Amid Quest For Neo-Ottomanism, Turkish Diplomacy Veers off Republican Realism (III)
Turkey’s diplomacy seems to have veered off Ataturk’s famous postulate of “Peace at Home, Peace Abroad” to “War at Home, War Abroad.”
Diplomacy in the Ottoman-Republican Continuum
“We were all trained by the knowledge that the Ottoman-Republican foreign policy tradition had been deeply rooted in a set of unflinching principles and a strong foundation. We know that the Ottoman and Republican-era diplomats played very important roles in state affairs. The Ottoman diplomatic elites, during the long 19th century, had to strike a very delicate balancing act to prevent the demise of the empire,” the former diplomat Yasir Gokce says.
Reflecting a shared conventional wisdom among scholars, Gokce, a young career diplomat who had been dismissed by the Turkish government in late 2016 during emergency rule, argues that those balancing policies were instrumental in prolonging the life of a decaying empire in the 19th century in the face of multiple security and geopolitical challenges in the Balkans, in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean as Great Powers of the era were occupied by the vexing Eastern Question and were vying to carve up territories from the House of Ottoman, whose waning influence earned it the infamous title “The Sick Man of Europe.”
The young but the revolutionary generation of late Ottoman elites pioneered a drastic political transformation after the foundation of the Republic. The underlying theme of Gokce’s account is the continuity both at institutional and the generational level as the late Ottoman progressives were the ones who spearheaded a revolutionary change during the Republican era.
Echoing a novel approach spawned by the Dutch historian Erick Jan Zurcher whose views upended the ascendant academic perspective about the major contours of transition between the Ottoman Empire and the new Republic of Turkey by highlighting the notion of continuity, Gokce takes comfort in the idea that there was a strong tradition accumulated in the late Ottoman era and it was later transferred to the Republican period to be used in the consolidation of the new regime.
Against the charges of pro-Western inclination sustained at the ministry throughout the Republican history, Gokce’s views concur with the other diplomat. In his personal view, Gokce also positively speaks of that much-criticized tradition.
“Especially, as a legal expert, I can say that Turkish diplomacy was able to cogently invoke international legal arguments in the best possible way to advance Turkey’s interests and to defend its priorities on the legal ground. The diplomacy was centered on a comprehensive and multidimensional approach, appealing to whatever tools available and using international law in a way to facilitate Turkey’s diplomatic agenda and goals.”
In this tradition, it could be said that making foreign policy had much solid footing and multi-layered processes. It was not made according to constantly shifting whims and wills of one ruler, who decides one thing at night, but speaks and demands another in the morning.
What gave coherence to its internal structure was the fact that the Foreign Ministry was mostly detached in the face of ever-changing domestic politics; it was usually independent of the partisan bickering among political parties that sometimes endlessly consumes the political agenda.
The purification of the foreign policy of populist messages, Gokce observes, was an indispensable ingredient of Turkish diplomacy. Although political parties often dialed up populist rhetoric and indulged in self-aggrandizement to whip up public support in the domestic realm, foreign policy, for much of the republican history, has been treated as a bipartisan matter that reflected Turkey’s stance in the world and supposedly transcended internal political divisions and elevated the national interest to a level of solemn importance. This, he believes, mostly shielded the Foreign Ministry from a descent into political jostling and partisan rancor that periodically hobbled the healthy functioning of Turkey’s legislative body.
Having said that, he never drops his guard against attempts for over-romanticizing and idealization of the diplomatic service. “We were and are not perfect, flawless. There is no need to romanticize it,” he says with a nod to modesty.
From Republican Realism to Neo-Ottomanism
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous mantra “Peace at home, peace abroad” has become the distillation of the whole paradigm that defines the foreign policy understanding of the Republican elites. This has been so since the foundation of the new republic as the founding fathers were pre-occupied with consolidating Turkey’s fragile territorial borders and hardly-won sovereignty following a costly, protracted independence war (1919–1923). It has become the ethos and identity of Turkey’s diplomacy until very recently.
The realism inherently embedded in that motto urges caution, avoidance of adventurism, an unflinching rejection of irredentism toward successor states of the Ottoman Empire in the region.
Though the previous risk-averse paradigm was never without flaws, the new era infamously associated with Ahmet Davutoglu’s self-proclaimed “Strategic Depth” and pro-active diplomacy is fraught with far more hazards and challenges.
The former foreign minister, the architect of the new paradigm, saw Turkey’s active involvement in the Middle East Affairs as something of “manifest destiny,” and sought to read both challenges and opportunities of the present day through the prism of history. Ankara’s advantage, Davutoglu contends, lies in history, the most elemental source of power for a modern state to rely upon.
According to him, Ankara would invoke the legacy of the Ottoman Empire to bolster its current position to correct the wrongs of the imperialist and colonialist design that shaped the modern Middle East following the First World War.
But Gokce discounts this argument and sees in political Islamists (though Davutoglu would not be clearly described as a subscriber to that ideology) a delusional and dangerous self-confidence devoid of objective analysis and knowledge of people’s true feelings with regard to the Ottoman experience across the region. “There is no nostalgia toward the Ottomans in the region,” he says with conviction.
For Gokce, who served, albeit briefly, in Egypt, the longing for the long-vanished Ottoman Commonwealth is nothing less than a delusion. The “pro-active diplomacy,” wrapped in a subtle narrative of neo-Ottomanism, rests on a misplaced idea and romanticism that has no bearing on the reality itself. “The Arab people,” he avers, sharing his observation, “have no fondness for the restoration of the Ottoman past.”
While the grand postulate of neo-Ottomanism would be dismissed as mere theoretical and intellectual speculation with little practical implications for current policymaking, the new pro-active doctrine had immediate ramifications for Turkey’s foreign policy, as Turkey’s ill-conceived plunge into the Syrian war clearly demonstrates.
In Gokce’s view, the way how Turkey’s entanglement in the prolonged Syrian conflict played out was a clear-cut deviation from the republican tradition and an embodiment of the romanticism that guided Ankara’s regional policies after Arab Spring. Although Turkey also embroiled in conflicts (see Cyprus) in some periods of the republican era, it was due to an acute sense of urgent security threats (to the Turkish community in the island) or directly to the country (from PKK based in northern Iraq), but not for some mere hankering for expansion of Turkey’s sphere of influence in the pursuit of a grander scheme.
In Syria, Ankara pushed for a regime change in a clear departure from its longstanding policy of non-intervention in its neighbors’ affairs. If this represents a radical break in its usual diplomatic course, the murky contact with extremist groups fighting to topple the Syrian regime constitutes a far more hazardous policy, unseen in republican history.
Contacts with some non-state actors with jihadist tropes and outlook, Gokce argues convincingly, would invite legal trouble for Turkey in the long run.
For him, Iran is one of the leading countries which have no scruples in cultivating close ties with such jihadist and extremist actors. But it did not work well for Tehran.
The Turkish diplomat reminds that Iran is regarded by the free world to be in the category of rogue states. In a somber note, Gokce points to the dreadful prospect of the same label being attached to Turkey after its foreign policy is increasingly imbued with similarly foggy and problematic engagements.
Having said that, Gokce is not unacquainted with the knowledge that all intelligence agencies, including the Western ones, have some form of communication with (similarly problematic) non-state organizations in one way or another. But what worries him is a wildly-circulated rumor that Turkey keeps that dialogue in levels higher than the Western countries normally do in their dealings with similar groups. This contact, Gokce laments, takes place at the very top levels in Turkey.
Another hazardous element that imperils Turkey’s diplomacy is Ankara’s blatant violation of international law and norms. Ankara’s current rulers not only act recklessly, but also imprudently and unwisely by providing a lot of materials to its adversaries and rivals, to the detriment of its own legal position.
The most striking example of this, the former diplomat elucidates persuasively, is Turkey’s overseas abductions of dissidents of the Erdogan government.
“This is a breach of sovereignty of other countries, a lack of respect for the non-violable sovereign rights of host countries where such incidents take place. These elements are organized/governed in the fourth section of the second article of the United Nations Charter. Separately, there is also international customary law, which is as important and binding as the U.N. conventions. Though those rules may not be written down, they are still binding for and observed by states in equal measure.”
The government, he laments, no longer complies with norms of international customary law.
In this legal context, Turkey’s global kidnapping campaign, according to him, not only violates international human rights laws, but also repudiates the central principle of international customary law — the display of due respect for the sovereignty of each country.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Moldova and Kosovo, the countries where kidnappings occurred, have become targets of increasing international criticism.
If this subject is brought to The Hague, Gokce notes, this would create serious problems for Turkey.
Another predicament that haunts Turkey is the increasing populism in foreign policy and the conflation of external and internal politics. The dispatch of a minister to the Netherlands for political campaigning for a referendum back in Turkey in April 2017 and other similar rallies are not compatible with prudent and coherent diplomacy, he observes.
The foreign policy, in his view, falls victim to the needs of the government’s political agenda in the domestic realm.
The shooting of a Russian warplane in late 2015 and how it became politicized to bolster the president’s tough man image outside is one example from recent memory, something that exposes the pitfalls rooted in blurring the line between serious foreign policy issues and the political discourse meant for the domestic consumption. The populist bravado and saber-rattling aimed at rousing public support only exacerbate the delicate issue at hand.
But as the aftermath of the Russian jet crisis demonstrates, it seems to be that no lesson is learned from that saga and from others.