Turkey faces tough foreign policy choices after elections

Whoever leads Turkey following June 24 elections will face a daunting international landscape.


In its immediate neighbourhood, Turkey finds itself increasingly drawn into the vortex of Syria’s civil war and clashing with Greece over issues relating to borders, natural resources and the divided island of Cyprus.


Slightly further afield, Turkey is engaged in a war of words with Israel over the plight of Palestinians and the status of Jerusalem, and has been at odds with Egypt since the 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. 


Turkey is also at loggerheads with a number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since coming out in support of their rival Qatar, and also over Ankara’s expanding footprint along Africa’s Red Sea coast.  


To the west, Turkey’s relations with Europe have long been under strain. Its bid to join the European Union is dead in the water and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no longer welcome in many European capitals. 


When he does visit, such as his recent trip to Britain, the consequences are often unpleasant


Relations with the United States, traditionally Turkey’s most important ally, are also close to rock bottom. There is a growing list of disputes between the two ostensible NATO allies, such as Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, the belief in Ankara on America playing a role in the 2016 attempted military coup and the disagreement over the Turkish preacher Ankara accuses of ordering it; U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish forces; Turkey’s prosecution of an American pastor and likely U.S. Treasury - allegedly draconic - fines against a Turkish state-owned bank for dodging sanctions on Iran.


Within the last month, the delivery of F-35 new generation fighter jets to Turkey has become another bone of contention. The U.S. Congress, along with the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have sent clear signals that the U.S. government might halt the sale in response to Turkey’s purchase of Russian anti-aircraft missiles.


Turkey’s increasingly antagonistic interactions in the international arena have resulted from a shift, from a multilateralist approach to foreign policy, to one that is assertive and unilateralist as Erdoğan fashions a narrative framing his presidency in terms of restoring Ottoman glories.


However, Erdoğan’s grandiose promises appear increasingly unsustainable, as Turkey lurches from one international crisis to another and as increasing economic stress diverts attention and resources from foreign policy issues. 


Under these circumstances, Turkey needs to recalibrate its foreign policy to focus on more realistic goals. It must return to a multilateral style of engagement that characterised the early years of Erdoğan’s rule.


But that is easier said than done. Many of the strains in Turkey’s diplomatic relations are entirely contrived, arising due to foreign policy becoming a tool to serve the domestic political agenda. 


Should Erdoğan retain power, a foreign policy reset would require him to swallow his pride and dial down his rhetoric. This may be a step too far for Erdoğan, though in the past he has shown himself capable of pragmatism.


It would be easier for opposition parties to instigate changes in foreign policy as they are unencumbered by the ruling party’s ideological baggage. But they have baggage of their own and lack experience dealing with international issues. 


For that, opposition party candidates need to come forward and tell both the domestic and international audiences about what kind of future they see for Turkey, laying out some specific issues and their recipes.


However difficult it may be, Turkey needs to rethink its foreign policy to escape the hole it has dug for itself in recent years. Failure to do so would have severe consequences, not only for Turkey’s increasingly battered image in the world, but also at home, where it hurts most.