Turkey: A Post-American Foreign Policy?

Turkey: A Post-American Foreign Policy?

When we see images of a soldier from something called the "master race" shooting a baby and his buddy killing a helpless young girl, we assume they portray events from the Nazi years, perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto. But the soldiers in the drama shown last week on Turkish state-owned television are Israelis, and the victims Palestinians.

Turkish state TV is not so free that it could broadcast such fare without a wink from the government, which is why AJC protested vehemently to the Turkish foreign minister.

Earlier, Turkey canceled Israeli participation in the multinational "Anatolian Eagle" air exercise. The announcement that Israel was not wanted came with contradictory explanations. "Once the situation in Gaza is improved," opined Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu—the moving spirit behind Turkish foreign policy—“a new atmosphere would be reestablished between Israel and Turkey." But a high-level source in the Turkish Air Force told the newspaper Zaman that the cancellation was unrelated to politics. Rather, it reflected displeasure over delays in the delivery of Israeli-built pilotless airplanes. Others understood the step more ominously, noting that it coincided with a visit to Syria by ten Turkish government ministers and the announcement of joint military maneuvers between the two countries.

Some in Israel focused on the insult. The Foreign Ministry called in the Turkish chargé d'affaires over the bigoted broadcast, and unions angrily canceled group travel packages that account for about half of Turkey's considerable tourist trade with Israel. But Defense Ministry officials soft-pedaled their response and pointed to other aspects of the bilateral relationship that were continuing normally. The Israeli leadership appears to be communicating the message that it can live—unhappily to be sure—with certain changes in Turkey's foreign policy, but not with the kind of slander shows on Turkish TV.

Israel's moderate response comes in reluctant recognition that Turkey's actions reflect a long-term national dilemma rooted in several factors: EU ambivalence toward Turkish membership; the harsh dictates of geography; and declining U.S. influence in the region. While the personal pique of Turkey's mercurial prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and the Islamist ideology of his ruling party certainly influence developments, they are far from the whole story.

Despite drastically reforming its economic and political systems, Turkey is unlikely to achieve EU membership any time soon, and this leaves the Turks nervous. Besides EU members Greece and Bulgaria, who may be assumed to be peaceful, Turkey has long and dangerous borders with several volatile nations: the traditional enemy Russia hovering across the Black Sea, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan, with which it shares a tiny border. The current theory in Ankara is that if the Turks are to create a future for themselves outside the EU, they must stabilize relations with these neighboring countries.

If this looks to us like a movement away from the West, we do well to view it through Turkish eyes. As a national-security concept, it bears strong resemblance to the foreign policy of the avowedly secular, westernizing Ataturk regime of the interwar period (and to De Gaulle's strategy for France in the cold war). Increasingly less convinced of the practical reliability of its NATO membership and feeling left to its own devices, Turkey wants to get close to its neighbors in a purposefully balanced way. Where neighbors are at each other's throats, Turkey will triangulate those good relations rather than favoring one side over the other. This policy is already in operation: progress with Armenia (which AJC praised) has come at the expense of some Turkish ties with Azerbaijan, and triangulation between rivals is a major rationale for Erdogan’s upcoming trip to Tehran.

Turkey is trying to place itself in a similar position between Israel and Syria. For Israel, this may provide some small comfort, since the policy would seem to dictate a red line. Israel-Turkey relations may go through tense periods, rather like relations with Sweden, but the Turks would have a clear interest in making sure they do not deteriorate beyond that point. The question for the Turks to ponder, however, is whether being everyone's good-time friend will count for much if Turkey finds itself under threat and in need of genuine allies.

For AJC, an organization of Americans, the growing irrelevance of the U.S. to the process is significant. The Turks no doubt have noticed that the American Administration’s firm support of Turkish membership in the EU does not seem to matter, and similarly realize that the U.S. can be only modestly helpful in encouraging Turkish relations with neighboring countries. Cooperation with America yields fewer rewards than it used to, while disregarding American interests does not appear to carry serious risks. The U.S. response to the expulsion of Israel from "Anatolian Eagle" was to walk out of the maneuvers, thus canceling them (or, as the Turks quaintly put it, "converting them into national maneuvers"), but the State Department's finger-wagging was hardly calculated to drive fear into the hearts of anyone: "… we think it's inappropriate for any nation to be removed from an exercise like this at the last minute." And recent U.S. indecisiveness toward Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, the EU, Israel and the Palestinians give Erdogan even more reason to conclude that lost maneuvers and a scolding for bad manners are all he need fear.

Israel is asking similar questions about American relevance. A memo leaked recently from the Israeli Foreign Ministry suggested expanding Israel's foreign policy options beyond the U.S. connection, and it was followed up by the announcement of a working group on the subject of new priorities in Israeli foreign relations. Since Erdogan and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are far apart on everything else, their apparently shared evaluation of the standing of the United States should give us pause. Both men are often perceived as extremists, but neither should be dismissed as a fool.