Emergency steps are unlikely to be successful

It is evident that Turkey has been trying to mend fences with countries with whom its relationship has deteriorated, often as a result of initiatives taken by the Turkish government. For example, Turkey’s relationship with Egypt was paralyzed when Abdul Fettah Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Mohammed Mursi. Turkey’s negative reaction to the military takeover is understandable given the support it had extended to the Mursi government, but a total rupture in relations was not only unnecessary but also brought no positive outcomes for Turkey. Similarly, moving from friendly to adversarial relations with Israel to cater to the wishes of Hamas was a bad move. Many countries viewed the way Israel treated its Palestinian population as being unacceptable and said so openly, but they did not sever their relations with the country. This was in part because such a hardline position would be even less effective in pressuring Israel to mend its ways than more moderate means of persuasion.

Turkey’s hard-line policies toward countries with which it had policy disagreements, accompanied by the use of harsh rhetoric and insults towards governments and political leaders, have pushed it into a state of isolation in the region. The price of isolation has been high. As noted in earlier versions of this column, Turkey has been kept out of the economic zone demarcation process in the Eastern Mediterranean; it has been deprived of the support of pro-Israel lobbies in the United States which were the only major ethnic lobby that approached Turkish concerns with sympathy; its market in the Gulf region that included not only exports of goods but also services led by construction companies has dwindled; it is at loggerheads with the United States in Syria and with the Russians both in Syria and Libya. Greece and France have even come together in a pact against Turkey though all parties are NATO members.

Against this background, recent changes in Turkey’s external behavior and its attempts to rebuild its relations with former friends may come as a surprise. It is always possible, of course, for a country to recognize that its policy course was mistaken and it needs to be changed. This usually comes about with the departure of personalities that were associated with past policy and with clear indications that the policy is undergoing a fundamental shift. Recent foreign policy moves by the Turkish leadership , however, give no indication that the past policies may have been a mistake or that a new tack has been taken. Rather, there are moves being made here and there to improve relations with countries without a comprehensive change in foreign policy.

Depending on the reasons as to why the relations went bad in the first instance and what Turkey expects to get out of the improved relationship, the government is employing different tactics. With Israel and Egypt, improving relations would also lead to better relations with the United States, which might pave the way to purchasing new F-16s and improved economic benefits and trade. With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the clearest motivation appears to be money that the government desperately needs to keep the economy afloat and avert economic collapse.

The critical question is whether these different overtures to different countries will produce the intended results. The answer is uncertain. To begin with, these countries are all aware that Turkey is turning to them because its past policies have failed. They have no compelling reason to hurry to restore friendly relations. All of these countries have developed other alliances in the interim that exclude Turkey. In some instances, these new allies view Turkey in adversarial terms, and these countries might find it hard to sacrifice these new alliances for improved relations with Turkey. They would have to improve relations on their terms, something which Turkey might sometimes find difficult to accommodate. Next, as has been already noted, no one is sure that there is a reliable shift in Turkey’s external policy and whether current Turkish actions are guided by transactional considerations or by longer-term changes. Under the circumstances, to move quickly to restore good relations with Turkey would be risky behavior. Finally, everyone is aware that the Turkish government is faced with major economic problems and is under pressure to hold early elections that would likely lead to its defeat. Investing in such a government would be less than prudent.

Turkey has taken emergency steps in foreign policy to address problems that have accumulated over time. The chance that these steps will enable Turkey to overcome its problems and resume its regional leadership role is low. Indeed, long-term changes are difficult to correct with short-term measures.

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