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Stephen M. Walt

Talking (in) Turkey

I’ve been in Istanbul since Friday, attending a conference on "Turkish Diplomacy and Regional/Global Order in the 21st Century," sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’ve become increasingly curious about Turkey’s recent diplomatic initiatives (some of them clearly of concern to traditionalists in the United States) but I’m hardly an expert on this ...


I’ve been in Istanbul since Friday, attending a conference on "Turkish Diplomacy and Regional/Global Order in the 21st Century," sponsored by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’ve become increasingly curious about Turkey’s recent diplomatic initiatives (some of them clearly of concern to traditionalists in the United States) but I’m hardly an expert on this issue and I saw this conference primarily as a learning opportunity. In that regard it did not disappoint, and here are few quick impressions.

What was unmistakable throughout this gathering was the sense of energy, imagination, and self-confidence displayed by Turkish officials, and especially the relatively young coterie of academics and advisors connected to them. Although a few speakers seemed a bit too self-congratulatory (a trait Americans are hardly in a position to complain about), the people who spoke are clearly proud of what the government has achieved on the international stage and they genuinely believe they are leading the country in the right direction. I might add that the younger Turkish representatives (both officials and academics) attending the conference were particularly impressive: smart, articulate, well-informed and happy to engage in debate and discussion.

Second, the current government deserves credit for harvesting a lot of low-hanging fruit (though as several speakers noted, some of these initiatives actually began back in the 1990s). In particular, they recognized that relations with many of Turkey’s neighbors were needlessly conflictive, and the current "zero problems" policy (i.e., seeking to have good relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors) has gone a long way toward improving ties with virtually all of them. The payoff is perhaps most notable in the case of Greece and Syria, but they can also point to better relations with Russia and even with Armenia. My sense is that these breakthroughs were in fact fairly easy to achieve, insofar as it did not involve any of the various parties making great sacrifices. Nonetheless, Turkey deserves credit for seizing the opportunity. And while Americans might not like Turkey having an improved relationship with Syria or amicable relations with Iran, it makes a good deal of sense from Ankara’s point of view.

Third, Turkey is clearly trying to take advantage of its geographic position and its political history to position itself as an omnipresent mediator between various conflict regional actors. This idea led to earlier efforts to mediate between Israel and Syria, as well as the more recent initiatives toward Iran. Trying to place itself at the center of a web of different regional actors and presenting one’s self as the party able to speak to all of them magnifies Turkey’s importance and can enhance the government’s popularity at home, but sustaining that role over the longer-term will depend on whether they can actually achieve results. Here it’s hard to be as optimistic, and one wonder whether Turkish prestige will decline somewhat if they are unable to deliver. 

And one cannot help but ask a few questions about the long term sustainability of this policy.  As Foreign Minister Ahmet Davatoglu admitted in his speech here, the "zero-problems" policy is an aspiration but not a fully-formed reality, which is a way of admitting that being on good terms with everyone in a region like this is probably impossible. Case in point: Turkey’s recent criticisms of Israel over Gaza have won it plaudits in the Arab world, but have also damaged what had been a valuable military relationship with Israel and complicated its relationship with the United States. (One reason Congress finally passed a resolution about the Armenian genocide is the fact that groups like AIPAC and the ADL no longer weighed in to protect Turkey). Similarly, Turkish credibility in the Arab world was enhanced when Parliament barred the United States from using Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003 (a decision that now looks rather far-sighted on Turkey’s part), but it clearly raised doubts in the minds of some U.S. officials and intensified concerns about the long-term direction of Turkey’s foreign policy.

In addition, as another participant at the conference noted, it is not yet clear whether Turkey’s new direction as a "strategic regional power" has been institutionalized within the political establishment, or whether it is largely an initiative of the current ruling party (the Islamist AKP). And if it is the latter, then one may wonder whether this new initiative would survive a prolonged economic slump, or any other developments that made the AKP less popular and brought another group or coalition to power.

In that regard, what was missing at this conference any serious discussion of Turkey’s internal developments. There was little discussion of the controversial changes to the Turkish constitution that are now underway, and virtually no mention of the alleged "military plots" that have led to the detention of a number of former officers. I had private conversations with several people at the conference on these issues, and heard a pretty wide range of views. (One participant described the whole business as a "soap opera," but how the whole business is ultimately resolved could have pretty significant effects on how Turkish democracy is perceived elsewhere). But these issues never arose in the public sessions, which focused almost entirely on diplomatic and foreign policy matters.

I came away thinking that the United States is going to have to approach relations with Turkey in a new way. The Cold War is over, Turkey’s transition to democracy is probably permanent, new social forces are at work here, and Turkey’s leaders are committed to pursuing a foreign policy that seeks to maximize Turkey’s own national interest as they perceive it. If the U.S. government tries to deal with it the way we’ve dealt with previous Turkish governments, it can expect to be about as successful as we were back in 2002-2003. If we are willing to listen and approach Turkey with certain degree of flexibility, however, I think there’s a good chance of building a relationship that could yield unexpected benefits for many years. That sort of nuance hasn’t been exactly our forte, however, so I’m not especially optimistic. But then again, I’m hardly an expert on this topic, so perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised. Bottom line: I learned a lot, including the fact that I need to learn a lot more.

Tomorrow I am heading back to Athens, despite an incipient general strike and other disruptions. Stay tuned.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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