A shift toward extreme Machiavellianism in Turkey’s foreign policy

One of those arrested signatories of the recent Admirals’ Statement is the ideological father of Turkey’s Blue Homeland policy doctrine. The security bureaucracy has become a burden and liability to the government, as Turkey’s foreign policy is on the brink of a major shift. We are now entering an era of ‘extreme flexibility,’ meaning whatever suits the Presidency, indicating that Turkey is not bound by any doctrine or ideology. We may also refer to it as “extreme Machiavellianism.”

Turkey took another strange turn within its “Admirals’ Saga,” in which 104 retired admirals issued a statement drawing attention to the importance of Montreux Convention for Turkey and criticizing the government for indicating possible withdrawal.

The debates regarding the Montreux Convention might openly manifest rifts between Turkey’s ‘security bureaucracy’ and President Erdoğan.

The ‘security bureaucracy’ entails a loose network of retired and on-duty generals mostly bound by professional concord and association-not necessarily ideological affinity. The latter ‘ideological affinity’ side may be downsized to secularism, Kemalism, and nationalism. However, we cannot refer to all the security bureaucracy as advocates of ‘Westernism’ or ‘Eurasianism.’ The group of 104 admirals are secularist, Kemalist, and nationalist, with some of them advocates of Turkey’s ‘Blue Homeland’ policy doctrine.

One of the signatories of the Admirals’ Statement who was arrested is Cem Gürdeniz, the ideological father of the Blue Homeland. In 2006, he argued that “the Blue Homeland [that] covers the maritime jurisdiction areas in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Aegean” will be of foremost importance to Turkey’s sovereignty. The theory argues that dominance overseas will be a key factor determining the power of countries globally: Gürdeniz elaborated further his book “Blue Civilization” written when he was in Silivri Prison due to the notorious ‘Sledgehammer’ case.

Scores of Turkish Armed Forces personnel, including active and retired top military officials, were detained in 2010 and 2011. Gürdeniz was among those arrested and remained behind bars until 2014. “Blue Civilization” was a product of his imprisonment, as well as a naval diorama he assembled from toothpaste and toothpicks. The book was printed in 2015 and became emblematic of Turkey’s foreign policy in the recent years as Ankara became increasingly hawkish in the Eastern Mediterranean. The developing conflict with Greece in the recent years has made “Blue Homeland” doctrine in Turkey popular. Regardless, of whether the government favored Gürdeniz, his ideas reigned.

From Libya to Cyprus, in the extended Mediterranean area, Turkey applied the Blue Homeland doctrine in practice exerting sovereignty. On March 6, 2021, President Erdoğan participated virtually in the “Blue Homeland Military Exercise” of the Turkish Naval Force in the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea.

Gürdeniz and other signatories of the statement became a burden and liability to the government, as Turkey’s foreign policy is on the brink of further change.

After the Neo-Ottomanism of Ahmet Davutoğlu and Blue Homeland nationalism of the military, we are now entering an era of “extreme flexibility,” meaning whatever suits Turkey’s Presidency. Today it might be a positive agenda with the EU in exchange for carrots, engaging in dangerous liaisons in the Ukraine, opening another covert military front with Russia while cozying up to the Kremlin, trying to squeeze out financial support from China, and publicly bashing the U.S. Tomorrow, who knows?

‘Extreme flexibility’ indicates that Turkey is not bound by any doctrine or ideology. We may also refer to it as ‘extreme Machiavellianism.’

Previously, there were rifts with other parts of the security bureaucracy. Eurasianist (pro-positive ties with Russia and Asia, or rather less keen on NATO ties) Cahit Yaycı was ousted from active duty in May 2020. The arrest of top-retired generals is a civilian warning to all military and security apparatuses to hold their horses.

Is Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention just a start? Are more withdrawals from international treaties on the way? The abrupt withdrawal of Turkey from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, via presidential decree was a shock. In many ways, it is an attack on women’s rights, but not only that.

One of top names of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Parliamentary Speaker Mustafa Şentop, argued that “the presidency in Turkey has the right to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights and the Montreux Convention” if the President deems it right. Five days after saying this during a live interview on Habertürk TV, Şentop revoked his statement, stating, “There is no discussion about the positions we have achieved in the War of Independence, especially in Montreux. We do not even think about such an argument.”

Şentop’s change of heart, seem to stem from security officials and diplomatic circles’ (both retired and on duty) dismay at having withdrawal from the Montreux Convention becoming a tangible possibility. One of the most vocal critics of Şentop’s initial statement was Gürdeniz. We might expect Şentop to have another change of heart soon, stating that Montreux Convention is in fact dispensable.

The debate regarding withdrawal from the Montreux Convention is intricately connected to the Canal Istanbul project. This project is conceptualized as a ‘Turkish Suez;’ a prestige project asserting geostrategic eminence in international relations just like Suez Canal is to Egypt. There is also the hope of generating money from the passing of commercial ships via Canal Istanbul. AKP circles seem to believe that Montreux 2.0 may be beneficial to them.

Nonetheless, Montreux and its supporters may not be the only obstacle on the way of extreme Machiavellian foreign policy; There will be an unofficial 5+1 meeting, including both sides in Cyprus, the three guarantor countries, and the UN on April 27-29 in Geneva. Recently, the European Union Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen and the EU Council President Charles Michel visited Turkey. In exchange for some carrots, the ‘Blue Homeland’ may become a shelved and its ideological father may be condemned to write sequels at home or in prison. But then again, tomorrow is always a new day in the world of extreme Machiavellianism.

March 26, 2021 Living on borrowed time