One would rather use extreme caution perhaps before wading into waters beyond one’s own depth. Yet I may be allowed to choose the term “phenomenologically” or simply “looking from outside in” or again “just judging by the deeds” to claim that Ankara’s or again outright Erdoğan’s foreign policy outlook took a realistic turn lately. I would also argue that although that initial observation may seem appropriate, that wide turn itself is not based on rationality, neither on a sudden clearing of mind, nor on vision, but it stems from necessity.
That necessity itself is imposed upon Erdoğan by further embrittlement of the already highly fragile national Turkish economy by the nefarious effects of the pandemic and by bad governance. “Bad governance” in this context, which is a timid way of putting it, can be replaced with authoritarian one-man regime and endemic corruption. Despotism, kleptocracy, nepotism: The arsenal of politico-legal qualifications is indeed replete and these notions are not novelties that appeared yesterday out of nowhere but common place syndromes observed around the world. Turkey is no exception.
Let’s then for the sake of this piece think of the West as the U.S.-EU duo. The wide turn mentioned above runs parallel to a diplomatic process that started with the EU Council meeting held at the end of December last year and in a way crystallized with the last EU Council meeting held at the end of this month of June. One clause of the official MFA statement of the Turkish MFA in response to the conclusions of that last Council sums it all: “Refraining from making a reference to our candidate status…”
True, as Ankara itself refrains in turn from looking in the mirror, the EU disregards Turkey’s candidate status and ignores the “pacta sunt servanda” principle of the international relations. Furthermore, that same month of June was also hectic in diplomatic activity beyond the EU Council. The US President Biden went to Cornwall for the G-7 summit, crossed over to Brussels for the NATO Leaders Summit, took part in the U.S.-EU meeting and then concluded his journey with a rare summit with his Russian counterpart Putin in Geneva. All that constitutes the context of the much anticipated Erdoğan-Biden bilateral that took place in Brussels on June 14.
In sum, grosso modo and not in chronological order, Turkey took these steps in 2021: Anchored its expensive research vessels in Antalya Bay. Started negotiating in Libya for a pull-out of the Syrian mercenaries, dropped its claim on subterranean riches, forgot the MOU on delimitation of maritime jurisdicton areas and solely tries to keep its own Watiya Base in place. Tested waters with Egypt, Israel, KSA and UAE for a new modus vivendi. Showed increased activity in NATO activities in the Baltic and the Black Sea theatres aimed at curbing Russia’s regional ambitions. Proposed selling its armed drones to Ukraine, Poland and Latvia. Stopped short of a further military incursion into the east of Euphrates in Syria. Made peace and opted for talks with both Greece and France.
At the other side of the table, the EU passed the Turkish hot potato on to the Biden administration. The U.S. dropped its traditional lobbying for Turkey’s full membership in the EU as the EU itself shelved for good Turkey’s candidacy. For the EU, Turkey is the main bulwark against the illegal refugee stream originating from the larger Middle East and on that front only is entitled to financial support. For the U.S., it is an indispensable NATO ally which further softened up Biden by timely proposing to secure the Kabul international airport that will potentially avoid Kabul into turning into a second Saigon for the U.S.
When it comes to the tall order of the bilateral intractable issues between the U.S. and Turkey, these are no longer on the table but safely stored in the drawers of that same negotiating table enabling the two sides to go through the motions as if they no longer exist. The sanctions related to Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 air defence systems from Russia and the ongoing U.S. military support to the YPG are the two main files that are mutually put into those drawers. The Halkbank case postponed to be handled in fall and Reza Sarrab as the key witness, as well as Sezgin Baran Korkmaz now under custody in Austria awaiting extradition to U.S. are the additional jokers in Biden’s hands. The first is about circumventing sanctions to Iran, while the second case involves among others gold trade with Maduro’s Venezuela.
The deal that is taking place before our eyes is then based on a more amenable behaviour in exchange for the West to turn a blind eye to the domestic dealings of the regime. By default, the diplomatic phenomenon that we witness is expressed as dropping the political arguments in favour of a relegation of the thorny files to technical level. Turkey is no longer the so-called assertive, go-it-alone rough player of the yesteryear, but the demanding side and again becomes a team player even if a tough one at that. Ergo, although the detachment of the domestic politics from the foreign policy may appear as a positive development in the first place, it must be up to the democratic opposition in Turkey to transform the republic and fine tune its foreign policy in accordance with that hoped for transformation once in power.
For the time being, the daily blaring of propaganda to the national public opinion remains constant even if acts on the ground no longer matches that fiery islamo-nationalistic rhetoric. Erdoğan attempts at shielding his authoritarian regime from the West and secure his political survival after almost twenty years in power. Whether rational or not and whether sincere or not, he attempts to do so by harmonizing his foreign policy behaviour with NATO, the US and the EU. After the elections scheduled in 2023 if held in time and once in power the opposition must place high on its agenda the re-assertion of Turkey in the free world. After all, Turkey is a NATO ally since 1952, a founding member of the CoE and the OSCE, a member of the ECHR and a candidate country to the EU.