Turkey implemented a “zero problems with neighbors” policy in 2004, but now seems to have become neighborless.
In the mid-2000s, Turkish foreign policy was one of the most praised in the world. Under the newly-elected Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish diplomacy launched a torrent of new initiatives. Ankara achieved the long-awaited launch of Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU in 2004. On a bilateral level, Turkey backed the “Annan plan” for reunification of Cyprus and started a normalization process with Armenia. Davutoglu considered the latter as the best example of the implementation of his zero problems policy. Ankara also repaired its relations with Iraq and Syria, which had become marred as a result of the Kurdish question. Apart from bilateral relations, Turkish foreign policy-makers initiated a series of regional mediations. The country hosted talks between Israel and Palestine, between Israel and Syria, and between Serbia and Bosnia. It further claimed to achieve Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in the region. At present, however, Turkey’s zero problems policy is stuck with seven world capitals now without Turkish ambassadors.
Enter the military
Before the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, Turkey was a country in which the military pursued its own foreign policy. The general staff even signed treaties with Israel in the 1990s—in contradiction to governmental policy. The military held sway over foreign policy—keeping a large number of troops in Cyprus and making incursions into Northern Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels. On the domestic front, too, the military’s role became legalized since 1960 as it established precedent by toppling Islamist governments.
It therefore comes as no surprise that the AKP—whose roots can be traced to the Islamist movement known as National Outlook—tried to wrestle power from the military. In 2003-04, the AKP capitalized on the EU preconditions to make legislative and constitutional amendments that seriously curtailed military influence. By the same token, Turkey’s reconciliation with Iraq and Cyprus undermined the military’s sway over foreign policy.
As the AKP strengthened its hold on power and jailed scores of generals in the period following the 2007 election, Turkey lost any incentive for EU accession as well as for the good-neighborhood policies.
Enter the Islamic Factor
The Foreign Ministry was traditionally considered to be a pillar of Turkish secularism and Western orientation. Newly-appointed foreign ministers generally complied with the Ministry’s traditions and secular character. AKP members Abdullah Gul (2003-07) and Ali Babacan (2007-09) both were Western-educated pragmatists seeking to strengthen Turkey’s position through international cooperation and economic ties.
In 2009, upon assuming the role of foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu acted more like an ideologue than his predecessors. The new minister declared his intentions to “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus” using the Ottoman model. In the ensuing period, he amended the Law on the Statute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to appoint non-diplomats as ambassadors. Among these was Ahmet Kavas, a theologian who became known for his sympathy toward al Qaeda.
As the Arab Spring unfolded, Davutoglu claimed that Turkey will lead the changes in the region, viewing this as an opportunity to incorporate Sunni Islamists in positions of power. This sunnification of Turkish foreign policy led to a deterioration of relations with Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. Consequently, Ankara leaned toward associating Turkey’s national interests with sectarian solidarity.
As retired Turkish ambassador Umit Pamir put it, “The question that many people are asking now is: Has Turkey changed the definition of its national interests? They wonder whether Turkey is redefining these interests in accordance with religious motives. At times I suspect that myself.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not only famous for his authoritarian manner of governing but his contempt toward diplomacy and diplomats. His verbal attacks against his diplomats as snobs resulted in the diplomats’ collective demarche in 2010. Yet this does not tell the entire story. Erdogan’s angry tirades often lead to a deterioration of Turkey’s relations with other states, including its own neighbors.
In 2013, Serbian President Nikolic declined Ankara’s offer to mediate between Serbia and Bosnia, following remarks Erdogan made on Kosovo. By the same token, Egypt expelled Turkey’s ambassador after Erdogan bashed Egypt’s new authorities. Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria had an ironic ending, with Ankara withdrawing its ambassadors from both countries. Finally, the normalization process with Armenia, launched by Presidents Abdullah Gul and Serzh Sargsyan, was eventually obliterated by Erdogan.
A Neighborless Foreign Policy
Turkey has entered a new phase in its foreign policy, having developed problematic relations with the bulk of its neighbors. Its weakened military is unable to push the AKP to pursue EU-mandated reforms and reconciliation with neighbors. Davutoglu and Erdogan also continue their pan-Islamist policies.
Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, has termed this new epoch in Turkish foreign policy as “precious loneliness” because it is a “value-based” policy against “immoral” actors in international relations.
In order for this epoch to yield to new policies, we shall have to wait either for changes in the world or changes in Turkey. In order to “deserve” Turkish amicability, the world must become more “valuable.”
Similarly, for the Middle East to have Islamist governments, the West to curb media that is critical of Turkey, the US to quell the Israel lobby, Armenia to remain silent about the genocide, and as a more recent example, some African states must shut down Gulen schools in their respective countries.
Another scenario for correcting this “precious loneliness” policy is change within Turkey. In order for Turkey to shift its policy, the AKP must be sidelined. This month’s parliamentary elections demonstrated that this is not as much of a long shot as observers may otherwise believe. The AKP has finally lost its absolute majority in parliament and will be forced to form a coalition government. In such a scenario, the AKP is more likely to adopt a moderate tone as it had a decade earlier.
Ironically, the development of new challenges on the domestic front could very well manifest in a foreign policy shift which seeks “zero problems” abroad.