Turkey’s location impacts too much its foreign policy for the ages. First of all, Anatolia is a special place between the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. It was always an important place for the Romans, for the Greeks, Arabs, Iranians, and Russians. It has always been between important sea ways and trade routes. Anatolia is a passage between different cultures and religions. If a country is located in such a special place, it needs a special foreign policy to protect its interests and to maintain its relations with the neighboring regions. The Anatolian political and economic order needs to be integrated with that of the Balkans and the Caucasus, and with that of today’s Middle Eastern systems, for otherwise it cannot maintain its sovereignty, development, independence, or peace. Turks, during the Ottoman era, first integrated the Anatolian territories and then moved to the territories that connect Anatolia to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. That is why the first sultans of the Ottoman Empire gave great importance to integrating the Balkans and Asia Minor before integrating the Black Sea region and the Caucasian and Middle Eastern territories nearby.
Now, times have changed. Today, you cannot conquer countries by invading them; this is not the way to protect your interests. Wars, territorial wars, are not effective to unite peoples and countries. From satellite systems to the communication revolution to the transportation revolution, the needs of the information age are completely different than those of the past regarding foreign relations. Today’s Turkey still needs to integrate the surrounding regions, but the methods will be different, and in today’s world Turkey cannot impose its ideas and policies on the surrounding countries. Turkey, unlike the Ottoman Empire, should not dictate policies and should not aim to be a hegemonic state in the region.
Turkey first needs to integrate the surrounding regions, which had collapsed by the First World War. The global powers’ mistakes during the 20th century unfortunately increased the disintegration of the region. For example, in the Middle East, the deadly impacts of the Palestinian-Israel problem and the wrongs of the great powers regarding the region decreased democracy, tolerance, co-operation, stability and economic development. The leaders of these countries are afraid of each other.
There is a huge problem of mistrust among the leaders of the region, and they look for friends outside the region instead of concentrating on cooperation and dialogue amongst themselves. Turkey was one such country at the end of the Cold War. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the bipolar system, Turkey gained more room to maneuver in the region and discovered that the main problem was mistrust between regional countries. Turkey understood that regional countries had to develop a common understanding to solve their own problems and that regional, local prescriptions instead of outside powers’ solutions were needed. But the problem during the 1990s was that Turkey’s economy was limited, and Turkey’s problems with the neighboring countries were still hot and fresh. For instance, the PKK terrorism problem between Turkey and Syria was a very big barrier between the two countries. Syria was supporting PKK terrorists against Turkey, and it was impossible for the two countries to develop a close friendship. With the death of Hafez al-Assad, Syria changed. And after the 1999 earthquake, the 2001 economic crisis in Turkey, and the grave political changes following these events, Turkey also changed. Both states need each other. Syria seeks to break the isolation and to integrate with the rest of the world. However the problems with Israel prevent its integration attempts with the West. Turkey plays a crucial role in normalization process of the country. Similarly co-operation with Syria helps Turkey in security and trade areas. Syria is a gateway to the Arab world. Good relations between to countries encourage the other Arab states to develop their relations with Turkey. Furthermore both state sees the Kurdish issue as a common problem. US President George W. Bush’s wrongs in the Middle East feared both Turkey and Syria and these two states made co-operation to prevent the deadly effects of the US’ Iraq politics during the Bush era.
DIRECTION OF TURKISH FOREIGN POLICY CHANGED OVER TIME?
With the AK Party (Justice and Development Party) government, Turkey declared a new foreign policy understanding. The architect of this new foreign policy understanding is Ahmet Davutoglu, an International Relations professor. He calls his understanding “strategic depth”, or a “zero problem with neighbors foreign policy”. Although we must accept the change, actually this is not a deviation from the Turkish foreign policy orthodoxy. There is a great continuation in Turkish foreign policy understanding and implementation. The only difference is that as Turkey and the world have changed over the years, Turkey’s relations with the outside world have evolved accordingly. In the 1950s, for example, Turkey was quite a poor country, and although the Turkish football team had qualified to participate in the World Cup tournament in 1950, it was in Latin America, and Turkey did not have the financial resources to send its football team to the tournament. Imagine how poor Turkey was. (Now we have money, but our football team cannot qualify for the tournament!) The financial power of a country certainly shapes its diplomacy and external relations. Now, the Turkish foreign minister, president, prime minister, each of the heads of the Turkish military forces, have their own jets. Turkey’s foreign policy infrastructure has also been much improved with the economic boom in the Turkish economy, and this has created political improvements as well.
Turkey, after the AK Party’s rise to power, first aimed to solve its problems with neighboring countries. First, Turkey started a dialogue process and created new dialogue channels. Syria-Turkey relations would be a perfect example of this new foreign policy understanding. Since 2003, Turkish high ranked politicians have visited Damascus more than 100 times. This is unusual for the Middle East region, whose leaders normally do not visit each other so frequently. For example, Iranian president Ahmadinejad visited Istanbul last year for the first time in nearly 12 years. When President Abdullah Gul visited Saudi Arabia he became the first Turkish President who visited the country in last 19 years. But in Western European political life, the German and French prime ministers see each other two or three times every month, sometimes every week. There are many occasions for European prime ministers to meet, such as the NATO summits, UN, OECD, World Bank, IMF, G7, G20, European Union meetings, historical days and their own bilateral negotiations and meetings. Turkey that’s why concentrates on more visits between the regional countries. Moreover if any leader has problem with another one in the region Turkey involves the problem and make efforts to overcome the distrust or animosity between the leaders as we experienced in Syrian-Saudi leaders case. It can be said that the dialogue and strengthening of the communication ways are at the heart of the new Turkish understanding.
Apart from Syria, Turkey has made efforts to improve its relations with Iraq and Iran too. But the problem with Iraq was that it was in a state of conflict and war, and it was almost impossible to improve relations, especially in the economic and political areas. The problem with Iran is trust. Historically, Turkey and Iran have been completely different leaders of the Muslim countries. Turkey has been the leader of the Sunni Muslims and Iran has been the leader of the Shia communities. Turkey has always represented a more moderate religious understanding. As a matter of fact, the ethnic difference between the countries is not so large. More than 30 percent of the Iranian population is Turkish origin – Azeri and Turkmen. And until the 20th century, Iran had been governed by Turkish leaders for centuries. One example of this relationship is the famous war between Yavuz Sultan Selim and Shah Ismail. Yavuz Sultan Selim was one of the greatest Ottoman Sultans, and Shah Ismail was the greatest Iranian Shah. Shah Ismail was Turkish, as was, of course, Yavuz. Yavuz would send a letter in Persian and Ismail would respond with a letter in Turkish, for the Iranian palace leaders spoke Turkish until the 20th century. The two countries’ ethnic compositions are very similar, but the problem is they represent completely different religious understandings. Istanbul was the capital of moderate, or liberal, religious understanding.
The biggest problem between Turkey and Iran today is mistrust. Some of the Iranians still see Turkey as an agent of the Western world, as an agent of the United States and the European Union, and they think that Turkey may undermine Iranian sovereignty and Iranian dominance in the region. Even during the Ottoman time, though the Ottomans were stronger than the Iranians, Iran cooperated with the Vatican, the center of Christianity. Iran cooperated with Christian countries against Muslim countries. It is even the case now that Iran’s one of the closest allies is Russia. And in the conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, Iran has better relations with the Christian Armenians. This is not a matter only of religion; the realpolitik side must be taken into account as well. Turkey is trying to alleviate the mistrust between the two countries, saying “Forget the past; let’s create the future.” For the new Turkish understanding Iran is not a competitor but one of the most important partners in the Middle East for Turkey.
Turkey first aims to solve its hot and current problems. Then the second step of this understanding is to set up a foundation for future political cooperation. Turkey does not start with the sensitive political issues. Turkey is not involving itself in the internal problems of other countries. First of all it is trying to establish economic cooperation and trying to increase social relations between the countries and between the societies. The aim is to establish long-lasting dialogue and cooperation, or the institutionalization of regional cooperation. Maybe economic integration would be possible after that, but it is still early for such cooperation. We need a safe base for the politics and economic-social tools will provide that needed base for the leaders.
FIRST TRADE, NOT POLITICS
In the past, the regional states mostly discussed, or argued about, ‘big’ political problems. But now, Turkey is not talking about politics, but also economics, as well as technical questions such as transportation infrastructure, visas regimes, and tourism. As a matter of fact this is the spirit of the EU. After World War II, the EU countries began to cooperate on economic and technical matters, and the spillover effect eventually led to more and more political cooperation. In 2009 Turkey and Syria for example reached a visa-free partnership after many co-operation efforts.
Turkey applied to the EU (EEC at that time) in 1959 and we have many written agreements between the EU and Turkey. Turkey is now in full membership negotiations. But although Turkey and the EU have been partners for more than a half-century, they have not been able to reach a visa-free agreement. So Turkey-Syria relations have progressed faster than Turkey-EU relations, at least with respect to the visa process. Some say we cannot establish Schengen regime, but we have Shamgan, in reference to the Turkish name for Damascus, Sham.
Another success is the establishment of common cabinet meetings between Turkey and Syria, and of course between Turkey and Iraq. Usually countries cannot establish such cabinet meetings, and very few countries in the world have done so. For example, Germany and France have common cabinet meetings. Now Turkey and Syria, and Turkey and Iraq have common cabinet meetings, and ministers meet at least once a month.
Turkey further does not ‘allow’ any conflict between its neighboring countries. For example, Baghdad accused Damascus of ‘encouraging’ terrorism inside Iraq. Damascus denied the accusation and the relations strained. Turkey immediately got involved and asked them not to go to the media. The Turkish foreign minister visited Damascus and Baghdad and convinced the leaders to come to Istanbul and Ankara to solve the problem. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had a disagreement, and both leaders were so reluctant to get together. Turkey persuaded Assad to visit Saudi Arabia first; he agreed on the condition of the Saudi Arabian king returning the visit. So, thanks to Turkey’s efforts, the two leaders solved the issue and paid mutual visits for the first time in more than five years.
TURKISH ECONOMY AS THE DETERMANT OF EXTERNAL RELATIONS
Turkish economy, in terms of trade, direct Turkish investments, foreign investments in Turkey, tourism, industrial production etc., has boomed in the last five-six years. Growing economy directly affect Turkey’s external relations and increase capabilities of Turkish diplomacy. The economy also strengthens Turkey’s soft power over its region. Millions of people thanks to tourism come to Turkey and visit seaside resorts; Iranians, Israelis, Arabs, Russians, Georgians etc. enjoy the Turkish way of life.
Turkish cultural products are also part of its soft power and affect the Middle Eastern societies. For example, in the Arab world the most popular television drama series are recently Turkish (like ‘Gümü’â¢’, ‘Nur’ in Arabic; ‘Years of Loss’; ‘Bouquet of Flowers’ etc.), and Turkish satellite TV shows have an audience of millions in the region. Turkish soaps such as ‘Nur’, , which was first dubbed into the Syrian Arabic dialect to be broadcast on Arab satellite channels rapidly captured the attention of various groups of society, not only women. These drama series have previously been dubbed into German, Romanian and other European languages to be broadcast in Europe.
Tourism and culture relations are not just business; they affect culture, political understanding and many other things. The television dramas for example deal with social issues within the framework of overlapping stories and dramatic plots for suspense. These series look at issues such as love, family values, society, unemployment, poverty and greed from a Turkish angle.
Turkey with its success stories and export products shapes these countries, these societies’ structures, but not by imposing or dictating change. Turkey knows each country has its own story. If you try to change their leaders, their regimes, you cannot get results you expect. We need time and we need different methods. Of course the improvement of democracy, human rights standards, and transparency all are Turkish foreign policy’s preferences, but Turkey or any other country should not dictate something to these countries. Turkey is trying to be a model and therefore first has to improve itself before dictating democracy or human rights standards to other countries. First, Turkey is improving its own political life, maturing its own political culture, and it gives inspiration to other countries. For example, Iranians, Syrians, even Saudi Arabians look at the Turkish experience and they see that the Turks are Muslim, Turks are Middle Eastern, Turks are like us, and they can be democratic, they can be rich, they can be like the Western nations, so all are possible. Turkey shows other nations that such a path is possible, that liberal democracy and liberal economy with a huge Muslim population (as seen in the Turkish experience) do not cause instability and chaos. Arabs and Persians fear instability and chaos, and are afraid that more democracy, more rights may cause anarchy. But Turkey proves the reverse is true.
The second thing that the Turkish experience proves is that true friendship, reliable partnership between Turkey and the Western countries is possible. There are not many success stories between the West and the Muslim world. Al Qaeda and other extremist violent terrorist organizations argue that the Western people are enemies of the Muslim people. The United States and European countries, they argue, aim to undermine Islam and to take natural resources without paying anything. If Turkey can be successful in its relations with the EU, for example if Turkey can be a full member of the EU, with its Turkish identity and Muslim religion, it will be a success story and a model, an inspiration for the rest of the Muslim countries.
TURKEY DOES NOT CHALLENGE THE WEST AND WESTERN VALUES
Lately, there have been claims that Turkey is shifting its foreign policy focus. Some columnists have recently argued that Turkey’s foreign policy direction is changing, that the new government is shifting Turkish foreign policy from the West to the East. I disagree. Turkey is expanding its foreign policy, not shifting it.
Turkey applied to the EU for full membership, and in 2005 EU leaders confirmed Turkey’s standing and decided that Turkey’s human rights standards, economic development, and political maturity were sufficient for full EU membership. The negotiation process was set up to improve the details. So, in principle, Turkey could be a full member of the EU. As a matter today Turkey’s economy and political life are much better than some of the EU members. But Germany’s Merkel, France’s Sarkozy, and some other leaders in some of the EU countries are preventing Turkey’s membership. If EU countries were to accept Turkey as a full member today, Turkey would be ready to be a EU country. The current government has no problem with the West, or the EU and, when compared with previous Turkish governments, Turkey is much closer to EU membership. The problem in becoming an EU country, a full Western country, is not on the Turkish but the EU side. As President Abdullah Gul underlined in his USAK Speech on 4 November 2009 one who is interested in Turkey’s ultimate direction should look at the values of Turkey not the appearance. Turkey strengthens its Western values, like democracy and liberal economy.
Turkish - European interaction started almost a thousand years ago and Turkey immensely influenced the continent’s political, economic, social and cultural life. In return, the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and the French Revolution played a crucial part in the transformation of Ottoman Empire, and the creation of modern Turkey. Both sides shaped each other and a European history cannot be written without Turks. It is obvious that Turks are European for the centuries. Europe is a deniable part of Turkish identity and at the same time Europe is the homeland of the Turkish people. Integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions stood out as a prime objective for Turkey and it was among the founding members of the United Nations and the Council of Europe and attained memberships to the OECD and NATO. Turkey was a pivotal member of the NATO alliance during the tense years of the Cold War. Turks protected the Western Europeans and the free world from the Soviet threat at a high cost. Turkey still actively contributes to efforts to protect the Western values in the world and to bring lasting peace, stability and prosperity to regions ranging from Afghanistan to the Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East. In 1963, Turkey signed an Association Agreement, which set joining the European Communities as a goal. Accession negotiations with the EU were initiated in 2005. Turkey has launched a national mobilization to do what needs to be done. Every Ministry, every state institution, the academia, the civil society is engaged with a view to bringing all of our country into this modernization project. Moreover Turkey starts a campaign against the militarist factors (deep state) inside the state. Moreover the new Turkish policies regarding the Kurdish issue, Armenian issue and the human rights were beyond the EU’s imagination. In brief Turkey continues its reforms but generally the EU is falling short in its performance. It is obvious that Turkey’s activism in the east does not keep back Turkey from the EU direction.
WHY SYRIA AND IRAN?
The second thing some columnists in the Western media ask is why Turkey is improving its relations with Syria and Iran, the most problematic countries in the world. It seems they are right; maybe Turkey should improve its relations with so-called ‘better countries’, like France, Germany, or Italy, but the problem is that Turkey’s neighbors are Syria and Iran, not Germany or France. We cannot change our neighbors. Maybe ‘these neighbors are from Hell’ as the West sees them, but they are still our neighbors. States cannot change their locations. We have to first change our neighbors’ nature if we are not happy with them and then we have to ‘tame’, I think, these countries and persuade them to cooperate. Turkey has to make them true neighbors, genuine and truthful partners. If Turkey were between France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, then of course everything would be different. But our neighbors are relatively poor and problematic countries; they are not fully democratic. We are so close to Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Israel etc. Turkey has to accept its situation and change it with time. Turkey should not be accused of improving its relations with its neighbors. And it should be remembered that France for example has better economic relations with many Middle Eastern countries than Turkey has. So, do we accuse France of shifting its foreign policy to the East? No. Every country has the right to improve its relations with any other country in the world. And if something is acceptable for France, it should be acceptable for Turkey as well.