Where are our friends?
After years of “zero problems with neighbours”, Turkey now
faces a friendless future
It’s often said Turkey lives in a tough neighborhood. Unlike other places, the land between the Marmara and the Black Seas, with Asia to the east, Europe to the west, and the Middle East to the south, is subject to a multitude of forces. Problems in the developed world are Turkey’s problems, problems in the developing world also exert pressures on Turkey. Communism, liberalism, Arab nationalism, sectarianism: Turkey finds itself at the fulcrum of all of these. In such a volatile region, making friends and wielding influence can feel like a Sisyphean task. You make one friend at the expense of another; you make an enemy and find yourself forced to make a friends not of your choosing. How can Turkey navigate such rough and unpredictable seas?
►Turkey f nds tself n a tenuous s tuat on these days, w th a dearth of rel able fr ends. Can you g ve us a br ef outl ne of the current geopol t cal landscape?
It seems we have no single country with which we have excellent relations, except maybe Azerbaijan and Georgia. We have issues with most of our neighbours. Some of those issues we’re familiar with: Turkish troops are currently in Syria and the Afrin operation is expanding. The Russians expect Turkey to live up to its promises to set up observation posts in Idlib, which has been moving slowly. We have problems in Iraq, where the Turkish government has been trying to make amends with the central government after years of difficulties.
We have a highly problematical relationship with the Gulf area where Turkey has sided with Qatar at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Recently there was news that Egypt has told its merchants to stop importing from Turkey. Ever since the end of the Muslim Brotherhood experiment in Egypt, Turkey has failed to improve its relations with the Egyptian government. This is an unrealistic approach to Middle Eastern politics because Egypt is such a critical country.
Turning to Greece and Cyprus: it seems peace talks between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriot governments have failed to produce a viable outcome. The Turkish side has become convinced that the Greeks have no intention to reach an acceptable settlement. There is conflict regarding undersea resources. The Greek Cypriot government believes that any negotiation with the Turkish side would be tantamount to recognizing Turkish Cypriot claims and therefore it has shied away from negotiating the divvying up of resources. Also, it wants to control all the resources and not give a guaranteed share to the Turkish side, an act that would ensure that the Turkish Cypriot Republic would be able to stand on its feet and enjoy higher levels of prosperity.
You come to the Aegean and you run into debates over pieces of rock that aren’t, in most instances, even habitable. The problem is exacerbated by a nationalistic defense minister in Greece and a Turkish opposition that has capitalized on this opportunity to criticize the government, accusing it of turning “major” islands over to Greece. Both sides are sensitive and inflexible in addressing the problem. The rational thing might be to just leave the rocks alone.
►But t seems nternat onal relat ons these days are more deolog cal than rat onal. Everyone wants to stand the r ground. Have Turkey’s deolog cal pos t ons harmed ts ab l ty to leverage ts ne ghbors?
Let’s look at this in a broader framework. Turkey has difficult relations with the major powers. It has a difficult relationship with the U.S. Germany can no longer be looked upon as a reliable supporter. Other EU members tend not to attach as much importance to Turkey as they once did. Altogether, this limits the ability of Turkey to wield influence, to have access to these societies and their institutions. When you have such a negative image, then your conflictual relationships with other countries do not generate interest or sympathy in circles that you used to look upon as your friends.
There is, however, a very interesting line of thinking which suggests that the difficult situation may actually begin to yield some positive results for Turkey. According to this argument, Turkey continues to be an important country despite all the difficulties. Breaking away from its traditional relationships would have significant political, security and possibly economic outcomes for the European and the world order. For example, someone has suggested that the rather soft views on the PKK in European nations may be changing, particularly in Germany where there is a growing concern that if the current policies continue, there’s a risk of importing Turkish problems permanently into Germany, threatening its domestic peace.
►Turkey s a lynchp n n some ways, wh ch g ves t the potent al to challenge the great powers. Does that mean t has more negot at ng power or s t condemned to deal ng w th the great powers?
Everyone is condemned to dealing with the great powers. Their status in the global system has been considerably undermined in recent years by the breakdown of the bipolar world. But that does not mean they have disappeared. In fact, the way things are going now, there seems to be a worsening of relations between Russia and the U.S. We might be getting back to a situation where having closer relations with one of the great powers may become a necessity for security reasons.
►Back to the Cold war?
Maybe. Obviously there is a difference in the sense that U.S. seems less ready and willing to lead the world. There is also a question of how reliable people perceive the U.S. to be. There is growing recognition in Europe that the U.S. is not to be relied on for European defense as it was during the years of the Cold War. If US-Russian relations worsen, Europe will try to prevent the worsening of its own relations with Russia.
When you look at Turkish foreign policy these days what you see is an attempt to get around great power politics by developing bilateral negotiations with a lot of countries. But, one of the grave dangers a rising power encounters is overrating its power. This certainly happened during the interwar period with Japan, for example. I would be concerned that Turkey might be too impressed with its own success and overrate its capabilities. I don’t mean to belittle Turkey’s achievements but there are many vulnerabilities in the security sphere and the economic sphere. . One has to recognize there are limits to what Turkey can do.