It’s a dizzying geopolitical landscape: Relations with Russia are deteriorating but relations with the U.S. appear to be on the mend. A few short months ago it was the reverse – it seemed like the Russians were Turkey’s friend and the Americans its enemy. Globally, geopolitical seas are roiling and while it sometimes seems like Turkey is doing the best it can, at others it feels like its policies are on the verge of collapse. Does Turkey have any agency in the current world disorder or is it just at the mercy of these geopolitical storms?
Adnan R. Khan: Is Turkey in a position to shape geopolitical events? Does it have agency?
Ilter Turan: There is no doubt that Turkey has agency. The real problem, however, stems from the fact that Turkey has not crafted a careful foreign policy that tries to match its means with its ends or the foreign policy goals it aims to achieve. When we look at foreign policy, we may judge that it is pursuing a number of goals that it simply cannot achieve simultaneously on its own.
Let us take a look at Syria, for example. We see that in Idlib, Turkey is trying to work with the Russians. But on the other hand, it is also trying to work with the Americans to balance the Russians because the Russians want patiently but surely to bring Idlib under the control of the Assad government.
When we look at east of the Euphrates, we see the U.S. backing the YPG, which Turkey deems to be a terrorist organization. Again, despite the protestations of the Turkish government, the American government has been insensitive to its concerns. In the end, Turkey does not appear to have the means to modify substantially the behavior of either the Russians or the Americans.
If we turn to Libya, we find a similar situation. There France, Russia, the Saudis, the UAE and the Egyptians are allied against the legitimate government in Tripoli, which Turkey is supporting. In the military domain, Turkey appears to be pretty much by itself in trying to fight off this coalition. Although it has so far enjoyed some success, because it does not have a coalition behind it and lacks the means to push things further by itself, currently it is expending a lot of resources just to maintain the position it has achieved.
When you analyze all these undertakings as an impartial observer, the conclusion you must draw is that the energies of Turkey are dissipated in different directions. Turkey has been singularly unsuccessful in building stable international coalitions to achieve its goals. These coalitions need not be the same on all fronts, but they are necessary.
Adnan R. Khan: Being a Canadian, this all sounds somewhat familiar to me. The debate over Canada’s role in the world has been raging for decades. As a middle power, how should it shape its foreign policy to have the most impact? Coalition-making always comes up as a key strategy. A country like Canada is not going to really impact international relations on its own. Turkey is also a middle power but it seems to want to play in the big leagues where it struggles to exert influence on its own. Does Turkey need to shift its entire frame of thinking about what role it can to play in the world?
Ilter Turan: Turkey and Canada are two very different countries. Canada, in the end, is safe in its own region; Turkey, on the other hand, is located in a highly contentious part of the world. Also, Turkey has a much larger and growing population. With that said, I do agree that what Turkey seems not to appreciate at the moment is that although it may at some future point be a greater power, currently it is a middle power with a vulnerable economy. It should take that reality into consideration in the policies it follows and rely more on peaceful methods of conducting international politics – exercises of soft power, coalition-building – and not rely so much on displays, threats or use of hard power.
Adnan R. Khan: Being in such a complicated neighborhood, how can Turkey balance its relationships better?
Ilter Turan: At the most fundamental level, Turkey seems to have a mindset problem. Turkish policymakers think that if the Russians are not accommodating to Turkey, then Turkey may simply move closer to the Americans, and vice versa. The fact is that these are two great powers that have their own agendas. They will cooperate with you to the extent that it serves their purposes. To get closer to this or that country is not a decision that Turkey can make exclusively on its own. There has to be a convergence of interests on both sides. I think rather than moving between sides, Turkey has to manage a more multilateral relationship so as to preserve some autonomous space in which it can conduct its own foreign policy. To say if you do this or that we will move to the other side is, in fact, mortgaging your foreign policy to other countries.