Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Many people agree that it is, to say the least, unfortunate for the rule of law in Turkey that things have come to their present pass, in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is confronting legions of police and prosecutors. If one wants an active, engaged Turkey in the Middle East—let alone a model for the region—this is not the obvious way to go about it.
In response to the clash, government supporters have unleashed a host of conspiracy theories—usually focusing on foreigners. That hardly helps relations with the rest of the world.
Still, there are caveats. Turkey’s regional policy was in pretty poor shape already: ties are strained with almost all of its Middle Eastern neighbors, although there has been a recent uptick in relations with Iran.
In addition, now that prosecutors appear to be actively seeking to embarrass the government, Erdoğan may have to modify his behavior. Government authorities recently managed to prevent police and prosecutors from searching a truck suspected of carrying weapons to Syrian rebels. But the sequence of events increased international scrutiny all the same.
Moreover, the Turkish prime minister is a past master at changing the subject when it suits him—and a diplomatic shift might do that. One possibility is a further step toward reestablishing relations with Israel, a breakthrough diplomats say was very close when the corruption probe exploded on to the scene on December 17.
The current political crisis in Turkey is essentially an internal one, and is mostly linked to upcoming elections in the country. However, the crisis within Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative camp seems so deep and recent accusations of corruption and bribery are so serious that international repercussions are unavoidable.
The main repercussion is that, for the second time in seven months, Turkey is losing much of the international prestige it had gained from a decade of economic success and political stability. One specific reason for Turkey’s prestige was its ability to entertain accession negotiations with the EU—negotiations that were difficult and protracted, but real nonetheless. The talks brought benefits for Turkey in terms of modernization, bank ratings, and foreign direct investment, but are now in troubled waters due to the negative impact of the country’s internal crisis on the rule of law.
In one particularly damaging episode of Turkey’s current turmoil, accusations of irregularities have involved a purported breach of international sanctions against Iran. That is bound to create difficulties with both Iran—where an inquiry has been launched into wrongdoings in an oil-for-gold trade deal with Turkey—and Western countries, keen to check any evasion of UN sanctions.
The Turkish political crisis seems to be less a danger for the region and more part of a general healthy correction.
Since early 2008, Turkey’s government had increasingly diverged from the country’s regional policy norms, which usually aim to play things safe. For instance, Turkey backed the armed insurgency to oust neighboring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; espoused a partisan Sunni Muslim, pro–Muslim Brotherhood line in the region; and needled the United States by feuding with Israel. Ankara also flirted with alternative partnerships to NATO like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and threatened to buy Chinese air defense systems. In its EU accession process, partly in reaction to European hostility, Turkey did less and less toward the reforms needed to adopt the body of EU law.
However, Turkey’s political crisis, which began in summer 2013 with the Gezi Park protests, has proved to be a turning point. Since October, the government has started to return to a more balanced foreign policy. It has reached out once again to Iran and Iraq. A normalization with Israel seems possible. And the prime minister has declared 2014 the “year of the EU.”
It remains to be seen whether this is rhetoric or reality, but these are all steps in a more balanced direction. They also better reflect Turkey’s traditional foreign policy reflexes, and will likely match the longer-term direction of Turkish domestic politics.
The future course of Turkey’s foreign policy will have an important impact on the evolution of the Middle East. Ankara’s recent, more assertive tendencies are not what the region needs.
In its relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors, Turkey traditionally adopted an approach that emphasized mediation. That was possible thanks to Turkey’s secular tradition, which allowed Ankara to transcend the region’s deep-rooted religious and sectarian cleavages. This strategy became the cornerstone of Ankara’s regional policy. Mediation efforts between Syria and Israel or among the different factions of the Palestinian entity are some of the concrete achievements of that period.
But since 2011, when the ruling Justice and Development Party won its third general election, Turkish foreign policy in the region has become less predictable and more assertive and ambitious. After Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu described Turkey’s role as an “order setter” in the region, Turkey departed from its long-held tradition of being either neutral or an arbiter of conflicts, and adopted a much more activist policy. This was the case in Syria, in Iraq, and also in relation to Egypt.
As a result, regional actors started to view Ankara as taking sides. But the Middle East does not need yet another party to become prey to its intractable cleavages. Turkey’s added value in the region will be a return to its more secular tradition, which would once more allow Ankara to bridge the many divides that continue to bedevil the Middle East.
The current Turkish crisis carries an opportunity cost for the region: the loss of an important source of inspiration.
Until recently, Turkey had been praised for becoming a regional soft power that inspired its southern neighbors in particular. Turkey’s economic success and the democratic reform agenda that formed part of its EU accession process had turned the country into a source of encouragement for others.
Unfortunately, the recent crisis, as well as the way the government chose to deal with last year’s Gezi Park protests, may now be reversing those gains. The reformist enthusiasm in Turkey is long gone, but what is unfolding now is perceived as a trend in the opposite direction. The international community is questioning not only Turkey’s media freedom but also its separation of powers and judicial independence.
These developments are inevitably affecting the Turkish economy adversely. The Turkish lira has depreciated by 15 percent since summer 2013, growth forecasts have been revised down, and inflation forecasts have been revised up. Turkey’s private sector is intimidated by the tense political atmosphere, and the Turkish market has become less attractive for foreign investors. Having lost its economic momentum and democratic progress, Turkey is hardly the shining star it was just a few years ago.
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