Governments have long used foreign policy to shore up domestic endeavors. In the Turkish context, this has become increasingly visible under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), From the EU accession talks to the Cypriot issue and the bill crisis of March 1, 2003 as well as Hagia Sophia and violence against women, all these issues were derived from Turkey’s foreign policy or related to it.
They were either used as a national “success story” for Turkey or a evidence that Turkey is under threat. Turkey’s blatant domestic issues acquired an international dimension before being withdrawn as “foreign issues.” The Kurdish issue and the economic crisis serve as striking examples in that regard.
The refugee issue goes back and forth between being an “import” and a “forced export threat.” Our most local and national issues are depicted as attacks coming from abroad. Foreign policy issues, meanwhile, are described not as the government’s responsibility but always as the government’s victimhood. The external forces plotting against Turkey are not named and are left to the electorate’s imagination.
“Success stories”, on the other hand, are always attributed to the skills and agency of a single individual. As with politics in general, foreign policy has also been highly personalized in recent years and foreign political figures have evolved into actors in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Trump, Putin and Merkel have long been at the heart of Turkey’s domestic politics. Foreign leaders, as well as their statements and actives, come up as often as that of Turkish political party leaders.
Though they are all castigated as enemies of Turkey that plot against it, in the “success stories”, there is always some kind of appreciation, envy or jealousy for them. Such headlines as “we have never been so close” are used to describe the photograph of a meeting with Trump. The Turkish president eats ice cream with Putin after Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense missiles, which are now on standby. Officials proudly state “we were talking to Merkel on the phone the other day.”
While Turkey’s geopolitical significance may be overstated at times, this country’s geographic location does place it in many international calculations. Not all international issues involve Turkey and the Turks, but many do involve them. Aside from Turkey’s historic role and geographic location, its foreign policy is recent years has also attracted attention.
If Turkey does not have natural resources or valuable mines, its economic value is of high importance and is compounded by its 80-million strong population. That means Turkey inevitably features in international plans and strategies. And at times, the preferences of international actors with regards to Turkey’s domestic affaires are rather obvious.
Last week, video footage of U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden was on Turkey’s domestic agenda. In an interview in January, Biden told journalists that the opposition against Erdoğan needed to be supported. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process,” he said.
The Turkish government’s media and social media as well as its official spokespeople concluded from these words that the U.S. controlled the opposition in Turkey. What is more, they asked the opposition to confess. Yet what they missed was the U.S.’ allergy to Erdoğan, rather than any real proximity with the opposition.
Immediately after this, Trump’s words “They need me to deal with world-class chess players [like Erdoğan]” were put forward as praises for Turkey and its leader. But Trump’s subsequent sentence: “Everybody says he will listen to me. I don’t like saying this publicly but it happens to be true. I get along with him and he listens” was largely ignored. One should not forget Trump had previously urged Erdoğan “not to be a fool.”
One cannot say the Turkish public has a good grasp of foreign affairs. It is interested in what is happening abroad insofar as it relates to Turkey. National causes and many of the “existential threats” against Turkey have to do with foreign policy. Public opinion is sharp on “what is wanted from us and what is spared from us” though it cannot exactly pinpoint what it wants itself.
This provides opportunities for politicians to manipulate, distort and provoke. In other words, foreign policy constitutes an attractive tool because of the public’s ignorance about it.
Whilst conducting its foreign policy, the government has focused on two main domestic themes. The first one is that malignant foreign powers are planning severe attacks against Turkey on all fronts. The second is the presence of a leader who carries out genius policies against all these enemies. That individual is highly appreciated by his people and does not hesitate to take action.
And if one dares to ask how we ended fighting with everyone from a supposed policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” we are told: “the world is jealous of us.” If an economic crisis looms, we are told: “the chief will solve it.”
Yet this narrative falls flat on one aspect. If the entire world is coming at us, does the government want to sacrifice its people in battle? Is it ready to cause sweat, tears and poverty?
“No, there is no such thing. We are a country that is envied, we are unique and very attractive for investments, We’ll fly,’ they insist. Biden is used as the proof of dangerous foreign powers while Trump is the proof that we are a global power.