Politics by other means
As trade becomes weaponized, we look at the consequences for Turkey and its alliances
Trade wars looming, the EU faced with surging protectionism and fragmentation, a U.S. president obsessively focused on the narrow American interest - at a moment in history when the world order appears on the brink of monumental change, we’re reminded again just how interwoven politics is with economics. As the geopolitical environment shifts in unpredictable ways, so too does global trade. When alliances break and re-form, economic relations inevitably follow suit. Like war, echoing Clausewitz, trade is also the continuation of politics by other means. As a renewed nationalism sweeps through the developed world, how will the global trading system be affected? And what should Turkey do to navigate increasingly turbulent seas?
►What role does trade plays n shap ng all ances and, ult mately, break ng them?
Trade obviously is an important glue to political relations because one of the two major values that the nation state tries to maximize is the prosperity of its own people. The other is the security of its people. If the activities in the prosperity domain are perceived to constitute threats to security, the relationship comes under review. The reverse is also true: if the security dimension impedes prosperity, then states try to do something about it. When we look at the world today, we see that the conceptualization of what ‘interest’ means is now narrowly defined, focusing on the immediate benefit it provides to the nation state. In fact, what we may be talking about is the fact that increasingly people take their own country as being the center of their focus, a reality which affects the way they relate to the world. This approach is substantially different than if they were to perceive the state as being part of an international community. What seems to have happened is that the conceptualization of the agglomeration of independent states as constituting a community has been slowly vanishing and being replaced by a nation-centric way of thinking. The result is that countries begin to act in a selfish way that often overlooks the benefits that derive from conceptualizing your place in the world as being part of a community. A clear example is the United States, where you actually see that even a so-called American product like the Harley Davidson motorcycle is highly dependent on imported parts; and it is now thinking of relocating production someplace else to escape the “benefits” American protectionism is supposed to bring it.
►For Turkey, the EU’s stance on the Customs Un on s harden ng. Do you see that as a product of ts own pol t cs or a response to changes n Turk sh pol t cs?
Sometimes, people will say they behave in a particular way because of this or that reason when they actually have additional considerations in their mind. Turkey is being ostracized, if one might use that word, by the EU because of its political system and the fact that it has become what is now called an illiberal democracy or electoral authoritarian system. So European states, as members of the EU (which they say is a value-based integration effort) argue that a country with such a political arrangement cannot develop its relations with the EU. But, Turkey wants to revise the customs union which is a different question than accession to membership. In other words, it is quite possible to treat the Customs Union as a separate item from the overall accession negotiations. The EU has shown itself capable of establishing rather prosperous economic relations with all kinds of different regimes. Refusing to revise the customs union agreement with Turkey appears to me to have an underlying purely economic dimension. I think there are concerns that Turkish products will penetrate more deeply into European markets and compete more effectively. In conclusion, when we examine Europe’s behavior, we have to try to look behind the immediate explanations and see what’s happening. The European Union is hesitating because it perceives that it will probably be exposed to more competition from Turkish exports at a time when it is engaged in a highly contentious relationship with the United States. The recent surge of Turkish exports derives mainly from exports to the EU; the EU’s share of Turkey’s external trade has gone past the 50 percent mark again. This dependence on EU markets puts Turkey in a difficult position. It will not be able to significantly challenge the current situation in order to get the revision of the Customs Union for fear that its current export trade might suffer. I am sure that the EU is aware of this predicament, so it’s not moving, but rather exercising some kind of protectionism.
►So t appears Turkey’s gotten tself nto a p ckle. It needs the EU but the EU can’t afford to deepen ts econom c t es w th Turkey. Could Turkey look elsewhere? Its own sh ft toward ll beral democracy or electoral author tar an sm poss bly makes t a more natural trad ng partner for Russ a or Ch na, for nstance.
This is a question that has constantly come up in Turkish politics and it is often referred to as the Eurasian option. But if you examine carefully the trading patterns of the countries in question, the amount of trade they conduct and the share Turkey could aspire to have is limited. It simply doesn’t seem realistic to opt for the Eurasian connection in lieu of the existing relationship with the European Union. Such a change would cost Turkey a lot. One also has to keep in mind that countries like Russia do not make sufficient distinction between trade and politics and security. One may recall the airplane incident: when the Russians were unhappy with what the Turks did, all trade came to a halt. This degree of politicization of trade would not happen with the EU because its members tend to distinguish between political and economic linkages a bit more carefully. In fact, an example where you witness the separation of trade and politics is Turkey’s relations with Israel: Even when relations were going in an unfavorable direction in the domain of politics, they were developing in a favorable direction in the domain of economics. I think the dream of a Eurasian option is not really a viable option, both in terms of trading patterns and politics.