The role of rationality in Turkish foreign policy
In international relations, to maximize the benefits to national interests of the state, decision-makers try to adopt what is known as a “rational approach” to foreign policy, which can fail or succeed depending on the conjuncture of events and developments at the internal, regional and international levels.
On Monday, while addressing the 10th annual Ambassadors’ Conference, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would employ a rational foreign policy and it would boost relations with China and Russia.
His message was immediately followed up by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who underlined the fact that Turkey would continue to develop its cooperation with China, particularly through Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Regarding relations with Russia, he stressed that cooperation with Moscow will remain one of the fundamental elements of Turkish foreign policy.
“Our relationship has critical value also for the prosperity and stability in our vast geography,” said Cavusoglu. “With the principle of transparency, we put forward our views and stance on the issues that we are in disagreement with Russia.”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also attended the conference. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was the first time that a top Russian diplomat had addressed such a meeting. Lavrov’s presence in Ankara sends a significant message amid the increasing tension between NATO allies Turkey and the US, and reports of a looming crisis over the opposition-controlled Syrian enclave of Idlib.
From time to time, Turkey’s growing cooperation with Russia, Iran and China triggers debates over a possible shift of axis in Turkish foreign policy. In response to these arguments, Cavusoglu stated clearly that Turkey has been establishing ties with diverse actors from different regions, but that this does not mean Turkey has been experiencing an axis shift. He described Turkish foreign policy as having a “360-degree view.”
In a clarification of his stance on the crisis between Turkey and the US, Erdogan contributed an Op-Ed published last weekend in the New York Times, titled “How Turkey sees the crisis with the US,” in which he warned that the continuing row between the NATO allies could lead to the dissolution of ties and a shift eastward by Ankara. However, it is certainly not the case that Ankara will shift its view Eastward at the expense of the West, though it might try to apply a rational approach in balancing two sides in an increasingly unstable, volatile and conflict-torn region.
Turkey’s growing cooperation with Russia, Iran and China triggers debates over a possible shift of axis.
Needless to say, Ankara and Washington are suffering a deep political crisis based on several issues. Yet Turkey has been one of the pillars of US foreign policy in the Middle East. It is also a crucial partner in rebuilding war-torn Syria, where several actors, most notably Russia and Iran, are jockeying for power. Russia and China could be considered significant partners with whom to agree on some aspects in Syria, but they are unlikely to be an alternative to a Turkish-American alliance that has endured for years.
For instance, China is a country that sets its own rules in the game, pursuing a shadow policy in the region based on its own national interests, which might conflict with those of Turkey. Russia, with whom Ankara has been part of a peace process in Syria, has its own agenda in that country, and is actually not a power able to compensate in the region for the diminishing relationship with the US.
Moreover, Turkey’s membership of the Western alliance serves Russian interests, in contrast to opposing arguments. Iran, meanwhile, which is a country aspiring to be a regional power, cannot be considered an ally due to regional policies that significantly differ from Ankara’s. However, it could be a disturbing sticking point in Turkey’s relations with the West. While the US has been increasing pressure on nations around the world to isolate Iran, Turkey has declared that it will have no part in renewed US sanctions.
Due to the conflicting stances and policies, then, Russia, China and Iran are hardly an alternative to the US — yet these three countries play a significant role in strengthening Turkey’s hand in its dispute with the West, and with the US in particular.
A tricky balancing act does not necessarily bring benefits. Sometimes, in fact, it can lead to adverse consequences. However, persevering with this balancing act by adopting a rational approach could ease Turkey’s current position, because Turkish foreign policy gets its power from balancing itself between diverse actors. It is likely, therefore, we can expect Turkey to maintain its balancing act between West and the East, based on a multi-dimensional, pragmatic and rational foreign-policy approach.
This is also evident in the Turkish initiative to hold a four-way summit on Syria, scheduled for Sept. 7 in İstanbul, between Turkey, Russia, Germany and France. Turkey needs the help of both sides in the Syria crisis. While Germany and France are important Western partners who can help to deal with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis with regard to refugees, Russia appears, potentially, to be the actor that might be able to ease Turkey’s concerns over the situation in Idlib.
During his visit to Ankara, Lavrov discussed the preparations for the upcoming summit. Idlib — which not only poses the threat of becoming a military flashpoint between Ankara and Damascus, but might even harm Turkish-Russian ties — was the hot topic. With the Syrian regime seemingly determined to mass its forces around Idlib in preparation for a major assault, there is still a big question mark over how Turkey, which has declared Idlib to be a “red line,” and Russia, a major supporter of the regime, will react. Idlib might become the biggest test yet of the role of rationality in Turkish foreign policymaking.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.