Must Turkey always stand alone in the world? It has been a member of NATO for nearly 60 years, but on many issues, it looks to many Turks as if it is on its own. That feeling has, of course, been reinforced in the last 15 years by the European Union’s decision to reject Turkey’s application for full membership – and its complete blindness towards the fateful consequences of its action. In this article, I propose to examine some of the factors causing Turkey to feel isolated or have a poor image.
The fact that Turkey’s position on the international stage is “sui generis” or a bit singular, even controversial, should not be too surprising. It is a country which spans all sorts of regional and cultural divisions. Leaving questions of heritage and history to one side, Turkey is a big country, both in size and population, and it lies not at the heart of one region but at the edge of several different regions, Europe, Western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, and so it has several different agendas and perhaps cross-cutting interests.
Had Turkey been integrated into the EU as a full member today, its foreign policy would have been different. As it is, the EU rejection has led Turkey to pursue its national interest by concentrating on the region in which it is located. The politics of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East are beset by complications which do not face Western Europe, or at least in our times. Life in our region is complicated by underlying ethnic and religious divisions which go back centuries and are slow to disappear. These “primordial cleavages,” as the sociologists call them, are so much stronger here than they are in others in Western Europe.
We in Turkey have two further problems which the world should not be allowed to overlook. First, some of our neighbors yearn to exclude our country and its citizens from the international community, a would-be blockade, and conduct a constant low-level campaign to this effect.
The centerpiece of Turkey’s foreign policy issues at the moment is, of course, the division between Turkey and the United States, for many decades our close ally and friend. But that relationship was never entirely easy. Decades ago, George Harris, a U.S. State
Department official, wrote a book about it called, “The Troubled Alliance.” The source of the problem is surely the reality, mentioned above, that Turkey is a large regional power with windows into several different geopolitical arenas. Even in days when relations were better, there was always an implicit divergence between Turkey’s interests as a regional power and some of the goals of U.S. foreign policy. Turkey could not follow Washington blindly on many issues where its own bilateral interests were at stake, and Washington should not have expected it to do so. Moreover, the forces guiding U.S. foreign policy were in some cases not the overall American national interest at all, but self-interested lobbies in Congress.
One example of this came with the 1975 U.S. arms embargo against Turkey, which was triggered by ethnic lobbies within Congress after Turkey intervened in Cyprus following the Sampson coup. It was an act of emotion rather than sensible political calculation, and its effects were damaging to all involved, including, I would say, Greece for which any estrangement of Turkey from the Western world is unhealthy in the long term. The embargo did nothing to heal the situation. That perhaps served the personal political interests of some
U.S. politicians and their voters. But it helped open a new rift in the Turkish-American alliance which became permanent.
In 2003, there came another unnecessary and damaging rift, when the Turkish Parliament decided that this country should not take part in the invasion of Iraq. U.S. response was vehement, intemperate and short-sighted. There was a heated anti-Turkish campaign in the U.S. press. A diplomatic and political freeze followed for several years which in effect dismantled much of the close defense and political relationship which had existed for the previous 50 years between our countries.
I could not help thinking of these unhappy precedents recently when reading that the U.S. Congress has decided to recognize the hardline Armenian claims against Turkey, a move which pleases a bloc of U.S. ethnic voters but has no relevance to the present-day issues whatsoever. The resolution was part of an ethnic agenda by a particular community, but unfortunately, it will cause damage in the real world of today’s politics and economics. Nor is it the only storm cloud on the horizon.
I probably do not have to repeat that the international reaction to “Operation Spring of Peace” has been depressing, and American reaction particularly so. Press coverage outside the country is largely unfavorable to Turkey, and much of the vocabulary being employed to describe it is implicitly hostile and misleading, since it conceals important truths about PKK terrorists and a terrorist organization which not only makes no attempt to disguise its ultra-Marxist revolutionary nature, but whose leaders have fought for years against the Turkish Republic in a violent campaign actually on Turkish soil.
Those dealing with international audiences should always avoid bitterness, vehemence and excessive emotionalism. If you want to persuade people, use moderate messages. For that, a degree of empathy and intelligent anticipation are needed.
Yes, there are problems Turkey currently faces in trying to get its messages across over Syria and other issues in its foreign policy.
They are serious challenges, and they are not going to be instantly overcome, though management of these issues has improved compared with a few decades. But we have to ensure that Turkey’s engagement and dialogue with the EU and others deepens. The alternative – a policy of trying to live with a breakdown in international dialogue – could turn out to produce only more international crises.
Hurriyet Daily News