This has been an extremely challenging year for Turkish foreign policy decision-makers. On many fronts, Turkish foreign policy went through difficult times. One of the primary markers of 2013 was that it confirmed the end of a relatively successful era from 2003 to 2010. The first seven years of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) foreign policy were marked by a conceptual repositioning of Turkey. Turkey began to balance its relations between East and West and gave new impetus to Turkey’s place in the neighborhood. The diversification of Turkey’s trade portfolio was accompanied by an increase in exports and the penetration of new markets, notably in Africa and the Middle East. Turkey’s reintegration into its neighborhood continued successfully during those years. Turkey’s soft power and international stature rose considerably.
The eruption of the Arab Awakening was a turning point for Turkish foreign policy. Initially, Turkey managed the process rather well, and events in the region were moving in Ankara’s favor. However, Syria changed all of that. Let us be fair. We were not the only ones who mismanaged Syria, but we have paid the most for it. First, we overestimated our influence over Assad. Then, we moved to another extreme and took an inflexible position with little room to maneuver. True, the initial signals from Washington were confusing, but in the end we were unable to read US President Barack Obama’s administration correctly. The steadfast support of Russia, Iran and China for Assad also came as a surprise. We were right in hosting the civilian opposition in Turkey, but hosting the military opposition was a mistake. The administration of the border is altogether a problematic issue. We are now confronted with the potential breakup of Syria and the emergence of jihadist emirates there as well as the continuing social and economic burden of more than 700,000 refugees in our territory.
2013 confirmed that our human and material resources were not adequate to deal with the formidable challenges of the Middle East alone. Similar to what happened in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the Caucasus and Central Asia, we will have to learn to adopt a more modest and sober approach toward the region. The gap between the political discourse and our capabilities is obvious and needs to be adjusted. Turkey still does not have ambassador-level representation in three major Middle Eastern capitals (Damascus, Tel-Aviv and Cairo).
Sadly, 2013 was also a year where foreign policy was excessively exploited for domestic political purposes. Turkey’s posture and behavior both before and after the July 3 coup in Egypt transformed Turkey into an actor in the Egyptian mess. Contrary to our foreign policy tradition, Turkey became fully enmeshed in the events in Egypt. The coup occurred in the midst of the Gezi Park protests and was fully exploited domestically. Worse, our interference did not produce the desired results. The Muslim Brotherhood’s fate has worsened in Egypt. It has now been declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government.
There have been some improvements in Turkey’s relations with the EU. Following the Gezi Park protests there seems to be a better understanding in Brussels that Turkey needs to remain anchored. The opening of the “Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments” chapter, as well as the launching of the “Visa Liberalization Dialogue” were constructive steps to maintain the momentum.
The primary problem in our foreign policy is a “deficit of priorities.” Stretching our activities from South America to Africa and the Far East is great, but with which objectives is not clear. While Turkey faces serious challenges in its immediate neighborhood, what rationale is there to waste precious human and political capital in the periphery? This “deficit of priorities” also takes a toll on the Foreign Ministry and our diplomats, as well. Fatigue is everywhere. The gap between discourse and capacity must be addressed. Political realities on the ground do not match the ostensible “order-founding state” discourse. Turkey’s foreign policy is increasingly seen as unpredictable and driven by short-term domestic political considerations. Turkey needs to define its foreign policy priorities properly. The alternative is falling into the trap of the “lone wolf syndrome.”
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading newspaper of Turkey.