In search of Turkish foreign policy

Formulating and conducting a coherent Middle East foreign policy is a challenge for any state. But even so, Turkey’s policies relating to the region have all the integrity of glass houses teetering atop pyramids of playing cards set on shifting sands.

In recent years the standard operating procedure has involved a mixture of gyrations and U-turns, some of 360 degrees. The extent to which they represent changes in policy depends, of course, on the geometry of the landscape within which the manoeuvres are conducted. But Turkey seems blissfully unaware of such subtleties. It just makes a turn, hopes for the best and then invents a post-hoc justification explaining why the new direction is exactly the right one.  

If, occasionally, Turkey pulls off a masterstroke that is because, in ordering an about-turn, those controlling Turkey’s foreign policy have failed to appreciate the exercise is being conducted inside a triangle, and so arrive back at the starting point which, thanks to rapidly changing circumstances, might sometimes end up looking like a nifty move. Even Turkey’s lucky stars occasionally fall into alignment.

It is not often like that these days. Things seem to be sliding. But this merely reflects an inability to see the bigger picture. As people are constantly reminded by the local media, Turkey is advancing at breakneck speed. If none of the details add up, never mind. That is because the advances are happening in dimensions beyond the ken of mere mortals like us. Just do not ask awkward questions.

If this all makes your head spin, do not worry. Turks are no less confused. But many, whilst professing to have not the faintest idea what is going on have faith that a higher mind, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has matters under control.

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh. Let us not forget how many states have been made fools of in the Middle East. It might therefore be instructive to cast the net wider and consider how Turkey relates to states beyond its messy neighbourhood.

Relations with Venezuela are improving all the time, reflecting the absolute lack of any shared interests. The two countries simply have nothing to argue about. Turkish Airlines will doubtless soon inaugurate, with great fanfare, a flight to Caracas. The company may need a new plane to handle the expected demand. A Piper Cub should fit the bill nicely.

Ties with Serbia are also taking off. Its foreign minister recently serenaded Erdoğan in Turkish, remarkable because it is one of the few times in recent memory that Erdoğan has not reminded an interlocutor of inferior rank to ‘know their place’ (links herehere and here). In this context it is also worth recalling that Erdoğan recently shifted the blame for the Srebrenica massacre from the Serbs to the Dutch. Presumably, it is all part of a master plan.

Relations with Britain are also sound. They are premised on the fact that Brexit-stricken Britain is currently sailing the high seas in search of a new anchorage, and is anxious to unload its cargo of weapons at any port that can pay for them. Meanwhile, most other Western powers are quietly imposing arms embargoes on Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with other European countries, not to mention the EU, might not be burning quite so bright, but this is only because the Germans are ‘Nazis’, France’s President Macron doesn’t like speaking to Erdoğan, and the less said about the Dutch the better.

In America, discovered we all now know by Muslim explorers, there are also problems. These are mostly because, in Turkey’s view, the United States has interfered in the Middle East either too much or not enough – it depends on the day of the week. It is also because Obama administration leftovers have been doing their utmost to stymie the friendship blossoming between two presidents united by their contempt for democracy, and facts.    

Russia? Things are going great and will continue to do so while Turkey assists the Syrian government, which Ankara loathes, regain control of lost territory. In return, Russia occasionally throws a gnawed bone in Turkey’s general direction. Relations are so good that the only bone of contention is Russia’s ban on Turkish tomatoes.

As for relations with Iran, I will have to check because they veer between extremes on a weekly basis.

Where does this all leave us? Turkish foreign policy appears so amateurish that some observers conclude there must be hidden depths. But there are no hidden depths, nor even hidden shallows. If nobody outside the Turkish government can work out how a foreign policy that seems directed by lottery serves Turkey’s interests, that is because no-one in Ankara is any the wiser.

This characterisation of Turkish foreign policy is actually misguided. The reason, as others have pointed out, is that Turkey does not have a foreign policy.

What passes as foreign policy is no more foreign policy than a horse with a horn stuck on its head is a unicorn. It is really just domestic policy leaking beyond Turkey’s borders. And Turkish domestic policy is almost entirely in the service of Erdoğan’s ongoing quest for more power. Seen through this lens, Turkey’s ever-expanding catalogue of international debacles make much more sense. It is just steam escaping from a boiling kettle. Any resemblance to foreign policy is merely superficial. For instance, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is not really a foreign minister. He is more like a casting agent charged with luring ‘victims’, that is other states, into the unwitting role of guest stars in Turkey’s endless domestic drama.

And yet as the story unfolds, subjecting us to the coarseness of its principal characters, its power, its passions, its inhumanities and the improbabilities of its plot we cannot look away. We are spellbound.