Turkey’s road to diplomacy of loneliness
By Namık Tan
The global image of Turkish foreign policy doesn’t look good, with the country facing loneliness in diplomacy. Our embassies in Syria, Israel, Libya and Egypt remain closed and our ambassadors in Lebanon, UAE and Saudi Arabia, are there in name only. At the same time, we are experiencing a significant stagnation in our relations with the European Union (EU). While relations with some EU member states are better than others, relations with Greece and France have reached a point that the possibility of a military escalation is very real. More to the West, structural obstacles continue to challenge our relations with the United States.
Merely a few years earlier, analysts would refer to Turkey as an “island of stability” in a very difficult region. In fact, Turkey was a “model country” that had stabilizing effect on its neighbors. As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, Turkey has turned from the island of stability into an “island of loneliness”. Turkey has become a party to almost every single conflict in the region and even many of our old friends blame Turkey for being a source of instability.
Interior policies and loneliness
Despite the increasing regional challenges, the real root of the issue lies in domestic politics. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of President Tayyip Erdoğan, after almost two decades of single-party government, needed to consolidate its ranks and find ways to rally its base. Instead of opting for compromise and a genuine attempt to explain new realities, Erdoğan opted to leverage nationalism. Despite losing most major cities to the opposition in local elections, his strategy succeeded on a national level via a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But there is a heavy cost.
The country is now more polarized than ever and an environment of constant turmoil and bigotry defines Turkish politics. And in this environment, foreign policy is no longer guided by career professionals but by the whims of angry crowds.
Rhetoric replacing reason
Emotional rhetoric became more important than reasonable analysis. By saying the last thing first, we destroyed the room for maneuvering. Paradoxically, adversaries with similar tendencies are now heavily criticized by our authorities. Along with professionalism, diplomatic customs like preventing lower-level bureaucrats from addressing foreign leaders through social media and other sensible rules were abandoned.
Everyone at almost every level started making statements on behalf of the government; as long as they were Erdoğan fanatics and party loyalists. Similarly, the lines between politicians and bureaucrats no longer exist. Certain policy issues that should be voiced by politicians are communicated through bureaucrats or vice versa.
Diplomatic reputation and loneliness
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs now regularly publishes emotionally impaired, meaningless and inconsistent statements. At first journalists and other interested parties wondered whether the site was hacked by antagonists but it has become the new normal. Very few decision-makers seem to realize that these messages are undermining the credibility of Turkey’s leadership and the centuries-old reputation of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A relevant and timely example is a statement that was published criticizing Bahrain for establishing relations with Israel. The statement made little sense because Turkey itself formally recognized Israel decades ago. As someone who has worked in the corridors of this Ministry, I know that none of the career professionals would ever endorse such inconsistency. Presumably, political staff drafted and published the statement that will now haunt Turkey and the Ministry for decades to come.