the transformation could have been immediately realized without disrupting the balance in the system, with the help of the acceleration to be provided by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers (MB) government which was in power in Egypt at the time.
The approach based on this incorrect calculation has come to light since the aforementioned approach relies on a very simplified understanding of the structure of the Syrian regime, and the socioeconomic and political life of the country.
The desire for a fast and conflict-free transformation in Syria was incongruous with the existing material conditions. Since it has become clear that a fast transformation would not be free of conflict, the option of a forced transformation has come to be preferred. At this point, however, it turns out that the position of Turkey as a medium-sized state within the international system is a limiting factor. The AKP has therefore attempted to prompt the transformation by persuading the US to become involved in the conflict.
Reaching structural limits and late adaptation
This final method, however, also relied on a simplified reading of the domestic political balances in the US and the foreign policy of the Obama government. The idea of a fast transformation has long gone bankrupt and the structural limitations of Turkish foreign policy have been reached. The slowness in accepting this fact has added tension to relations with the US, and it also seems to have delayed Turkey’s adaptation to the present conditions.
The situation seems to have forced the decision makers of the AKP to take more dramatic decisions. Among these are the following: The alignment of AKP’s policies with Saudi Arabia and Qatar; and “leaving the door open” for those who wish to participate in the war against the regime in Syria. However, the attempts to mobilize the international community have been rejected, and the moderate groups in Syria associated with the Islamic and Muslim Brothers have failed to gain the momentum to overturn the Assad regime.
Consequently, all the costs of the “open door” policy and logistical tolerance have been born by Turkey. The Reyhanlı bombings and the Muslim Brothers’ ousting in Egypt were new turning points. The growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the foreign policy on the part of the public has merged with the declining hope of the AKP regarding the realization of the expected transformation in Syria. As a result of this, the approach to foreign policy has switched from revisionism to an almost irredentist attitude. At this point, a disagreement with Saudi Arabia over Egypt also arose; and the prolonged Syrian civil war and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s exclusionary policies against the Sunni minority in Iraq have complicated the matters even more.
Turkey has, in fact, made extensive efforts for the Sunni groups to be included in Iraqi domestic politics. The channels of these endeavours seem to constitute the ground on which the AKP’s decision makers have established close relationships with the aforementioned groups. During the same period in Turkey, it was being seriously discussed and argued that the Al-Nusra Front, which allegedly had ties with Al-Qaeda, was not a terrorist organisation, especially in those circles close to the government.
ISIS comes into the picture
The fact that Al-Nusra was included in the list of terrorist organizations in the framework of the UN resolutions on 30 September 2013 after the Reyhanlı bombings on 11 May 2013 halted these discussions to a certain extent. Nevertheless, it remains to be a controversial issue to what extent Al-Nusra was honoured by the AKP’s tolerance until that point in time.
If it is true that such a relationship existed, we can assume that its establishment and sustenance has to do with the concerns regarding the Syrian civil war and the wish to see it finalized as soon as possible. The group who initially called itself Iraqi Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State of Iraq mostly moved itself from Iraq to Syria by naming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and el-Sham (ISIS) and declaring a merger with the Al-Nusra Front, which is connected to Al-Qaeda.
It could be further discussed what ISIS’ development means for the AKP’s foreign policy. However, as ISIS is growing stronger by absorbing other jihadist groups in its organisation after cutting ties with Al-Nusra and with Al-Qaeda, the AKP remains reluctant to evaluate the scale of the threat. It can be added that this reluctant attitude has recently changed to a certain extent but the system of tolerance towards the “resistance” groups on the border of Turkey and Syria cannot be expected to end abruptly.
It is not possible to estimate exactly to what extent the relations with the Sunni groups in Iraq are. Since the ISIS came into the picture, however, it makes sense to also consider the possibility of the AKP’s establishing various contacts with ISIS through the previous interactions with the Sunni groups. It would not be wrong to think that these relationships played a role in the rescue of the Mosul Consulate hostages. Based on this assumption, these relationships must have gradually gained greater importance as ISIS moved back from Syria to Iraq turning into the Islamic State (IS).
To support our argument that foreign policy is intertwined with domestic politics, it would be relevant to remember President Erdoğan’s statement that “ISIS is a terrorist organization with blood on its hands”13 in the United Nations Security Council on 24 September 2014. We suggest that Erdoğan’s statement has to do with not only certain international developments such as the uneasiness created by the extent of the tension with the allies and the relief coming after the release of the Mosul Consulate staff members, but also the statistical data that the majority of the Turkish public (80.6%) sees ISIS as a terrorist organization and a threat.
It seems that the foreign policy is caught in a dilemma between the necessity to dismiss its expectancy of disproportionate high return and leave its path dependancy created by domestically biased political decisions, and the desire not to undermine critical domestic alliances and magic of the transformative impact within Turkey.
Many unanswerable questions relate to the reason why the AKP has allegedly established such relationships with the radical actors of the world scene. Would it be possible to assume that the AKP desires to establish such relationships to create its own agents and thereby be able to recompose the foreign policy? This could be the case considering that almost all the actors in the environment have an agent (such as the Iranian Hezbollah), and the AKP has domestic political alliances close to the notion of the “ümmet” (Muslim community) and evidently feels much more comfortable (vis-à-vis the previous governments) acting with those who define themselves through certain connections and affinities.
The AKP can establish dialogues with other actors that are difficult for the West and the international community to talk to and it can play a key role in the Syrian issue, which forms the most important topic on the international agenda. Could this mean that the AKP sees this position as a ground to carry out damage control and consolidate its foreign policy, which is under pressure and is consistently losing domestic support?
Another question is why the Mosul Consulate was not evacuated in time. Did the AKP also aim to have a diplomatic contact point in the middle of the dark region, estimated to play a key role both for the Kurds and other actors?
Turkey has been accused of following a “loose border policy” enabling the IS to grow stronger. In the international press this was described as a “tolerant approach towards the jihadist movements.”14 Furthermore, Turkey was described as a country that was providing weapons to the jihadists in Libya through certain parties.15 Regardless of the accuracy of these accusations, it is clear that Turkey has not implemented effective diplomatic communication. These accusations are exacerbated by the fact that the pro-IS web pages, associated with the the party in power and accordingly tolerated, remain online without any censorship problems.
The limits of an unsustainable foreign policy
Finally, it is evident that a limit has been reached in terms of the inclintaion to use foreign policy as a fundamental isntrument for the transformation of power within Turkey, i.e., the attempt to conduct foreign policy through transnational, non-state connections and affinities and the tendency to endanger the position of Turkey in the international system. It would not be wrong to state that the current foreign policy is unsustainable. Turkish foreign policy has, in fact, ceased to be sustainable not only because of the harm incurred on Turkey’s relationships with its allies, but also because of the damage caused to social harmony by the polarization of the public opinion within Turkey with the aim of keeping the electorate mobilized.
For 69% of the public, Islam plays an important role in politics at present; 53.2% think that the ISIS is organizing in Turkey and 86.2% think that the ISIS is a threat to Turkey.
We can conclude that this argument is already well-supported considering that the support for the foreign policy has decreased to 41%. Furthermore, between 700 and 1,200 Turkish citizens have joined the IS, and no one knows what kind of activities these individuals will be engaged in when they return. These people also constitute a network which might serve as a long-term home to other returning foreign fighters. Only 4% of the Turkish public shows sympathy towards the IS while 7.1% approves of the actions of the IS. These percentages are above the 3% threshold, considered to be the legal criterion to provide treasury grants to political parties. Furthermore, there is mention of a “Pakistanization” of the Turkish-Syrian border (in comparison with the Afghanistan context), and the ISIS calls all Muslims to obey its rule while its ideologists declare the conquest of Istanbul as the ultimate goal.16
All in all, using the realm of foreign policy as a fundamental argument for reproducing power runs the risk of degrading and overburdening it.
1 George Modelski, A Theory of Foreign Policy, London, Pall Mall Press, 1962, p. 6.
2 Murat Yeşiltaş, Ali Balcı, A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map, SAM Papers, No: 7, May 2013.
3 [Justice and Development Party, “AKP” in Turkish –Translator’s Note]
4 Namely, the elimination of the dominant institutional structure which was considered a rival to the AKP’s power.
5 The emphasis is mine. (Ahmet Kasım Han/AKH).
6 Ali Balcı, “Komşularla sıfır sorun sadece bir dış politika ilkesi mi?” (Is zero problem policy with the neighbours just a principle of foreign policy?), Star, 5 September 2012.
7 Joseph Frankel, The Making of Foreign Policy; An Analysis of Decision-Making, London, Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 1.
8 For two examples, see Mehmet Metiner, “Kendi devrimini bitiren ülke: İran” (The country which has finished off its own revolution: Iran), Yeni Şafak, 30 August 2012; “Ak Parti İstanbul’dan Suriyeliler için Kampanya” (A campaign for the Syrian refugees by the Istanbul branch of JDP), 25 December 2014, (online) http://www.ensonhaber.com/ak-partiden-suriyeli-siginmacilar-icin-kampanya-2014-12-25.html, 13 March 2015.
9 Also see “Elazığ’dan Suriye’ye 20 TIR’lık Un Yardımı” (20 large trucks loaded with flour aid from Elazığ to Syria), 11 February 2015, (online) www.ihh.org.tr/tr/main/news/0/elazigdan-suriyeye-20-tirlik-un-yardimi/2743, 15 March 2015.
10 The notion of “conscientious” in this discourse seems to be a substitution for the expression of “Islamic” used above.
11 “Başbakan Erdoğan’ın Suriye Halkı’nın Dostları Grubu 2. Konferansı Konuşması” (The 2nd conference speech of Prime Minister Erdoğan in the Friends of the Syrian People Group), 1 April 2012 (online) www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9o6RDRJJL4, 10 March 2015. See also: “Dışişleri Bakanı Davutoğlu’nun Suriye’deki gelişmeler üzerine gündem dışı açıklaması” (Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu’s announcement outside the agenda on the developments in Syria), TBMM Tutanak Dergisi (Turkish Parliament's Parliamentary Minutes Journal), Session: 100, 26 April 2012, (online) www.tbmm.gov.tr/tutanak/donem24/yil2/ ham/b10001h.htm, 25 May 2012. The statements of Ömer Çelik, which are in the same document, deserve attention in this regard.
12 For a detailed analysis of this issue, see also: Ahmet K. Han, “Paradise Lost: A Neoclassical Realist Analysis of Turkish Foreign Policy and the Case of Turkish-Syrian Relations”, Turkey-Syria Relations: between Enmity and Amity, Raymond Hinnebusch and Özlem Tür (ed.), Surrey, Ashgate, 2013, pp. 55– 69.
13 “Erdoğan IŞİD’e ‘terör örgütü” dedi!” (Erdoğan calls ISIS a ‘terrorist organization’!), Sözcü, 25 September 2014.
14 Patrick Cockburn, “Turkey accused of colluding with Isis to oppose Syrian Kurds and Assad following surprise release of 49 hostages”, The Independent, 21 September 2014.
15 Jonathan Schanzer, “Turkey’s Secret Proxy War in Libya”, National Interest, 17 March 2015, (online) http://nationalinterest.org/feature/turkeys-secret-proxy-war-libya-12430?page=show, 17 March 2015.
16 Graeme Wood, “What ISIS really wants?,” The Atlantic, March 2015.