Back to basics in Turkish foreign policy

27 Nisan 2017

Situated in the middle of a crisis-prone neighborhood, Turkey can hardly ignore developments around itself for long. But that is exactly what has happened, as it has been focused on domestic politics since 2014 with a seemingly constant election cycle. 

Although the possibility of holding another early election is still being considered among political circles, Turkey urgently needs to refocus its attention and energy on foreign policy as the international system is crumbling and turmoil around it is ever-deepening. As the invisible boundary between domestic and foreign policies has long disappeared in Turkish policymaking, this might be a good time to reorient Turkish decision-makers’ attention to the rapidly changing regional and international developments.

Beyond the perils in its immediate vicinity, Turkey’s relations with its long-standing allies have also taken a negative turn in recent years. It was clear during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Turkey on March 30 that the two countries have not yet found common ground on Syria and the role of Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

The visit by Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık to Washington on the eve of the April 15 referendum was also not enough to convince his counterpart James Mattis about Ankara’s plans to liberate Raqqa from ISIL without utilizing Kurdish groups. This will still be a divisive issue when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visits Washington on May 16-17 to meet the new U.S. President Donald Trump face-to-face for the first time. The issue might even become more challenging as Turkey has started air strikes against what it perceives as outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) strongholds in Sincar, Iraq and Karachok, Syria, where U.S. soldiers are also based nearby.

Trump’s realignment efforts with its traditional allies such as Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to deter Iran in the Middle East would also likely affect the future of Turkish-American relations. While Turkey might find a new ground to work with the U.S. under an anti-Iran stance, this will undoubtedly have profound implications for Turkey’s regional security and political relations, as well as its economic connections.

Finally, the new Russia policy of the U.S., when President Trump finally defines it, will be critically important for the future contours of Turkey-U.S. relations. It might turn into a weak spot considering the current turn that the relationship between Turkey and Russia is taking. If the relationship between Washington and Moscow sours, Turkey might easily find itself trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On the European front, mutual criticisms since July 15 coup attempt have damaged the already strained relationship between Ankara and Brussels. While the rise of populist discourse on both sides continues to poison the relationship, prospects will remain bleak as long as Europe is focused on its internal troubles and Turkey is not able to return to its reform process. Even without bringing back the death penalty, the latest decision by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to put Turkey back into the monitoring process might sufficiently strain the relationship to a level where Ankara’s long EU adventure might finally come to an end sooner rather than later.

Thus, Turkey urgently needs to leave populist discourse behind and focus on strategic issues with the pragmatism that its foreign policy was known for long ago. With such a pragmatic and rational look at foreign policy, Turkey might once again realize that its real value in international relations stems not from its strategic geography but rather from its ability to forge amicable relations with many unlikely countries through its liberal, modern, democratic and secular governance.