Not long ago, the world was praising Prime Minister Erdoğan for expanding links with Arab countries, lifting visa restrictions, and even brokering talks between Palestinian factions and Syria and Israel. The Western media busied itself selling Turkey as a model for the Muslim world. Wherever he travelled in the region, Erdoğan was given a hero’s welcome.
Today, the only friend Ankara can count on is the Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, and that friendship comes at the expense of good relations with Baghdad, which last month barred Turkish private planes from flying to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region in retaliation against Turkish connivance in Kurdish plans to export oil and gas without the central government’s consent. Egypt and Turkey, meanwhile, all but broke off diplomatic relations this summer after Erdoğan said General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the interim Egyptian government were engaged in “state terrorism.” The long-dead horse of Turkey’s claims to be an honest broker in Israel–Palestine talks was given another flogging when Erdoğan accused Tel Aviv of masterminding the coup against Mohamed Mursi. Hardly surprising, then, that Turkey’s top foreign policy officials should now be expounding the virtues of “splendid isolation.”
What went wrong? According to Yalçın Akdoğan, one of Erdoğan’s closest advisors, the world did, by retaining its attachment—over Egypt and Syria—to the cynical old ways of realpolitik. The world “is living through a great ethical earthquake . . . that renders meaningless [everything] taken for granted until the twenty-first century,” he wrote recently. Critics of Turkey’s foreign policy “are blind to this great earthquake” and to the fact that their “civilization is collapsing.”
A whole range of other, less grandiloquent reasons have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which for decades had held the Middle East at arm’s length, simply didn’t have the languages or insight to take a leading role in the region.
Writing in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, Piotr Zalewski argues that the policy of “zero problems with neighbors” was posited on non-intervention. While that worked very well until 2010, with Turkey building strong relationships with Bashar Al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, rising popular unrest in the region made it redundant. In such a situation, who exactly is your neighbor: the people protesting on the streets, or the strongman clinging to power?
Yet others blame Turkey’s fall from grace on what they see as its increasingly overt pro-Sunni policies on Iraq, and more recently on Syria, where it has supported radical Islamic groups against the majority Alawite government and the Kurds. “Turkey, as a secular state, is essentially acting more ideologically than Iran on its foreign policy,” the former Iranian official Hossein Mousavian wrote recently in Asharq Al-Awsat, advising Ankara, among other things, to reconsider its unconditional support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is worth asking, though, whether Turkey can really be said to have a policy at all—a national one, at least. Domestically, Turkey’s agenda now seems pretty much captive to the whims of Erdoğan. Why shouldn’t foreign policy be the same? After all, the prime minister has always seemed to see it primarily as a way of leveraging himself domestically.
Back in the days when he was faced by a powerful and mutinous army, he cultivated strong links to the West. Now that the army has been de-clawed, he has begun to sound eerily similar to some of the generals of a decade ago who, conscious that a more democratic Turkey might be less tolerant of their untouchable status, used to advocate closer ties with—for example—Russia. Last month, Erdoğan did the same. “Include us in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and relieve us from this pain,” he told Vladimir Putin, referring to Turkey’s deep-frozen EU accession process.
There are interesting parallels between Erdoğan and The Valley of the Wolves, a long-running TV drama watched by millions in Turkey and across the region after 2003. The series began with the secret agent hero Polat Alemdar (the Turkish name means “Power Standard-bearer”) bumping off vast numbers of Turkey’s internal enemies. When that began to pall with the audiences, he turned his attention abroad, first to Iraq, where he took fictional revenge on the American soldiers who had captured a Turkish special forces unit in 2003, and then to Israel.
Erdoğan has followed the same trajectory. Early on, he fought the agents of Turkey’s old status quo, the army and the courts. It was only when he had the upper hand domestically that he turned his attention to external enemies: Israel in the person of Shimon Peres in January 2009, and Hosni Mubarak two years later. International politics, you could say, enabled him to resolve a contradiction that risked threatening his charisma. It gave him a wider arena to project his power, but at the same time it permitted him to present himself as doughty underdog even when there was nobody left in Turkey to fight.
To be fair, grandiosity has characterized the foreign policy of right-wing Turkish governments since the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia up to the world. Süleyman Demirel and Turgut Özal dreamed of a “Turkic world” stretching from the Mediterranean to China. Neither survived in power long enough to see the shipwreck of their dreams.
Erdoğan has, and it remains to be seen how he reacts. He might do well to reconsider the career of Mustafa Kemal and his loyal lieutenant, İsmet İnönü. Neither were remarkable for their tolerance of domestic dissent. Unlike their near-contemporary Enver Pasha, the Young Turk leader who died fighting the Bolsheviks in Central Asia, however, they preferred realism and diplomatic wiliness to foreign policy adventurism.
To be frank, it’s not likely to happen. Erdoğan’s government hasn’t quite mustered the courage to openly attack Mustafa Kemal yet. But İnönü has long been Public Enemy Number One in its rewritten version of Turkish Republican history.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.