Abraham ThickeGiven its geographical location, it is inevitable that Turkish history and culture have been profoundly shaped by influences from both West and East. Since its inception in 1923 though, the modern Turkish Republic has looked predominantly to the West for inspiration, joining the Council of Europe in 1950 and NATO in 1952.
One consequence of this Western orientation was that Turkey did not have to worry too much about its foreign policy. It could merely toe the NATO line, making contributions and suggestions when necessary. NATO membership thus insulated Turkey from developments in the Middle East and allowed it to remain more or less aloof from them.
Not everyone in Turkey accepted this alignment. Turanists, for instance, advocated stronger links with Turkic groups spread across Central Asia, whilst others agitated for closer links with the Muslim world, particularly with states whose territories were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
In recent years Turkey’s outlook has changed dramatically, as those who advocate stronger links with the East have gained the ascendency in Turkish politics. In short, although it remains a member both of NATO and the Council of Europe, Turkey does not retain its old appetite for the West. The feeling is mutual.
As Turkey drifts East, its fortunes have become increasingly entangled with those of its neighbours lying in that direction. These new relationships are characterized by inconsistencies and contradictions that are more pronounced than those marking Turkey’s formerly close relationships West. The inherently unstable nature of the new relationships makes them risky. To benefit from them, and to manage the crises that will inevitably arise, requires deft diplomatic skills and not a little luck.
The latest crisis in the Middle East is a dispute between Qatar and her neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia. Although the crisis does not directly involve Turkey, Ankara cannot really afford to take sides, as doing so endangers the political and economic links it has cultivated with the opposing actors. But the nature of Middle Eastern politics makes for a difficult balancing act — some of Qatar’s allies are Turkey’s enemies, whilst some Saudi enemies are Turkish allies. To tiptoe through this veritable minefield without detonating an explosion represents a considerable diplomatic challenge.
Is Turkey up to it?
Not a chance. Her recent track record in handling such situations speaks for itself and consists more of setting fire to troubled waters than pouring oil on them. Coupled with this, Ankara has shown a real talent for failing to learn from past mistakes.
One does not need to look very far to understand why Turkey’s diplomatic response to the Qatar crises is likely to inflict more harm than good. To begin with, Turkey’s long dependence on NATO means that it has little recent historical experience dealing with complex and fragile sets of relationships of the kind it has recently embarked upon. Further, Turkey lacks capable diplomats, many having been removed in recent years and replaced by apparatchiks selected primarily for their loyalty to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey’s current Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is renowned for having the diplomatic acumen of a bull in a china shop. Meanwhile President Erdoğan, who makes all key decisions himself, evidently regards diplomacy as war by other means. Turkey’s lack of diplomatic smarts has compounded a lack of realism in its strategic outlook, with the President and his advisors beguiled by fantasies of neo-ottoman grandeur.
Returning to the Qatar crisis, Erdoğan has offered to mediate. To no-one’s surprise, except perhaps that of Erdoğan and his acolytes, the response has been tepid. More alarming was the fast-tracking through the Turkish parliament of a bill approving troop deployments to Qatar, a move that shredded any appearance of Turkish impartiality. Pundits in the overwhelmingly pro-government Turkish media, who had been queuing up to say how perplexed they were as to the reasons for the crises, were predictably quick to cheer this move. Reactions on Saudi media were equally rapid and no less predictable.
A further risk involves Erdoğan’s history of ratcheting up foreign policy tensions to serve domestic ends. Although no elections loom, Erdoğan may be unable to resist employing such tactics, which inevitably weaken Turkey’s international position even as they shore up the President’s increasingly brittle domestic popularity.
Quite how this crisis will turn out for Turkey is anyone’s guess. If the early signs are anything to go by, Turkey is responding with the same diplomatic ineptitude that has plagued its response to most of the crises it has faced in recent years. The consequences are unlikely to be pretty and many of the wounds will be self-inflicted.
More generally, what Turkey resembles as it tries to negotiate the complex net of relationships it has entered into is nothing like the neo-ottoman fantasies entertained in Ankara. To the contrary, Turkey increasingly resembles a fly that has blundered into a spider’s web. Whilst each kick as it struggles to free itself will doubtless be reported as great victories by the Turkish media, they will actually serve only to entangle Turkey further until it is stuck fast.
Perhaps, sooner or later, even Erdoğan and his cronies will revise their disparaging views of Turkey’s dependence on NATO and the cautious policies that kept the country safe in its neighbourhood. Don’t bet on it. After all, a fly so firmly meshed in a web that it can no longer move usually decides it has reached just the place it wanted to be. Such is the power of self-delusion.