Turkish foreign policy: Act III

Neo-Ottomanism is behind us, as well as the BlueHomelandism. We, seemingly, reached the point where we can’t sell, eat and keep the cake at the same time. The game is back to where it always was. Empty coffers due to bad governance, nepotism, corruption and the pandemic, as well as change at the helm of the U.S. presidency forced Erdoğan’s hand but did not render him more predictable. Time is at pragmatism or at outright opportunism.

Neo-Ottomanism is behind us, as well as the BlueHomelandism. These were examples of mostly sloganeering packaged as doctrines. Nevertheless, they were both showcases of a certain defiance: As in “me against the world” or in “lone horseman”. Most pundits tended to qualify Turkish foreign policy as “assertive”. That included, by default, an over-reliance and perhaps exaggeration of power, both military and economic. It also meant shunning the international treaties to which Turkey was signatory to and the international organisation of which Turkey is a member. The EU candidacy vocation was long forgotten.

Both steps are now left behind as cited above not with a big bang but with a whimper or even more silently, almost timidly and shamefully, as we reach the end of the second decade of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan rule in Turkey. It goes without saying that Erdoğan and AKP changed as well. As game-changing new commodities, Islamists together with a decentralizing HDP were outsiders to the Turkish static and statist political system. EU membership and Cyprus, political and peaceful solutions to century old Kurdish and Armenian Genocide issues seemed to be earnest priorities of the agenda. To be fair, all these enterprises were met with staunch opposition and no meaningful alternatives.   

Whether that was all good old “taqiyyah” or the Arab Spring triggered an amateurish attempt at leaping forward or again that as oxygen tend to get thinner at high altitude is beyond the context here. Again, whether changing horses and having to join or create new alliances inside were the key following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt is history too. What we now see is that the flag is at half-mast on the one sphere. On the other, we are back to the Isaiah Berlin’s metaphorical hedgehog who knows one big thing. Or rather perhaps, this now is indeed a fox who is forced to pose as knowing one big thing.

Anyway, we seemingly reached the point where we can’t sell, eat and keep the cake at the same time. The game is back to where it always was, way before the Neo-ottoman irredentism or the Bluehomelandish turn of 20th century nationalism: Across the border military operations in Iraq and endless talks in Cyprus. Empty coffers due to bad governance, nepotism, corruption and the pandemic, as well as change at the helm of the U.S. presidency forced Erdoğan’s hand but did not render him more predictable. Time is at pragmatism or at outright opportunism. One bright spot was the intervention at the Karabakh conflict but that too did not yield the expected diplomatic windfall. Besides, converting a multi-billions dollars worth sea platform into a so-called “drone carrier” does not seem to fit out-of-the-box thinking category in military strategy.

As the Middle East is not among the foreign policy or national security priorities of the new Biden administration, Turkey is in need to prove its worth at the Black Sea and the Caucasus fronts to contain Russia. It happens to be the same Russia, the president of which is the long standing partner of a bromance with Erdoğan. Furthermore, U.S. now plays in the same team with the EU, hence the urgency to mend fences with Greece. But as times are a changing, regional players and adversaries of choice like Greece, Egypt and Israel all stole a page from Erdoğan’s activist foreign policy playbook. KSA and UAE too do not respond much to diplomatic wooing by Ankara.

At the end of the day, persuasive and partnership building powers went out the door. Assertiveness does not work anymore either. Global challenges moved shop out of the Middle East towards the Asia-Pacific and traditional NATO rival Russia. Islamism now increasingly overlaps with Islamist terrorism in the dominant political and media vernacular in the West, secularism has regained currency. In short, taken all together, these are most of the factors that put pressure on Erdoğan to try and find sustainability, consistency and multi-dimensionality in his rhetoric as well as in Turkey’s foreign policy, to no avail for the time being.

Where we go from here? Erdoğan tests the water to see whether he can talk the talk, without walking the walk or at least steering the perception at home such that he will not appear to be walking the walk. Halkbank Case in May will precede his first face to face meeting with Biden at the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting in June. As elections are getting nearer in Turkey, so ends Merkel’s chancellorship in Germany with increasing probability that the Greens will take part in government. Cyprus talks in Geneva ended before they started as hopes that the UK would come out in favour of Ankara’s new two-state solution proposal. That proposal by default is in contradiction with Turkey’s renewed attempt at knocking at the EU’s door.

A long shot bet would be to take a guess that many radical changes in Turkish foreign policy will happen simultaneously. A safer bet though would be to wait and see until after the next elections in Turkey –if and when those are held. In the meantime, the gauge will still be to watch the distance between the rhetoric behind the pulpit and the actions on the ground.  

April 12, 2021 Ursula standing