Trans-Pacific View

Turkey’s Geostrategic Context and Calculus

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Trans-Pacific View

Turkey’s Geostrategic Context and Calculus

Insights from Sinan Ulgen

Turkey’s Geostrategic Context and Calculus
Credit: Government of Chile

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia. This conversation with Sinan Ulgen – visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, founding partner of Istanbul Economics, a Turkish consulting firm that specializes in public and regulatory affairs, and chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, author of Governing Cyberspace: A Road Map for Transatlantic Leadership, Handbook of EU Negotiations, and The European Transformation of Modern Turkey with Kemal Derviş, and served in the Turkish Foreign Service in several capacities: in Ankara on the United Nations desk (1990–1992); in Brussels at the Turkish Permanent Delegation to the European Union (1992–1996); and at the Turkish embassy in Tripoli (1996) – is the 51st in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

Situated at the nexus of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Turkey’s geostrategic context is becoming increasingly volatile. Explain Ankara’s strategic calculus behind the “no problems with neighbors” policy.

The rationale behind the “no problems with neighbors” policy was a desire to enhance Turkey’s set of bilateral relationships with its own neighbors. It was believed that in the past, mostly due to the geopolitical context of the region, Turkey’s relationship with its own neighborhood had not reached its potential. So a real diplomatic drive was launched to build a stronger neighborhood policy underpinned by a vision of economic collaboration. It was hoped that the increase in economic interdependence would also positively impact the political relationships. This diplomatic campaign was captured with the much popularized slogan of “zero problems with neighbors.” But this policy which actually had started to bring visible benefits for Ankara in the form of growing prestige and regional influence was eventually sidelined with the onset of the Arab Spring which encouraged Turkish policy makers to adopt a more ambitious, assertive and interventionist approach as they started to develop a neo-Ottomanist vision and rhetoric. The former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wanted to transform Turkey as the order-setter of the Middle East.

Assess the viability of Turkey’s recent restoration of relations with Israel and Russia.

Turkey’s post-Arab Spring policies have failed to advance the country’s national interest. On the contrary they have led to a weakening of bilateral ties and to an erosion of Turkey’s regional influence. Eventually Turkish policymakers were forced to re-evaluate their approach to regional issues. An effort to recalibrate Turkish foreign policy had been initiated two years ago. A key element of this foreign policy readjustment was the negotiations with Israel with a view to the normalization of the relationship. This objective was successfully achieved with a formal agreement with Tel Aviv this past month. At the same time, Ankara strived to normalize its relationship with Moscow that suffered significantly after the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey last November. The normalization with Israel and Russia will however proceed at a different pace and with different expectations. With Israel, the aim is to rebuild a mutually beneficial framework for security and intelligence cooperation against the backdrop of region beset by growing instability and shaken by the emergence of the Islamic State. Another objective is the joint leveraging of the off shore gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. With Russia the more short-term aim is to end the current level of confrontation and acrimony as well as the economic sanctions imposed by Russia which have affected the Turkish economy and more particularly the domestic tourism industry quite severely.

Amid ongoing ISIS attacks, how might Turkey and the EU effectively manage the Syrian refugee situation?

Turkey and the EU have negotiated an ambitious cooperation package on refugees. The agreement has several components. Turkey agrees to take back the Syrian refugees from the Greek islands as well as other illegal migrants back from Europe. In return the EU is to provide a sizeable financial assistance to the tune of 6 billion euros over two years for Turkey to better address the needs of 2.8 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. EU and Turkey are to progress with the accession talks with the opening of new chapters. The EU is also expected to grant visa freedom to Turkish citizens. But this promise is conditional on Turkey fulfilling a set of pre-established criteria. It is this last component, which for many is seen as the main factor motivating the Turkish government to agree to this deal, which is the most fragile element of the package. Indeed the Turkish government now seems unwilling to comply with a few of the remaining criteria which involve changes in the country’s anti-terror legislation. Negotiations are ongoing in order to concoct a mutually agreeable formula to overcome this stumbling block. Ankara expects the EU to deliver visa freedom by October.

Explain how President Erdogan’s leadership ambitions impacts domestic political dynamics and foreign policy decision-making.

Erdogan’s aspiration to introduce an executive presidency in Turkey’s Constitution is shaping both the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the country. At the domestic level, the country continues to operate in pre-electoral mood given that either a referendum or snap elections can be held in the near future to change the constitution. This expectation prevents long term policy making and perpetuates the high degree of political polarization. With the former prime minister having been forced to step down, Erdogan is increasingly inclined to operate as a de facto executive president with almost no scope of independent policy making left to the new prime minister. This also means that foreign policy making has shifted to a significant degree to the presidential palace.

What are three priorities for the next U.S. president in advancing relations with Turkey?

A new U.S. president should aim to maintain and solidify Turkey’s Western anchor. This would mean giving more scope for NATO to help with Turkey’s security concerns. It also means including Turkey in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership which is set to constitute the economic pillar of the transatlantic partnership. Finally Ankara and Washington should seek to develop a common frame of analysis on the regional situation and particularly the future of Syria and Iraq including the Kurdish issue.​