Turkey’s unique democracy vetoes 'New Turkey' and its foreign policy agenda

Turkey’s unique democracy vetoes ‘New Turkey’ and its foreign policy agenda

The ‘New Turkey’ concept suggested a neo-conservative agenda that had three basic tenets in its foreign policy orientation: balancing Israel in the Middle East, stopping Iranian expansionism and the pursuit of a maximalist Neo-Ottoman presence in global politics. The electoral defeat of this concept, however, should result in a vital period of restoration for Turkish foreign policy. 

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By Doga Ulas Eralp

Not long ago many in the West were talking about a Turkish Model for the larger MENA region as a way to transition from the uncertainty of the Arab Spring. This period, however, witnessed the rise of an increasingly authoritarian regime in Turkey under the relentless quest of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, for more executive power. Once directly-elected as the new president in August 2014, Erdogan launched a self-promotion campaign to secure unchecked executive powers in his office, reminiscent of old South American populist dictators. In a bid to change the constitution he ordered the apparatchiks at his old party AKP (Justice and Development Party) to develop and promote the concept of New Turkey in the run-up to the June 7th 2015 elections.

Erdogan’s game plan was simple; he was going to hold political rallies across the 81 provinces of Turkey to thank the citizens for having shown the wisdom of electing him as the new president and ask for more powers in his hands. Wherever appointed prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, went, so followed Erdogan, urging voters to choose stability over chaos. The only way to avoid chaos, Erdogan argued, was to vote 400 MPs into the parliament that would grant him new powers to create New Turkey. However, when the election results came trickling in on the evening of June 7th, Erdogan was no longer a happy camper. 60% of the Turkish electorate vetoed Erdogan’s call for executive powers, along with his New Turkey concept.

Possible changes in Turkey’s foreign policy priorities

The New Turkey concept suggested a neo-conservative agenda that had three basic tenets in its foreign policy orientation: balancing Israel in the Middle East, stopping Iranian expansionism and the pursuit of a maximalist Neo-Ottoman presence in global politics. Erdogan argued that consolidation of these three tenets called for a strong president who is capable and willing to speak-up against western domination of international politics. The foreign policy motto, “the world is greater than five”, has become a commonplace slogan in Mr. Erdogan’s speeches. Now that the Turkish electorate strongly-refuted the New Turkey, let’s take a look at what possible changes could impact the three tenets of Turkish foreign policy, in case a non-AKP coalition government takes the helm in Ankara.

Rapprochement with Israel

This is a fair question to ask. Turkey once was a close ally of Israel. In 2008 Turkey was involved in indirect mediation between two of its then-close allies – Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert – over control of the Golan Heights. The parties had already completed five rounds of talks and were gearing-up for the start of direct negotiations. However, Israel’s sudden and overwhelming bombing campaign on Gaza, Cast Lead in December 2008, dealt a fatal blow to Turkish-Israeli relations. Two years later in May 2010 – when Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara flotilla and killed nine Turks on board – relations between the two came to a standstill. During the following years, Erdogan became the most vocal advocate of Gaza, forging a close alliance with Hamas. As Israeli politics swung right with Netanyahu and Lieberman, so did Erdogan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric. Obama brokered an apology from Netanyahu about the loss of lives in March 2013, but relations between the two countries remain in deep freeze.

Will a new coalition government be able to normalize relations with Israel? The answer is possibly yes; contingent upon goodwill gestures by the Israelis on easing the Gaza blockade. It is quite difficult to foresee a return to the age of close cooperation, as was the case in the nineties. However, a non-AKP coalition government might choose to focus on the positive and concentrate on improving trade relations with Israel while advocating for the rights of the Palestinians.

Leaving the anti-Iran, pro-Sunni camp in the Middle East

This is a major possibility. Turkey’s pro-Sunni turn came in the wake of the Arab Spring. Early victories of the Muslim Brotherhood inspired-Islamist movements across MENA encouraged Davutoglu and Erdogan to embrace an openly pro-Sunni narrative with religious undertones. The Civil War in Syria further pushed the AKP government on the pro-Sunni camp, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This alliance continued to expand as Turkey openly supports the Saudi campaign on Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis. Similarly, Turkey is reported to be opening a military base in Qatar. Turkey’s increasingly vocal pro-Sunni rhetoric irritates Tehran as Iran is gearing up for a nuclear deal with the US over the summer.

A non-AKP coalition government will immediately leave the pro-Sunni camp in the Middle East. The adventures in Syria, Egypt and Libya have cost Turkey billions of dollars worth revenue in mutual trade and investment deals. The main reason for Ankara’s current insistence on following the same ill-advised policies is simple face saving. Erdogan does not want to admit that he has made the wrong calculation, nor does Davutoglu – who until a few years before was trumpeting Turkey’s position as being on the right side of history. A non-AKP coalition will naturally be free from such entrapments and will embrace more neutral, interest based policy with these countries.

Ending the Neo-Ottoman maximalism

Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism failed miserably. Davutoglu, who was once a professor of international relations, wrote on strategic depth and why Turkey needed to embrace its historical identity in the region and in the world as heir of the Ottoman Empire. One important caveat he seemed to have missed, and continued to miss, when he first became foreign minister and then prime minister was that the Ottoman Empire did not have good memories for the majority living in the Middle East and Western Balkans. Davutoglu, blinded by his own theoretical lenses, insisted on interpreting the political developments in Turkey’s neighborhood as a call for Turkish intervention. As has been proven by failed facilitation processes first between Syria and Israel, later between Iran and the West, Turkey does not have the hard power capacity to back and sponsor political deals in the international arena.

A non-AKP coalition government will put an end to the Neo-Ottoman maximalist foreign policy in favor of a more balanced and nuanced approach that will have to respect the choices other countries make in the region. This will also help Turkey’s standing with the EU and NATO as a reliable partner to the West.

Does that mean Turkish foreign policy will enter a period of restoration?

Restoration is not necessarily a regressive term. A non-AKP coalition government will be able to rebuild the bridges with Israel, Iran, Egypt, Libya, and take a more neutral stance in the Syrian civil war. Such a shift towards rationality and neutrality will not diminish Turkey’s importance as an emerging power but rather rebalance it with a more mature outlook to world politics. Turkey’s ambitions to continue being a peacemaker in its region and in the world will only benefit from a more serene state of mind.

Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.

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