“Turkey has now lost its power to form alliances”

My guest this week is Sinan Ülgen, Head of the Board of Directors of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) one of the leading think tanks of Turkey. In our pleasant interview we discussed Turkey’s international profile, Turkey’s regional role, foreign policy issues awaiting resolution and predictions relating to the future.

“Turkey has now lost its power to form alliances”

For our readers, could you please provide some information about EDAM and its activities?

EDAM has been active for ten years. EDAM’s purpose of establishment is to provide a bridge between Turkey and the outside world. Consequently, we have tried to both reflect the debates in Turkey to the outside world and provide the point of view in Turkey to various global issues.  Today, EDAM continues its activities around four main themes. The first is Turkish foreign policy. In our early years, this theme predominantly featured relations with the EU. The second is security policy. This theme covers issues such as relations with NATO, the Syrian issue and weapons of mass destruction. Our third theme is international economics; in this sense we are trying to contribute to Turkey’s G20 agenda. We are involved in this year’s study on an analysis of the competitiveness of the different provinces in Turkey, a study that we also conducted last year and which drew a lot of attention. The final theme is a programme on energy and climate change. In recent years we have studied Turkey’s transition period to nuclear energy. We have provided analysis with regard to what must be done to ensure that this is secure and safe. We have become the think tank most recognized abroad in the last ten years. This status was also reflected in the list collated by the University of Pennsylvania. We were in fourth place in the MENA region of which Turkey is also included, in other words we are the Turkish institution with the highest ranking. We are ranked as 15th within the best defence think tanks and ranked as 10th for best think tank activities. Internationally recognised ranking studies are important both for establishing recognition and credibility.

As the head of an institution that is active within the field of international relations, have you observed a change in Turkey’s international profile within the past five years?

It is possible to state that 2011 was a breaking point for Turkish foreign policy.

Was the Arab Spring this breaking point?

Of course. The Arab Spring created a misconception. Turkey predicted that after democratic principles were embraced following the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in the region, the parties adhering to political Islam that had larger support amongst the public would come to power. There was an expectation that by increasing its political presence in these countries through AK Party – a party that also had its roots in political Islam – Turkey would become the strongest and most influential country in the Middle East. The developments did not happen in this way. First the Muslim Brotherhood collapsed in Egypt. As Turkey was insistent in this policy that greatly emphasized its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, relations with the Gulf states grew tense and problematic both on a reciprocal level and a regional level.  Ultimately Turkey is at a very different place today, than it was in 2011. For example, in 2009 Turkey received 151 votes for its candidacy for a temporary membership to the UN Security Council. When it stood as candidate last October it was only able to get 64 votes. This shows us how much ground Turkey has lost. Power in foreign policy is essentially identified with the power to form alliances. The healthier and multilateral alliances you form and the more you push your agenda through these alliances, the more influential of a country you are on the global stage. Turkey now appears as a country with weakened opportunities to form alliances. Today Turkey’s relations with Europe are problematic. Its relations with the countries of the region are problematic and its relations with the USA are also not well.

Can we say that tensions in the relations with the USA has developed in parallel particularly to differences in Middle East strategy and the Obama administration deciding not to take military action against the Assad regime in Syria?

The differences being witnessed in the Turkey-USA relations is not solely based on foreign policy, domestic developments in Turkey have also played a role in this. It is a factor that recently it has taken a step back in areas such as democratisation, human rights and the rule of law. In this sense, the breaking point is not Syria, it is Gezi. As the government expressed its reaction to the right to peaceful protest – an essential element of democracy – in the form of heavy-handed police action, Turkey’s image abroad and its relations with the USA were severely impacted. Of course, the Syrian issue is not the only problem in the area of foreign policy. In this area, Turkey’s policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkey-Israel relations that constantly fail to normalise are other sources of conflict.

On one hand targets are set that place importance on improving relations with the EU on an institutional level. On the other hand, at individual level blunt and harsh messages are exchanged. Do you think the aim of EU membership has been suspended? Will relations from now on continue by navigating around the issue of membership?

I would not want to say that it has been suspended. Both sides accept it as an official aim. However, in practice the relations are going through a crisis. In the last four years only a single chapter has been opened for negotiation. The progress reports that are issued by the EU have been increasingly critical with every year. The reason for this is the fact that since Gezi and December 17, the steps taken by Turkey in the areas of democratisation and the rule of law have all been regressive. Turkey is creating the image that rather than extending the field of freedoms, the field of freedoms is being restricted.

Let’s consider Turkey-Israel relations. Why is the tension in the relations being constantly increased? What is hoped to be achieved as a result of this type of pressure? Most recently we withdrew from participation in the Munich Security Conference due to Israel’s participation.

I believe this was a great mistake. I see the fact that our Foreign Minister not wanting to be at the same forum as a disadvantage. This is because Turkey is a country with the maturity and skill to state if it has a problem with Israel. There should be no withdrawal from this. François Mitterrand once stated: “You will always be proven wrong in a place where you are not present.”

When we consider Turkey-Israel relations, the relations in the field of diplomacy are not parallel to economic relations.

I do not see this as a contradiction. The Turkish economy is not a state-lead economy. Turkey is an economy in which the private sector is predominant and the private sector proceeds along the path that is in line with their interests. In this sense, as the most developed economy in the region, Israel appears as an appropriate commercial stakeholder.

If we are to return to politics; the reason for the tension is the sensitivity that has become associated in connection to the Palestine issue. Compared to the past, there is a different sensitivity. Turkey used to be a country which did not carry the Palestine issue into its domestic politics to such a degree. In recent times, foreign policy and domestic policy has become increasingly intertwined. In democratic societies it is natural for domestic and internal policy to interact with each other to a certain degree, as accountability also has to be provided to the general public with regards to foreign policy issues. However, in Turkey this has gone to extremes. Domestic policy appears as an area in which results need to be achieved in a lot shorter period, for example during elections… On the other hand, foreign policy is an area involving proceedings that must be continued sometimes for generations, which must proceed along the lines of long term analysis that may not bear immediate results. When these two intersect and when foreign policy becomes indexed on domestic policy, foreign policy is harmed. I believe that Turkey must focus on what its actual benefit is in the area of foreign policy.

Is Turkey an indispensible country in terms of the resolution of regional problems?

Yes, it is an indispensible country, but it is also a country that has debilitated its capacity to provide a positive impact on such resolutions. This is due to the fact that it is not a part of the coalitions that are aimed at the resolution of regional problems. This is the case for issues such as Syria, Iraq, Cyprus and Egypt. This is both a detriment for Turkey and also – as Turkey is unable to play such a role – a missed opportunity in terms of regional peace.

If we are to focus on recent developments, how should we interpret the fact that two representatives from Rojava (PYD and YPJ) were hosted in the Elysee Palace in France and that news of a US base being established in Northern Iraq – which was first brought up in September of last year – have once again gained prominence?

I believe that the two are separate issues. The fact that the PYD representatives were hosted in the Elysee shows that, after Kobani, the movement that represents the Kurdish formation on the Syrian side is ultimately gaining legitimacy. We can see that they have defeated ISIS and have achieved increased international prestige.

I do not think the likelihood of the US establishing a base is high. Iraq’s future is still uncertain. Suicide bombings are still happening in Bagdad in Iraq. The post-Maliki government has started taking the relatively correct steps. There is more representative and inclusive governance. The US establishing a base while uncertainties persist about the future of Northern Iraq will make it a direct party to the internal affairs of Iraq. However, the most recent Obama policy has been the disengagement of America from the Middle East. They have already disengaged from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc made a statement referring to rising polarization and problems with respect to governability in Turkey. What kind of a political landscape do you forsee in the aftermath of June 7 elections?

Turkey has lost its quality to be governed on a shared consensus. Instead, for quite a long time, decisions have been taken and implemented based on the interests of the majority. I think this approach has reached its limits. as for making political projectiions for the upcoming elections, I believe we can make a better evaluation once we see the political equations in the Parliament.



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