President Erdogan’s speech at the UN highlights just how isolated Turkey has become
Last week, the annual ritual of world leaders coming together in a spirit of diplomacy and mutual respect played out once again at the United Nations. Well, not quite. The yearly gathering has over the years seen its fair share of acrimony and discontent. This year was no different and it’s hard to say whether or not anything constructive emerged from the gathering. Nonetheless, leaders made their way to the podium and delivered their yearly addresses. President Erdogan stuck to some time-honored themes but also made a case for the issues closest to Turkey. What were some of the key highlights?
►Adnan R. Khan: Can you give readers a brief recap of President Erdogan’s speech?
Ilter Turan: The speech consisted of two parts. One was the president’s general views on how the world system of governance is operating and the elements of unfairness and injustice that seem to be part of it. The second was directed at questions that are of particular concern to Turkey. We can perhaps sum up the first part by quoting Erdogan himself: “The world is bigger than five,” he said, referring to the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the fact that it no longer represents the global reality. It’s an argument that he has made before but the problem is of course that to try to change the system you have to work within the existing structure, which includes the veto power of the five. So there is a built-in problem of bringing about change that would reduce the power of the current permanent members of the Council.
The president also complained about the nuclear proliferation system. His argument, again, was sound: The countries that already possess nuclear weapons seek to maintain permanently their monopoly on nuclear power. That is not acceptable to other countries that are targets of nuclear-armed nations who feel their security may be better served by possessing their own nuclear deterrent. Essentially, the President suggested that the current system would be acceptable only if those who already possess nuclear weapons give them up. That’s sound logic. But unfortunately, the world just doesn’t work on sound logic but on power positions.
►Adnan R. Khan: All of these issues are perennial. They’ve come and gone over the decades. It’s nothing groundbreaking.
Ilter Turan: No. In fact, I think it has almost become a ritual that Erdogan refers to these points in his
UN speeches. The problem is, if you are interested in bringing about genuine change, making speeches at the UN must be backed by coalitions of like-minded countries. Only together can you put up a challenge. But there seems to be no indication that there is a systematic effort of which Turkey is a part that is aiming to change the current system of international governance.
►Adnan R. Khan: And Turkey’s obviously put itself in a difficult position where it doesn’t really have a lot of allies in the world it can turn to bring about these changes. It’s become isolated.
Ilter Turan: Yes. Not many countries are willing to accept Turkey as a leader these days. That’s a shortcoming of Turkish policy. If you are interested in leading the world, then you should first develop good relations with a large group of countries so that they’re willing to trust you and accept your leadership.
►Adnan R. Khan: Beyond the usual global issues, these U.N. speeches are often platforms from which leaders air their grievances about specific issues that are important to them. In that sense, President Erdogan did go into some controversial territory. Can you talk a bit about that?
Ilter Turan: He talked about a number of things but the most important was the security zone that he wants established east of the Euphrates in Syria. He made the argument that this zone could be expanded and a significant number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries or in Europe could be resettled there. Now, I’m not personally able to make judgments on what kind of population this particular territory would be able to support but prior to the Syrian war this was not where Syria’s population was mostly concentrated. These are agricultural areas, part of it is desert. If you bring Syrians back from other countries, I don’t know what kind of livelihood they would be able to establish there. There seems to be no major urban centers around that could accommodate those kinds of numbers.
►Adnan R. Khan: The main powerbroker in northern Syria, of course, is the U.S. The U.S. put pressure on the PYD/YPG to accept the security zone in the first place. For Turkey to expand that zone will require the cooperation of the current American administration. But after last week’s developments, with President Trump now the target of an impeachment inquiry, will the U.S. be able to pay any attention to Turkey’s needs?
Ilter Turan: It is less about attention in general and more about whose attention. If the U.S. president fails to provide direction, then the agencies of government begin to pursue their own goals and implement their own policies. The U.S. has been making a conscious effort to get the Turks to accept the idea that American support of the YPG is okay provided that some measures are taken and Turkey is rewarded in other ways. Now the chances of this working don’t look particularly good because Turkey sees the YPG as an existential question whereas the Americans see it as a policy instrument. The mindsets with which they approach this problem are very different.
Now, with the impeachment process in the U.S., Trump will inevitably have to spend more of his energies in fighting off impeachment. He will have less energy to devote to leading American foreign policy. The Turkish government has based its relations with the U.S. on the assumption that the friendliest element in the American administration to Turkey’s viewpoints is Trump. But as the President’s position is undermined and his ability to offer leadership is chipped away, it will be more difficult for him to implement his Syria policies. The American military has been adamant about its support of the YPG and the State Department also has not been favorably disposed to Turkey, nor the Congress. Turkey seems not to have many friends in the U.S. and the closest thing to a friend they had was Mr. Trump. And he is in trouble.