BY PROFESSOR ILTER TURAN
Making and implementing foreign policy is a difficult process. Policymakers have to take into consideration a variety of factors not only including the international environment and the position of the other relevant external actors but also domestic politics and the ideological proclivities of the top decision makers. Under the circumstances, it is no surprise that predicting what a country will do, how it will behave in a specific situation is a challenging undertaking. If countries were to treat each foreign policy decision as being unique, it would have been indeed difficult to make predictions. Fortunately most countries make policy and implement it within the framework of a set of evaluations and assumptions about the external world.
For example, it may be safely assumed that a member of the EU will not pursue policies that necessitate its using military force against another member. Similarly, based on the historical feeling of guilt the Germans harbor about Jews, it may be safely judged that Germany would generally pursue policies that are supportive of Israel. When the international order is in flux, there may be fewer handles to rely on to predict the foreign policy actions of countries, but there is no such thing as the total absence of handles.
In view of the preceding discussion, if someone were asked to describe Turkish foreign policy these days, the person might find himself at a loss to summarize it. What are, so to speak, handles on Turkish foreign policy? It seems that the most striking feature of Türkiye’s external relations is that they are highly transactional. What does this mean? When the country ’s political leaders encounter an external development, they look at the particular case and make a decision based on the benefits and costs their specific action will bring just on that occasion. They do not conduct an elaborate evaluation of the country’s external relations and how their specific decision would fit in with the broader set of relations in which Türkiye finds itself. Such an approach has proven to be problematical. In communities to which Türkiye presumably belongs, it has ceased to be trusted partner, and therefore, it is often excluded from joint projects and the inner circles of decision making. A case in point is the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, an act that a NATO member was never expected to do. As a result, Turkey has not only been excluded from the F-35 project, but it continues also to experience difficulty in procuring F-16s.
A second feature of policy is that it is strongly colored by the ideologies and judgments of the country’s leadership rather than being the outcome of an elaborate process of institutional decision making. When combined with a transactional approach where decisions may easily be changed if expectations from a transaction are not borne out, this feature is a recipe for losing credibility.
One need not look further than economic policies colored by the belief of the leadership on paying interest on deposits and other funds. The insistence on deliberately keeping the interest rates low, among others, reduced external capital flows into the country and led to substantial depreciations in the value of the Turkish Lira. After major losses, the leadership changed the heads of the Ministry of Treasury and Finance as well as the head of the Central Bank. Since then, the Central Bank has steadily increased interest rates while the Minister has gone on international tours to persuade investors that they should come to Turkey. This policy has not so far succeeded for the simple reason that the investors fear that if the expectations of the political leadership are not materializing fast, the leadership of the economy and economic policy may easily be changed. Expressed differently, the international investors do not find the transactional and non-institutional approach Türkiye has been pursuing in economics as being sufficiently trustworthy to proceed with investments since it may change with the whims of political leadership.
The top leadership also believes that religion constitutes a major bond between peoples in the region and people sharing the same religion constitute a cohesive community with shared interests. Empirical evidence supporting such an assumption is indeed scant. To begin with, there are major divisions among the believers and some treat others that belong to a different sect or order as more of an enemy than people who believe in other religions. Next, the peoples of the region are divided into nation states that generate a stronger sense of national identity far surpassing the religious. Finally, the policymakers retain an innocent belief that those that came under Ottoman rule are favorably disposed toward Turkey. This is simply not true and Turks are generally not admired in the lands of the Arabs.
By way of conclusion, transactional policies based on questionable assumptions has not led to a successful Turkish foreign policy but a reduction in Turkish influence in the region, the undermining of the country ’s credibility and leading to its isolation.