20 May 2010
The main axis of a normal state is itself and its neighborhood. And a country that cannot stand on its own feet is not able to determine an axis in its foreign policy, because a line does not exist without a starting point.
Countries that have difficulty in standing on their own feet pursue survival policies rather than following their own policies. These countries which try to exploit the rivalry between others are most of the time at the mercy of others. Unfortunately, from the periods of standstill-collapse of the Ottoman Empire till recent years, Turkey has tried to clarify its axis and has tried to survive amidst the rivalries of other countries instead of being a country having a certain orientation. Weakness is the main characteristic of this condition. Political weakness has come together with economic and military weakness. To be honest, Abdulhamid II, Ataturk, Inonu and all the others strived for "survival" and all had the ideal that "sooner or later one day we will establish our own axis". Even though they had different methods, the Committee of Union and Progress, Menderes, Ecevit, and Ozal all had the same goal.
Today, Turkey is a more powerful country. When their head of state goes to the United States for instance, the Turks no longer ask Washington to reimburse the travel expenses. We are talking about the 16th largest economy in the world: Turkey. Of course, such an economic power will have a foreign policy proportionate to its economy.
As a matter of fact, as Turkish foreign policy has gained momentum and has harmonized with its surroundings, it has become something more than a survival policy and has begun to establish its own world. Beyond working to solve neglected regional problems, Turkey is also encouraging the neighboring countries to act together and create a common region. What is more, Turkey, by being aware that there is not so much time for realizing these goals, has been quickly trying to open doors for dialogue and cooperation and to make this cooperation constant and progressive before the region turns into a ’fireball’.
Everything will be much clearer if we take a look at the week of May 9-16 of Turkish diplomacy:
On the 9th of May, a Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad was in Turkey with his wife. On the same day, Al-Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, was in Istanbul as well. President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan had breakfast and lunch and carried out a workshop with the two leaders. The Iranian Foreign Minister and the President of the Parliament were also in Istanbul and had a very heavy schedule pertaining to nuclear issues. Before the Istanbul Summit loses its effect, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev made his first visit to Turkey. Seventeen treaties were signed and a target of over 100 billion dollars in foreign trade was set during the visit. Furthermore, a visa requirement between the two countries has become a thing of the past. Though Turkey could not abolish the visa requirements of the EU, it has been able to abolish visas with Russia, following similar agreements with Syria, Jordan, Libya, and Lebanon. In addition, Turkey, which has large gas and oil projects with Russia, gave a nuclear plant tender to Russia at this time. Before Medvedev’s visit had lost its effect, an expedition to Greece with 10 ministers and 300 businessmen was begun. Both sides made brave statements and 22 treaties were signed. Turkey proposed for the planes to fly without arms and for both countries not to take up arms against each other. The most sensitive issues, even the minorities issue, bravely came to the table for the first time this much. This "expedition" to Greece was historical in every aspect, just like Medvedev’s visit to Turkey.
Syria, Qatar, Iran, Russia, and Greece were all fit into one week. Of course while all these meetings were happening, the Turkish Foreign Ministry continued to deal with many issues in world politics. While these sentences are written, Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu was in Tehran. While the entire world watches the Iranian Nuclear Crisis with curiosity and worry, Turkey takes initiatives again and again. Sometimes it acts alone and sometimes it acts together with countries like Brazil. The aim here is to prevent a new armed conflict in the region and to solve the crisis with the help of diplomacy. Therefore, Turkey will be able to stand without sustaining any damage, as in the Iraq War, and also Iran will be able to focus on trade and cooperation with its neighbors rather than focusing on the crisis.
Turkey plays an active role not only in the Iranian crisis, but also in ending the deadlock in the Balkans and making peace between former Yugoslavian republics. On the other side, it tries to end resentments between the Arabs in the Middle East and to bring them closer together. It makes the same efforts in Caucasus, yet the process in this region more difficult and drawn out because the area is narrow and the large countries do not help.
In conclusion, Turkey plays a leading role in many regional issues more than a mediator. In respect to solving the problems and facilitating cooperation, Turkey neither waits for an invitation from other countries, nor waits for a Western country to start an initiative. Instead, Turkey, which takes care of the region as if it were its own territory, says "if we do not solve this problem, someone else will come and try to solve the problem and this may cause some undesired results".
Turkey saves its own region and builds it up at the same time.
In short, the axis is newly being clarified. A chain of relations is coming into existence centralizing around Turkey and expanding through the neighborhood. Indeed, there is nothing odd or to worry about. Turkey now makes the policies that it wanted to make a long time ago but that were impossible to realize. While doing this, of course, Turkey has started to move more independently of the West. What is so strange about this? Being independent from the West is not the same as being anti-Western. While continuing to direct its main political and economic values towards the West, Ankara is trying to establish more Turkey-centric foreign relations. If Turkey can stand more strongly on its own feet and if the problems around it can be solved one by one, then at that moment, Turkey will be able to be stronger in its relations with the EU and the U.S.
Last but not least, it may be convenient to give some warnings about Turkish foreign policy at the end of this column. Above all, we should also remember that the most valuable ideas are in criticism.
First of all, it is not correct to exaggeratedly cheer for all the treaties signed and to excitedly think that all the issues have been solved. It is necessary to act more temperately while giving such impressions to the public. For instance, the Russian "issue" has been an issue for at least 200 years, and it is hard to change it within a short time period no matter how many treaties you make. You may have some improvements in the Black Sea and energy with Russia but it is not enough to believe that Russia has given up its strategic and historical aims. Furthermore, it is necessary to keep in mind that the treaties we signed favor Russia more, that our dependence on Moscow in nuclear energy has increased along with our dependence on Russian gas, and the lion’s share of profits will be Russia’s if trade increases to 100 billion dollars. In the same way, we should be aware that we are not able to see a concrete improvement beyond rhetoric with Greece, as well. It is better to put the other side first in the "euphoria of victory" rather than ourselves.
Second, it is good to make treaties, but you should know that once they have been signed you have taken on a big responsibility. In money-centric issues especially, like energy, a treaty may take the income of the next generations from their hands. As we are the victims of the bad treaties made in the past, Turkey should not repeat the same mistakes by being besotted with the "we are making peace with everyone" campaign. Foreign relations should not be dealt with in a hurry as it could be hard to recover from a mistake. Foreign policy does not aim to make a number of treaties in many countries but to protect national interests.
Another criticism of the direction of our foreign policy is that the necessary infrastructure does not exist yet. Under these circumstances, it is much harder for the bureaucracy to reach the dreams of Davutoglu or Erdogan. In such a busy foreign policy environment, the establishment of the infrastructure of treaties, visits and so forth is of vital importance. Even though it seems that the efforts made without preparing the public opinion have produced good results in a short time period, if the expected results are not reached in the long run then the feeling of things being left half finished may be reinforced.
Lastly, it is necessary to be more persistent with Turkey’s EU membership process and to give the EU aim a higher priority on the agenda. I am aware that the EU does not seem so eager. Yet, an important part of contemporary civilization to be reached by Turkey is in Western Europe. What is more, over half of Turkey’s economic relations is with EU countries. In other words, like the Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East, Europe is also our home. However, we should not forget that while there are many things to be adopted from the EU such as democratization, rule of law, scientific and artistic maturation, the things that may be taken from our neighbors like Syria, Russia, and Iran are quite limited. It can even be said that Turkey has more things to give to Syria then it can take from Syria.
The list of criticisms can be extended. Yet, in order to be fair and make constructive contributions, we will stop at this point.
Is Turkey’s axis being shifted?
It is apparent that Turkey’s axis is not shifted; rather, its axis is being clarified.
In the past, Turkey was not able act independently in its foreign relations, but is now becoming more independent. As it becomes a more independent actor, it establishes "an axis centered on itself".
The text was translated from Turkish by Gamze Coskun, an USAK expert at the USAK Centre for Middle Eastern Studies