Re-interpreting Turkish Foreign Policy

Selim Kuneralp 20.01.2011

I am very happy to have the opportunity to speak this evening and I should like to thank Carnegie Europe for having invited me. It is also a pleasure to be sitting at the same table with Sinan Ülgen. The first time I met Sinan was at his parents’ place in Ankara; he must have been about seven years old. When he saw me, he hid under the table. Since then, our relationship has evolved as you can see. In the meantime, he has also been an outstanding colleague with whom I enjoyed working during my first posting in Brussels some fifteen years ago.

I am also very happy to see Ria Oomen-Ruijten here this evening. I have not known her for as long as I have known Sinan but since taking up my present duties in Brussels last year, I have appreciated her commitment to her task as rapporteur of the European Parliament on Turkey. While we do not always see eye-to-eye, I am grateful for the very professional and open-minded way in which she carries out her duties.

It is of course with great interest that I have read Sinan’s paper and accepted the invitation to comment on it this evening. What I can say at the outset is that there are many things that I agree with in the paper, but also some that I don’t agree with. However, I should also add that even though I do not agree with everything that he has said, I still think that his analysis is well worth reading by anyone who is interested in the course that Turkish foreign policy has been taking in the last few years.

It is fashionable these days for some observers of Turkish foreign policy to say that it is changing direction, moving away from the West and becoming more focused on its immediate neighbourhood. In his paper, Sinan does not go as far as that, but he does speak of a reorientation of Turkey’s foreign policy.

My thesis would be that it is not so much Turkey’s foreign policy that is changing but the world around us that is doing that. For a long period until about 20 years ago, Europe was stuck in the Cold War with rigid alliances that reduced everyone’s freedom of manoeuvre. The Middle East was not involved in this game of alliances except for the brief period of the Baghdad Pact that linked Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan in a military alliance to the UK and USA. However, for much of the post-World War II period, the countries of the Middle East were aligned with one bloc or another despite their claim of non-alignment. As a result, except for the Arab-Israeli dispute and the ensuing armed conflicts, relative stability prevailed in the region. As a country firmly anchored with the West, Turkey could take a relatively aloof position with respect to the few potential sources of dispute in its neighbourhood. Even during the Iraq-Iran war, Turkey did not feel any particular obligation or pressure to intervene.

All this changed with the end of the Cold War. A completely new situation arose not just in the Middle East but in all of the regions surrounding Turkey, particularly the Caucasus and the Balkans. All sorts of ethnic conflicts broke out and divisions that had been papered over for decades became much more visible. Turkey could no longer remain indifferent to its surroundings. Stability in the region had always been a primary objective of Turkish foreign policy. In addition, the remarkable evolution of the Turkish economy that Sinan rightly points to, made this objective even more crucial. Having become much more open to the outside world, the Turkish economy needed to develop markets in its neighbourhood. Growing trade links require stability. Turkey has therefore felt the need to play a role in ensuring stability in its region, including out of self-interest, if I may put it crudely.

As a result, Turkey has tried to play a role in helping to resolve conflicts and preserve peace in its neighbourhood. We have played a constructive role in the Balkans where we work together with the European Union in several countries. We have tried to help develop dialogue between Syria and Israel with some success at first. The situation in Iraq whose internal stability remains of paramount importance to Turkey has required active involvement and dialogue with all the disparate forces present in that country. Turkey has also attempted to play a role in helping to solve the issue arising out of the Iranian nuclear programme.

In all these efforts, Turkey’s objectives have coincided with those of its partners in the international community, and more particularly in the West. If we look at the Iranian problem, we have always made it clear that we are opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in our region. In that sense, we have adopted a more logical and internally consistent position than some of our partners and allies who have tacitly accepted that some countries in the region be allowed to develop such weapons.

The difference in approach with some of our partners has been in relation to tactics rather than strategy. We have favoured the use of dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation and sanctions simply because sanctions very rarely manage to make the targeted countries change their positions. On the other hand, they have all sorts of unintended but nevertheless real harmful effects on innocent bystanders such as Turkey, as we have seen on several occasions in the past. The fact that the parties have chosen to meet in Istanbul for their first substantive discussion on this subject in more than a year vindicates the position that we have taken. If we have voted against sanctions at the Security Council last year, it is therefore not because we supported the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme but simply because we wanted to give diplomacy a chance. In fact, as a responsible member of the international community, Turkey has implemented those sanctions.

I therefore do not agree with Sinan that “Turkey’s Iran diplomacy has opened a rift between Ankara and its Western partners.” It is true that our Security Council vote took some by surprise but we have been able to explain our reasons to the satisfaction of our partners. Another point on which I do not agree with him is his assessment that the “dream of EU membership has dissolved so thoroughly that it no longer anchors Turkish foreign and domestic policy”.

It is of course true that Turkey’s relationship with the European Union is going through a very difficult patch. More than five years after the negotiations started only thirteen chapters have been opened and only one has been provisionally closed. Some eighteen chapters are blocked for political reasons that are not directly relevant to the individual chapters concerned. As a result, there is a growing feeling of frustration and despondency in Turkey and as Sinan rightly points out public support in Turkey for membership is shrinking rapidly.

However, one should not jump to conclusions. The government has certainly not given up the goal of membership. Work continues to be done though far from the limelight on aligning Turkey’s legislation and practice with those of the EU. EU standards play an increasing role in everyday life, in all sorts of areas ranging from advertising for medical services to food security.

What is more, past experience has shown that situations such as the one that we find ourselves in can be reversed very quickly. Unfortunately, there is clearly a difference of opinion within the EU as to the finality of Turkey’s relationship with Europe and in particular whether it should lead to accession. This is of course very disappointing because accession has been the eventual objective of Turkey’s relationship with the EU ever since this relationship was first established in our Association Agreement of 1963. Commitments to that effect have repeatedly been made in the intervening period, most recently when the decision to start accession negotiations was taken by the EU in 2004. It is therefore sad to see these commitments set aside by some member states with a dismissive gesture, if I may put it this way. However, when Prime Minister Erdoğan has recently –as Sinan puts it- “called on the EU to clearly determine its stance on Turkey”, there was no authorised and unanimous response. Instead, the Foreign Ministers of four EU countries (Sweden, UK, Finland, Italy) published an article in the “International Herald Tribune” supporting Turkey’s accession in heart-warming tones while other countries have continued to express scepticism at all levels. This shows that on this subject too there is no definitive position in the EU.

Consequently, I do not think that the final word has been said about this subject and that it is certainly too soon to draw the type of conclusion that Sinan does. In any case, and as I have tried to explain, there is still a very important convergence of interests and objectives between Turkey and the EU in relation to the problems that beset our region. In many ways, our approaches to the Middle East problem, to the invasion of Iraq and its sequels and other such issues are closer to those of the EU than to those of the US.

I will stop here in order to allow for an interactive discussion. However, before giving up the floor, I should once again commend Sinan for his work and warmly encourage those of you who have not yet read his paper to do so.