Foreign Ministry’s Influence Over Turkey’s Diplomacy Irrevocably Shrinks (II)
The accounts of two purged diplomats reveal a ministry in shambles. The once-revered diplomatic service is paralyzed by one-man rule, political favoritism and institutional rot.
A Ministry in Shambles
Apart from stories of personal tragedies, there is an institutional dimension that radiates constant anxiety over the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy, the making of its diplomacy and over the fact that a once-revered ministry is coming apart amid the fraying professional culture and increasing nepotism.
Gokce’s personal tale offers a vivid glimpse into the internal transformation of a ministry once aspiring to have a generation of properly trained and well-educated diplomats standing up to the demands and tasks of the times.
Consistent with his personal witnessing during his brief service at the ministry, Turkey paid due attention to and mostly complied with international law in a not-too-distant past. But the shifting political winds at home, especially in the context of post-coup purge, dramatically altered Turkey’s behaviors toward international law as the Erdogan administration increasingly began to act as a wrecking ball in international politics, paying next to no attention to consensus-seeking and law-abiding mechanisms previously attached to the ethos of the Foreign Ministry. The law-abiding diplomacy, as Gokce’s accord reveals, has now become a bygone feature of history with little bearing on the politics of the present.
During his years in the Ministry, Gokce’s job was related to offering his expertise to examine the compatibility of bilateral or multilateral documents with state practice and the 90th article of Turkey’s constitutional law as well as international law.
“Additionally, I was also tasked with examining international law and established customary practice from the perspective of internal law structure of the Ministry.”
He offered thorough and comprehensive legal analyses regarding what kind of procedures the Ministry should follow with regard to legal conflicts in certain policy areas. This meant examination of existing international agreements, bilateral treaties, and other relevant international documents to be used as a reference point for foreign policy proposals.
The political favoritism is a stain on the internal coherence of the Ministry as the promotion of diplomats is increasingly influenced by political elements rather than professional and traditional contours that were once the hallmarks of the Ministry’s idiosyncratic identity.
But things were not flawless even during his time in the diplomatic service.
“A former ambassador was dismissing and firing contracted workers at will, stamping out conventional norms and basic procedures,” he remembers.
“A team of experts, of which I feel fortunate to be part, established a strong legal mechanism to eliminate arbitrariness and perceived nepotism attributed to the overseas assignment and personnel promotion. Some career diplomats and workers would fast-track the usual process through political links to make themselves appointed to much-coveted A-list diplomatic posts in the Western world, in countries such as the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and others.”
As he recalls, if someone has political connections, this could make possible his rapid ascent and promotion through the rank and file. To put it simply, those lucky figures would be directly assigned to European and Western countries, while those who do not have any political endorsement from the ruling party would mostly go to regions whose economic and safety conditions fail to be a source of attraction for assignment.
To overcome this unfair practice, the legal team, along with whom Gokce worked together, crafted a merit-based system that offered a chance to every aspiring career diplomat to serve both in Western and non-Western parts of the world and in regions where their respective expertise lies.
The team also restructured and organized all internal procedures, including the interpretation of exam procedure, the diplomat selection process and overseas assignments, to make them more legally sound and fair while removing the potential source of grudge among the personnel.
But, he adds with a caveat, that system is no longer in place as authorities pay scant attention to internal cohesion of the ministry at the moment. During his brief stint at the headquarters of the Ministry, he was mostly occupied with this kind of tasks elaborated above.
Apart from that, he also separately worked in the Turkish Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, before the breakdown of diplomatic ties with the country after the military intervention in 2013. He worked in Vietnam, too, in his brief but action-packed and colorful career at the Ministry.
From Monsieurs to AK Trolls
One of the defining features of Turkey’s identity politics and never-ending culture wars is mainly related to the question of filling the ranks of the bureaucracy, including the Foreign Ministry, as shifting political grounds sometimes would herald a new composition, to a varying degree, in public service. As Ataturk firmly anchored Republican Turkey in the Western orbit, the elite diplomatic service became the embodiment of Westernized Turkish culture. Quite congenial to the underlying orientation and ideological outlook of the state, the diplomatic service had largely been reserved for Turkey’s secular elites for much of the republican history.
This detached and exclusive culture attached to the Foreign Ministry has consequently become a source of envy and disdain for non-secular quarters of the society. The perceived elitism even became a source of mockery as President Erdogan and other conservative figures frequently snubbed staunchly secular former senior diplomats as monsieurs. In so doing, the president unreservedly invokes the central theme of identity politics by firmly rooting the image of those diplomats as foreign figures, who are presented as no more than stooges and cultural agents of the Western world, in the mind of the ordinary folk. The linguistic battle to define serving diplomats has, by definition, become the locus of Turkey’s century-old culture wars.
As the ministry has undergone a monumental change after the post-coup purge, the former diplomat A.B. situates the former institutional norms in that definitive cultural context, but not with a negative connotation usually associated with the essence of the debate and the terminology tethered to it. Instead, he fondly and approvingly speaks of the ministry’s former culture and its personnel, something that he sees as normal and conducive to Turkey’s foreign policy orientation since the 19th century from the Ottoman days.
The fact that the foreign ministry was Western-oriented and its diplomats were Western-minded was not necessarily incoherent with the country’s historical trajectory and its policies in the past century, he reasons. Since its inception, the Republic of Turkey turned its face to the West and became a part of the Western security architecture through NATO membership. This has become an unflinching, bipartisan staple of Turkey’s state policy in the external realm, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry naturally became the central element of this policy/tendency.
Against this backdrop, the AKP rule spawned a gradual but dramatic shift in the complexion of the Foreign Ministry personnel. Understandable though it was, the attempt to break the mold of secular domination created far more dramatic repercussions, mostly to the detriment of the Ministry, than the government might have foreseen. If the new transformation policy in the 2000s helped diversify and enrich the human resources of the diplomatic service, the post-coup purge decisively reversed that process, undoing the positive gains of that expansion policy. Gokce and A.B. are themselves illustrating examples, and victims, of these two eras and two diametrically opposite policies. They both entered the service during Davutoglu’s tenure at the helm of Foreign Ministry. And they were both persecuted and purged in the post-coup crackdown, even if the purge’s precursors and signs had been building up well before the coup.
While perceived monsieurs’ sway over the ministry began to dwindle, the trolls sprang up everywhere. Take Umut Acar, the Consul General in Chicago. Never a day passes without Acar’s trolling and assaults against government critics. Many of the senior diplomats in the West are no different.
The unscrupulous juxtaposition of national interests and a political leader’s personal priorities has echoes in the Foreign Ministry as well. Turkey’s diplomats began to act more like political officials of the ruling party than the country’s diplomatic representatives abroad. This awkward association, for the observable part of Turkey’s modern history, has no historical precedents. This indicates that Turkey further drifts away from its traditionally impersonal and state-centered diplomatic culture to a new one where the loyalty to a larger-than-life political persona has become the new norm, even at the Foreign Ministry.
The diplomat A.B. declines to comment on the new breed of diplomats whether they are qualified for the task or not. But he says, with a firm belief, that those who were dismissed in the post-coup purge were highly qualified for the job. The majority of them, he averred, had degrees from the most respected colleges in the country and around the world, like Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford and John Hopkins.
Foreign Ministry’s Shrinking Influence In Making of Diplomacy
The predicament of Turkey’s diplomacy is, according to the tales of the diplomats and countless many other scholars, of the current government’s own making. The slow-motion unraveling of Turkey’s once-respected diplomatic culture and institutions are less to do with external dynamics than with the maelstrom of domestic politics that lurched into one form of crisis into another in the past several years.
A.B., in an emailed statement, reveals how Turkey’s Foreign Ministry was reduced to a shadow of its former self. “It has been reduced to a Secretariat and its reports and views no longer carry any weight in the formation of the Turkish foreign policy,” he told me. Traditionally charged with leading foreign policy in all its facets and layers, the ministry increasingly began to lose its significance (and relevance) after Erdogan’s authoritarian turn.
According to the account of the former diplomat, the balance of power shifted toward the presidential palace where pillars of decisionmaking, either in domestic or foreign policy, are formed. The pivot also corresponds to a wider reality in Turkey’s political landscape as tenets of the one-man regime began to replace a much more balanced rule mediated between legislative, executive and the judicial branches of the political system. The new executive presidency endowed President Erdogan with unprecedented and vast powers, never accrued to any politician since Ataturk, and chipped away at critical safeguards, checks and balances among different branches.
One reflection of this enormous power shift is also expressed in the evolution of foreign policy mechanisms and processes. “The Foreign Ministry,” the former diplomat notes in candid terms, “is no longer regarded by its peers as a policymaker in the foreign policy area. People and diplomats, not without reason, try to contact the true source of power, which lies at the Presidential Palace.”
After emphasizing the power shift from Foreign Ministry towards the Presidential Palace, the diplomat A.B. finds one-man rule a more appropriate term to describe the current state of regime in Turkey than the conception of party-state, which is invoked by scholars as an explanatory model to dwell upon the ever-evolving domestic politics.
In the concept of party-state, the party has a weight and relevance from an institutional angle. Former USSR countries, the Soviet Union and Syria could be defined as party-states, according to him.
“Even if the leader changes, the party still remains institutionally strong, picks up a new leader and extends its rule and preserves the system interminably. In the current situation of Turkey, I do not think that the ruling party has as much a determinant role in policymaking and state affairs as the state party enjoys in party-states.”
This reading brings him to recognize a seismic change in the contours and pillars of Turkey’s political system. And it is not entirely without consequences for Turkey’s foreign relations as well.
“If one person, one position comes to a point as a sole, supreme decision-maker in all fundamental issues without any checks and guardrails, this would also have profoundly negative repercussions for foreign policy. The Foreign Ministry, which had wielded remarkable power and weight in the formation of foreign policy since the foundation of the Republic, has now appeared to lose its institutional relevance to a significant degree.”
The policy input the Ministry personnel generates, he expounds, has little impact and influence over key foreign policy decisions in recent years. Nothing can better explain this conundrum than the recent S-400 crisis, which has opened cracks within NATO alliance and is inexorably driving a wedge between Turkey and the U.S. almost to a point of no return.
S-400 Predicament Is All About Erdogan’s Style of Governance
As Turkey found itself torn between Russia and the U.S./NATO in one of the most critical decision moments that would suspend Turkey’s centuries-old Western-oriented foreign policy, A. B. ascribes much of the blame on the president’s personal style of governance for the breakdown of traditional mechanisms regarding the conduct of Turkish diplomacy. What put Turkey into binding was, according to him, Erdogan’s rigid and inflexible stance, something that has left little wiggle-room for maneuvering to sort out the best policy option among a wide array of unpalatable choices.
After months of wrangling, Turkey finally received the delivery of the first of S-400 missile batteries in Murted AirBase in Ankara in early July, a momentous step that immediately spurred a steady expulsion of Turkey by the U.S. from joint F-35 fighter jet program. U.S. President Trump, enjoying an unusual personal bond with his Turkish counterpart, is mulling a set of options for sanctions against Turkey, but he has so far balked at doing that despite tremendous pressure from both chambers of the U.S. Congress. Required by the U.S. law, Trump may finally be compelled to place some, if not severely punitive, sanctions against the Erdogan administration; although this, by all indication so far, is not what he wants.
The exchange with the former diplomat came at this critical juncture. Though he sent his comments before the delivery of the S-400s, his insights are still consistent with central elements of the crisis. To say that the resolution or further escalation of the crisis seemingly depends on how President Erdogan navigates Turkish diplomacy through muddied waters is not incoherent and groundless.
“It would be much more adequate to assess what is happening not just within the current context but from a larger historical perspective. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. NATO was one of the most critical steps for Turkey’s orientation toward the West.”
NATO membership, he contends, played a very determining role in the development of Turkey’s democracy, its education level, the diversity and relative richness of its human resources, and the category of countries where it belongs to in the world.
He paints a bleak but widely-shared picture that features in most of the scholarly debate about the issue:
“I’m for the thought that as the prospect for Turkey’s accession to the EU becomes more unlikely, the acquisition of a Russian missile system is not just a tactical move for short-term interests, but it has the potential to upend Turkey’s 70-year Westward shift and orientation.”
What is more galling is the fact that the decision has not been properly debated in every aspect; academically, scholarly and diplomatically.
“Did we, as the country,” he went on to ask, “take this decision after an adequate deliberation and calculation over the strategic and diplomatic ramifications of such an important move?”
Or did the consolidation of power and decision-making process at the one office, one person following the decay of democratic institutions and the meltdown of relevant agencies responsible for policymaking, chiefly contribute to the S-400 decision?
His answer lies with the second option. With all his sincerity, he still expresses a hope that Turkey could survive the crisis with the least possible damage. Signs, however, may well point to the opposite. Only time will tell, once all the dust settles, whether this momentous purchase would mark a real pivot in Turkey’s foreign policy toward Russia or prove an insignificant and temporary shift only related to its weapons procurement policies.