Şafak Göktürk

A country’s foreign policy is the combined derivative of its constant and dynamic assets as well as its normative make-up. As such, it is intrinsically linked to the country’s domestic life. Any realistic and effective policy formulations on both the domestic and foreign fronts thus depend on their proper alignment.

However, this does not mean the policies a government pursues at home can serve as a stencil for its foreign pursuits, or vice a versa. First, not unlike the concept in mathematics, this derivative differs, both quantitatively and qualitatively, from the individual assets and values it is derived from. Second, the intersection domain of a country’s foreign policy is the foreign policy of other countries. Foreign policy is the interface for testing or aligning one nation’s interests with that of another. 

It is perennial dilemma to bring up the not so tangible matters of foreign affairs with the electorate. Governments are always more tempted to indulge in rhetoric than pursue coherent long-term policies. Fortunately, this human condition is universally acknowledged, and much of this fiery rhetoric are played down as domestic constituency stuff.

Still, domestic dynamics can be selectively forced into the equation of foreign relations. This can bring devastating consequences as it short-circuits wider, more essential foreign policy objectives.

Governments fall prey to such an unreasonable course for several reasons. Ideological bias and domestic dividends are among the more common ones. And these motives gain strength when the ruling power is in need of legitimacy at home.

Politicians are known for their propensity to stick to their elected positions. But maintaining a governing mandate is seldom seen as an existential matter for any party or its leader in democratic life. For there is no question regarding their legitimacy, whether they are in power or in the opposition. Existential concern emerges when the incumbent sees his office as an irreversible, exclusive entitlement because of what he or she represents. The very elections which brought him or her to power are now reformatted to perpetuate this self-assumed entitlement. The free and fair character of the elections is compromised by restrictions brought onto the competitive space and on the information flow to the public, accompanied by a set of administrative and legal measures, all designed to narrow the outcome. The regular sequence of elections also falls victim to the same effort, with election dates determined according to politically tailored timelines. If the elections have still not delivered the desired results, they are either renewed or many elected members of the opposition are removed under trumped up charges.   

Civil society, meanwhile, is kept in an atmosphere of constant polarization designed to maintain and consolidate the electoral base that backs ruling majority. The impact of the blasting narrative about this constituency’s previous victimization and the vilification of the others, however, has its limits. It becomes repetitive and loses at least some of its allure since the government they identify with has already been in power for some time.

This is where and when foreign policy becomes the dependent variable of the domestic agenda. Just as it adopts arbitrary policy choices in the country’s management favoring groups that form the government’s social and economic power base, the ruling power has no scruples in drawing on the foreign agenda, no matter how damaging that may turn out to be for the country in the longer term. Its overriding concern remains the same -keeping popular support sufficiently intact.

Political leaders routinely resort to an array of foreign policy agenda options to bolster their domestic standing. These options may be readily available in the form of an already existing border or regional dispute, or a conflict of interest with another power. Otherwise, an unstable neighborhood can always provide abundant material. The only critical condition in its selection is whether it carries the potential to immerse people into a sense of collective destiny. Rallying for a seemingly burning national issue does not only have the power to unite people, it builds a siege mentality beyond the party lines, blurring the ruler’s actual base of support. This siege mentality coincides with the ruler’s own predicament of governing in increasingly more challenging circumstances. Unity of fate, however temporary, between the ruling power and an undetermined section of the population is thus established. And the sense of security, though erroneous, injects a much-needed doze of confidence to the ruler.  

Yet, alas the problem with tempering with the foreign relations web is that its consequences cannot be addressed domestically. Damage abroad is inevitably caused. One particular outcome may be the erosion of the nation’s geopolitical interests as the ruler desperately searches for tentative arrangements with unlikely partners to limit the immediate risks of his miscalculations. This damage progressively deepens the political and economic crisis at home. Even for the authoritarian ruler, the struggle to consolidate support turns into a Pyrrhic victory at best.

This summary on the instrumentalization of foreign affairs for domestic agenda is applicable, with minor alterations, to all authoritarian conversions from initially democratic processes around the globe. The abuse of foreign policy is not optional for them. It is an inevitable component of any authoritarian drift. The hybrid state – autocracy with a semblance of democratic legitimization – compels the ruler to pick any available tool to compensate for the gaping hole in his legitimacy.

Author:

Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.