The Unobtainable Coherence of Turkish Foreign Policy

In recent years, Turkish foreign policy has been marked by reversals and reversals of alliances. Some present it as “neo-ottoman”, a concept without consistency that does not help to understand the strategies implemented.

Dakar, 1 March 2018. — Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Since the constitutional referendum of 2010 and especially since 2013 and the beginning of the fratricidal war between the regime’s strong man, Recep Yayyip Erdoğan, and the Gülen movement, the chief feature of Turkish domestic politics has been inconsistency with a political rhetoric that has reached new heights of Machiavellian pragmatism. The same is true of the country’s foreign policy with its meanderings, backtracking and instant reversals of alliances. But while this lack of consistency in domestic policy has been successfully purveyed as “realism”—with a constant emphasis on victimhood—the repeated diplomatic failures have been harder to explain away.

A Gap Between Resources and Ambition

Following the start in 2011 of the protests movements in the Middle East, Ankara began to dream of becoming a regional leader, hoisting the flag of Sunni politics with an eye to setting up everywhere regimes connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. To achieve this, Turkish diplomacy had to accomplish an agonizing reappraisal, forsaking its traditional pro-Western policies in favor of a rhetoric which was at once anti-Western, anti-semitic and pro-Islamist. The dream turned out to be unattainable, partly because Turkish diplomats knew so little of the region but most of all because of the huge gap between Turkey’s social, cultural, political and financial capital and its ambitions.

Turkish Islamism had promised to reconcile religion with “liberal” values at a time when, in the wake of 9/11, the West was looking for potential allies in its effort to counter the artificial dichotomy of the “clash of civilizations” by which Islam was seen as the mortal enemy of the Western world. The successive governments formed by the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) gradually departed from that salutary promise of global peace, opting for a divisive and confrontational line, for reasons both electoral—in Turkey, a warlike rhetoric is more fruitful than peace talks—and ideological: the ultimate goal of a political Islam under Turkish leadership.

Thus, while between 2003 and 2010 Turkish diplomacy had been at ease with the principles of Western liberal democracies, a spectacular turnaround occurred at the beginning of the new decade, due notably to the appointment of the controversial Ahmet Davutoğlu to the Office of Foreign Minister. The protest movements in the Middle East consecrated the divorce between Turkey’s foreign policy and the European focus. But rather than morphing into a coherent policy towards this or that region, it became a series of constant meanders and reversals at the mercy of the ups and downs of the region and the world.

Thus we saw Turkey entering into a rapprochement with Russia in order to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)1, then turning around and treating it as an enemy; or, becoming a few months later Syria’s best ally and then its regional rival. Similar observations may be made regarding the United States, France, Germany, Iran or Israel.

Behind these turnabouts it is easy to detect the superficial empiricism of the theory known as “neo-ottomanism.” This new ideology is a tissue of paradoxes, involving the rhetoric of victimhood and historical revisionism. By exaggerating both the “turkishness” and the Islamic character of Ottoman history in order to galvanize people riven by fractured identities, the powers that he had to declare all of the Middle East, or at the very least Syria, to be Turkey’s legitimate and well-deserved Hinterland. At first, Turkey was Bachar Al-Assad’s best ally before he came to be seen as its worst enemy and it began supporting the Islamic State Organization (ISIS) with which it shared a Sunni identity—as opposed to the heterodox alevism of Damascus—and financial interests as well, especially in regional oil shipping.

Then, once ISIS had become the uncontrollable nightmare of a terrified West—and of Turkey—Ankara turned right around and gave the coalition a helping hand to neutralize the Organization . . . but not too much.

However, putting an end to ISIS’s domination in the region was tantamount to creating a border region potentially dominated by the Kurds. So again, Ankara changed targets, sent its troop into Afrin in northwestern Syria, to prevent that city from linking up with Kobane, another Kurdish sanctum to the northeast, but this was running the enormous risk of an armed confrontation with American troops, especially in Manbij (located between the two cities).

At present, Ankara’s roller coaster foreign policy in the Middle East bids fare to destabilize the whole region. On the other hand, this belligerent rhetoric is effective on the home front where a wind of ultra-nationalism has driven the AKP to team up with the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), at least until the 2019 presidential election.

The European Union (EU) is largely absent from these shifting combinations. Mired down in its structural crisis (Brexit) and its political dramas (the lightening rise of right-wing populisms), it has been taken hostage by Turkey, using and abusing its threat to “turn loose” the displaced Syrians on its territory, but also the jihadists who could endanger the cities of Europe. This iniquitous blackmail has worked and is working still. Neither the EU, nor even the Council of Europe to which Turkey has belonged since 1949, dare lift a finger regarding Turkey’s erratic foreign policy or its constant violations of human rights at home.

Failures in Central Asia

This downward spiral, this deterioration of relations with the West (especially with the US, Germany and the EU as a whole, but also with the Council of Europe) has prompted the “white palace”2 to seek other allies. Russia was potentially one but dealings with that major power are volatile and too unstable to make it a lasting partner. As for Central Asia, with which Turkish nationalists maintain a phantasmal relationship based on a supposedly similar ethnic identity, has long since joined the Russian fold, rejecting Ankara’s “brotherly” overtures, couched in arrogant and condescending terms.

There remain only those regions neglected by the West, a West constantly disparaged in the corridors of Ankara, the columns of Turkish newspapers and the mosques of Anatolia. For instance, African resentment towards Europe, still viewed as a colonizer, is exploited by Turkish diplomacy, as was seen during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent tour of the continent. In four days (February 26—March 2 2018), the Turkish president visited Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal and Mali.

His goal was two-fold: weaving ties of identity by stressing the extent to which Africa was exploited by Europe3 (and not by the Turks, because, of course, he failed to mention the time when the Mediterranean shores were under Ottoman domination), not only to stimulate mutual trade but also to win the support of African countries at the UN, where Turkey is lobbying for a change in the Security Council system.4

His other goal did not seem quite so noble: to pursue the dismantling of the network of Gülen schools and business men. Throughout the first decade of the new century, these constituted the AKP’s chief instrument ; but since the fratricidal war with the Gülen movement began around 2010 they have become just so many enemies to be brought low. Inconsistency again.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: The SCO is an Asian regional and intergovernmental organization founded in Shanghai on 14 and 15 June 2001. It originally included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, India and Pakistan. Turkey belongs to the SCO as a “dialogue partner,” but is not a member.

2The huge palace that President Erdoğan built in Ankara is called “AkSaray, an allusion both to the name of the ruling political party, which its supporters call “AkParti”: the white party (as opposed to AKP, a name condemned by Erdoğan) and to the name by which the Turks call the White House in Washington, DC, “Beyaz Saray”, ak and beyaz being synonymous.

3Already in 2017 Erdoğan had touched on the subject, especially in Tanzania: “Tell me, for the love of Allah, was not this Africa looted for years on end?”

4Erdoğan dwells on the fact that while there are 196 nations represented in the UN, only 5 decide on the fate of the world and all are Christian (a declaration made in 2016 before an assembly of local mayors)—therefore considering China to be a Christian country.