Looking at the debate of 'Axial dislocation' in the context of Turkish foreign policy
By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin
In the recent years, the debate of ‘axial dislocation’ on Turkish foreign policy is on politicians/ commentators/ columnists/ policy makers’ agenda. As is known, there are very interesting scenarios about this issue. Although some commentators see this picture as a new form of global political system, large majority of columnists/politicians perceive it as a radicalization of Turkish foreign policy in favor of religion. So, they mainly describe this process as an ‘axial dislocation’. Then, firstly we should look at what it means.
As Mehmet Ali Birand has mentioned in his column in Hurriyet Daily News, “axial dislocation is, according to some opposing Washington’s politics, giving up shared politics with the EU, doing the opposite of whatever the Western world says and taking a step toward transforming Turkey into a religious state.”
When we evaluate recent developments in Middle Eastern politics, we can easily say that Turkey has become/is becoming a rising regional power. So, it pulled attention towards itself. As Omer Taspınar, Sabah Newspaper, says, nowadays, ‘Turkey is on America’s foreign policy agenda as it has never been in the past. Whether it is due to the Obama administration or intellectual circles, everyday interest in Turkey is rising’.
There is a debate about whether this axis shift is related with AKP(Justice and Development Party)’s Islamic roots or not. While some commentators focus on changing global political system and ‘Turkish government’s pragmatic foreign policy’, other people center upon “Turkey’s reassertion of its independence from the US and Zionist domination“ and returning to its own Islamic roots as was in pre-Kemalist period. On the other hand, there is a third group in which people think that AKP is playing chess as taking account of both Islamic roots and global realpolitik. In terms of third group, Seyfeddin Kara’s findings rationalize their ‘comment ground’. According to Seyfeddin Kara, Crescent Magazine, “the turning point for Turkey’s foreign policy came in the post 9/11 era. US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a wakeup call for Turkish policymakers who felt their repercussions severely: instability in Iraq gave rise to demands by the Kurds for an independent state. Additionally, Northern Iraq-based Kurdish separatist group PKK that has been fighting against Turkey became significantly freer in conducting its operations against Turkey. Turks are worried about possible US attacks on Syria and Iran; considering the sizable Kurdish population in these two countries, it would inevitably lead to the declaration of a de facto Kurdish state.”
Moreover, Soner Cagaptay, Wall Street Journal, puts into words his discomfort about Turkey’s changing ‘strategic depth’: For years Turkish foreign policy was driven by shared Western values, including democracy, membership to institutions like NATO and a sense of common destiny with Europe and the U.S. Since the AKP assumed power in 2002, Turkish foreign policy is increasingly driven by two new factors: religion and money.
These are all different viewpoints. So, firstly we should look at (so-called) problematic policies or acts in order to understand this issue in detail. But, before we focus on the events which are interpreted in the context of axial dislocation, I want to quote Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s three methodological principles on foreign policy. As Seyfeddin Kara mentions in his article, Davutoglu explains Turkey’s new foreign policy as follows:
- A visionary approach as opposed to a crisis-oriented approach: Turkey wants to liberate itself from a defensive stance and positively get involved in issues taking place in its proximity, i.e., mediation efforts between Syria and Israel, involvement in the Palestinian issue, Iranian nuclear issue, and reconciliation between Iraq’s political groups.
- Basing Turkey’s foreign policy on a “consistent and systematic” framework. Approaches to a certain region should not be incongruous with Turkey’s interests in other regions. There will be concurrence in implementing policies in different regions.
- Adoption of a new discourse of diplomatic style (soft power approach) that prioritizes Turkey’s “civil-economic” power.
Focusing on this ‘new paradigm’ was important because after we mention axial dislocation examples, we will find opportunity to evaluate this issue in depth.
Events which are interpreted as examples of axial dislocation
According to Dogu Ergil, Today’s Zaman, there are three simultaneous developments which have thrown Turkey’s policy makers off balance:
1) The way ships carrying aid were attacked, killing nine Turks and wounding many more and the later rough treatment of the passengers by Israeli security forces. Israel neither apologized nor issued a critical assessment of its deeds. The fact that this aggression will go without serious punishment has greatly disturbed the Turkish government and annoyed the Turkish public;
2) The growing concern of Western public opinion, especially that of American officialdom and the intelligentsia, concerning Turkish foreign policy taking a stance in line with radical Islamic actors such as Iran and Hamas;
3) After encouragement by the West, especially from the US, convincing Iran to halt its endeavor to produce a nuclear bomb and limit its uranium enrichment program to peaceful ends, with Turkey and Brazil securing a deal with Iran to this effect. Iran would bring in her low-enriched uranium stock to be exchanged with highly enriched stocks to be used in peaceful projects. Turkey and Brazil achieved a colossal task given Iran’s intransigence in this regard.
On the other hand, we can mention Omar Al-Bashir’s visiting to Ankara. As is known, while the Hague court's prosecutor request that Mr. Al-Bashir be arrested for committing genocide in Darfur, president Al-Bashir received a warm welcome in Turkey and some people have felt very discomfort. In addition to this, AK Party welcomed Iran's president to Istanbul and this has also become a very controversial issue between politicians/columnists.
What are the roots of new foreign policy rationale?
As we mentioned above, Ankara’s attitude toward Iran and the crisis with Israel following the Mavi Marmara incident have especially pulled Turkey into the center of the Middle East. So many Westerners have been asking whether Turkey has been redefining the main parameters of its foreign policy. There are very different answers to this question. While the causes of some different answers derive from methodological differences, the others derive from structural differences.
Deniz Zeybek, Radikal, in his writing entitled “The Arithmetic of
U.S.-Turkey-Israel Relations”, touches upon his meeting with a diplomat from Ankara and he tells the anxiety of this diplomat about Turkish foreign policy in association with Iran and Israel issues. Zeybek concludes his writing so: “I don’t think that analysts coming from Washington to Ankara see this scenario differently or paint a rosier picture. Yet, I have doubts that Ankara has gotten it right. In the government, the prevailing opinion is “America depends on us in Afghanistan and Iraq, as its missile shield. They can’t just sweep Turkey aside.” Let us hope so. Let the government turn out to be right, and let us not come out with a heavy price to pay in the near future”. Actually this picture shows the confusion about aims of changing Turkish foreign policy. So, comments on this issue feed very different viewpoints.
We are worried
According to Soner Cagaptay, Wall Street Journal, “under the AKP, Turkey will increasingly side with its radical, anti-Western neighbors, even if it remains committed, at least verbally, to the West”. While he exemplifies his argument with AK Party government’s doing hosted to anti-Western leaders, he describes these developments as a very problematic. So, he said direly so: “I hate to say it, but this is not your mother's Turkey”.
As a supporter of Soner Cagaptay, Robert Tait, The Guardian, puts his evaluation into words as so: “Suspicions that Turkey is abandoning the Western orbit for a closer alignment with its Muslim Middle Eastern neighbors were reinforced last month when Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Tehran to sign a nuclear fuel-swap deal - brokered along with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - aimed at blocking further United Nations sanctions against Iran's uranium-enrichment program”. Actually, main discomforts about Turkish foreign policy focus on Turkey-Iran relations. As a main opponent of American-EU regimes, Iran tries to enter into good connection with Turkey. And Turkey’s giving green light to Iran has been causing to important criticism. “Far from being the gateway to a long-standing alliance, Turkey's new engagement with the Middle East and vocal support for the Palestinians could trigger Iranian suspicions and eventually restore the formerly competitive relationship between the two countries” Robert Tait says. As an answer to these criticisms, one Turkish official told RFERL (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) that “we are not defending Iran, we are looking after our own interests".
Turkey is acquiring its Islamic identity
Today, many experts argue that the AKP has moved so far away from the West in general and from the US and Israel. And it is already on a course to join with the Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas axis. But, this axis shift does not always seem as a problem; there are also many writers or commentators who are very pleased to this new portrait.
M. A. Shaikh is one of these writers. While he begins his writing so: “There is no doubt that relations between Turkey and Israel and the West have been strong. Turkey has military and economic ties with Israel and the US, and is a member of NATO, contributing the second largest army of the organisation. It also continues its efforts to join the European Union, despite the open determination of some members of the EU, such as Germany and France, to exclude it. However, the invasion of Ghazzah and the mass murder of Palestinians by the Israeli army last January have led the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to downgrade those relations and establish firmer diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey’s Muslim neighbours, including Iran and Syria. This has taken place despite the fact that Iran and Syria are in the West’s bad books, and therefore in Israel’s”, after he mentions his pleasure, he brings his recommendations into question: “Although Turkey, with a population of 74 million people, is a strong country and can pursue an independent foreign policy, it is no accident that it has been able to do so only under a government and party with Islamic aspirations....... The majority of Turkey’s people are ostensibly secular, and still seem to hope that Turkey will eventually achieve membership of the EU. Their belief that this is possible if Turkey becomes “less Islamic” is demonstrably wrong. Turkey, which applied to join European organisations as long ago as 1958 (more than half a century ago) is still waiting for a result, and is unlikely to be accepted. German and French leaders have admitted recently that this is simply because Turkey is Muslim. The final decision of the EU will be known next month, and it will be in Turkey’s real interests if its application is rejected. This will give Turkey’s people the opportunity to support the Islamic aspirations of its governing party, and help it to work for the unity of Muslims and the improvement of their own organisations”.
In addition to this, Cemal Ahmedoglu, in his writing entitled “Turkey begins to assert its Islamic identity”, talks about far reaching implications of the shift in the Turkish approach towards Israel for the Muslim world. Although he gives voices to his gladness for this axis shift, he does not forget to remind his hesitation for the future: “It is hard to tell exactly what form Turkey’s strategic policy shift will take. One thing, however, is clear: if its policy shift gets stuck in the neo-Ottoman mindset of mostly Turkish nationalism with a little bit of Islamic flavour, Turkey will fail to win the trust of the Arabs. If Turkey does not win their trust, its comeback as a regional player will be uncertain. If the anti-Islamic forces inside and outside Turkey manage to use the Islamic credentials of AKP for narrow nationalistic interests, Turkey will be no better than Saudi Arabia. If Turkey truly wants to gain its rightful position in the region it must not be afraid to break with Kemalist established taboos”.
On the other hand, Seyfeddin Kara, Crescent International, expresses his positive thoughts in terms of Turkey-Israel relations. “This will definitely increase Turkey’s influence in the region. It will be viewed as Ankara’s successful policy to isolate Israel. And, it will strengthen the hand of the Palestinian resistance in its struggle for dignity and freedom” he says. Of course, mentioning an isolation of Israel means the problems in relations with US. Kara explains US’s discomfort with these words: “The US has watched Turkey’s new policy and confrontation with its closest ally (Israel) quietly but closely. But the recent Turkey-Brazil brokered nuclear-fuel agreement signed in Tehran, and Turkey’s vote together with Brazil against Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Iran, rang alarm bells for US policymakers. There is now serious concern in Washington about Turkey’s increasing influence in the region”. All in all, he clearly comes out in favour of changing Turkish foreign policy rationale.
No real axis shift
There is also another type of commentators who are neither worried nor supporter of this process. According to them, the changing policy is related with changing domestic, regional and structural conditions. So, actually; this is the other name of articulation to global political system.
For example, according to Dr. Tarık Oguz, from Bilkent University, the appearing shift in Turkish foreign policy is mainly driven by realpolitik and systemic factors rather than ideational/visionary or religious ones. “Turkey’s no vote in the UNSC concerning the sanctions on Iran, the growing rupture in strategic relations with Israel and Turkey’s embrace of Hamas have pushed Turkey-skeptics to argue that religious instincts have lately become the key driving force of Turkish foreign policy” he says. Dr. Oguz describes AKP’s foreign policy with these words: “It is now common knowledge that defining relations with key external actors from an instrumental perspective, putting Turkey’s national interests at the center, helping create a zone of peace and prosperity in Turkey’s neighborhood, relying on soft power instruments, capitalizing on Turkey’s Ottoman past, exalting diplomacy and regional multilateral initiatives are all the main pillars of the JDP-led foreign policy understanding”.
The AKP government believes that it is now a realpolitik necessity on the part of Turkey to help set into motion a particular regional order. In this way, it thinks that both the structural problems in the surrounding regions cease to exist and Turkey’s transformation process at home goes peacefully: “Turkey’s growing engagement in the Middle East can also be attributed to the emerging reality that Turkey’s national security interests has been impacted the most by the developments in this particular region. The change of regime in Iraq and the rise of Iran’s regional influence appear to be the key developments affecting Turkey’s national security the most profoundly. Turkey does no longer have the luxury of indexing its policies to the wishes of her Western partners and turning a blind eye to regional developments because what happen in the Middle East do now closely impact Turkey’s internal developments and core national interests.” On the other hand, Dr. Oguz focuses on Turkey’s efforts to enhance its relations with the Eastern actors through different type of means and according to him, this policy is not new. There were always multi-dimensional and multi-directional policies ever since the early years of the 1960s and he exemplifies his argument with the actions of Bulent Ecevit, Turgut Ozal, and Ismail Cem. As a conclusion, “one cannot convincingly comprehend the current course of Turkish foreign policy, viz. growing Middle Easternization and active engagement in non-Western locations, without taking into account the emerging changes at systemic, regional and domestic levels. The structural changes as mentioned above appear to have been acting as the permissive causes of the so-called strategic depth doctrine to be implemented. Otherwise, the foreign policy vision of Prof. Davutoglu share many things in common with the thoughts of late Ecevit, Ozal and Cem.” he says.
Dr. Ergin Yildizoglu, lecturer at Middle Eastern Technical University, thinks that this process should be read as a normal changing period: “Arguments and concerns, though containing some elements of truth, are gross exaggerations, some verging on the hysterical. The real situation is more likely that Erdogan and Davutoglu wanted to increase their domestic political capital through foreign policy success in the region”. So, according to him, Turkey’s policies are no longer West oriented, and that it looks at events in its region and in the system from its own point of view.
Moreover, Mehmet Ali Birand, Hurriyet Daily News, sees today’s international environment and conditions are just as different as the views of those who used to lead Turkey and those who are presently leading it. According to him, former East and West competition and conditions have made it impossible to take such different steps. But, he claims that they are very pragmatic actions rather than Islamic actions. “Why would the Arabs or other Islamic countries want Turkey being a country that screams and yells, has a weak economy and is controlled by radical Islam? Why is Turkey attractive to these countries? Because it is able to sustain democracy… Because it is able to manage secularism together with the Islam… Because it is able to meet with prime ministers of other European countries any time it pleases and able to visit the White House often… Because it is able to make its economy grow…” he says. While he put forth that Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu know very well these realities in the world conjuncture, he also believe that there needed to be a “fine tuning” to recent events or better to say steps needed to be taken way in advance. So, he evaluates a shift in new actions in terms of changing pragmatic viewpoints/policies.
The Domestic Trigger
As is known, ‘since the imposition of Kemalist secularism as official dogma, the military has been the key instrument to prevent Islamic revival in Turkish society’. While Cemal Ahmedoglu says that the huge support received by the AKP due to its Islamic orientation eliminated the possibility of an open military coup to dislodge the people’s government, he look at this axis shift in the context of takeout of Kemalists with related to Ergenekon case: “ Ergenekon, the principal clandestine institution that attempted to overthrow the present government, alarmed the elected government of Turkey untying its hands, making it more aware of the vast network of former officials. The Ergenekon case evolved from the discovery of a weapons cache in Trabzon in 2007 into what the Turks have branded ‘the case of the century’. The discovery of weapons led to uncovering the clandestine institution which was actively preparing to instigate chaos in Turkey and seize power in order to halt the Islamic revival...... After the Ergenekon case the AKP realized that no matter how much they give in to the demands of Washington and Tel Aviv, they would never be accepted as equal partners simply because of their independent views on many key policy matters. Therefore, the groundwork for the Turkish and Israeli break was triggered by Israel’s meddling in the domestic affairs of Turkey. Those familiar with Turkish mindset know that the one thing no Turk will ever tolerate is external interference in their domestic policies. Therefore, Turkish-Israeli relations have been greatly damaged at a popular level. They are not likely to revert to the old style again”.
As Ihsan Dağı has said in his book entitled "Turkey between Democracy and Militarism: Post Kemalist Perspectives", “there is an important relationship between militarism and the spread of the culture of (in)security and fear in society, as well as the role of the insecurity culture in politics”. So many commentators look at the referendum picture as an elimination of militarism. In this way, they correlated domestic and foreign policy shifts. According to them, because Turkey has become more independent in domestic affairs, from now onward, it will become more independent player in its own foreign policies. I think this argument deserves to think over itself.
On the other hand, Akif Emre, a columnist in Turkey’s Yeni Safak Newspaper, looks at the issue from different perspective. According to him; main point is not ‘axial dislocation in foreign policy’, rather it is domestic axial dislocation: “Actually, axial dislocation rhetoric which is put into words referring to foreign policy is closely connected with internal balances. Foreign policy, once again, is trying to design domestic policy. Internal and external coalition is, again, trying to strengthen inner location over a dissolvent event like axial dislocation. Becoming a side of party which is solving the Kurdish problem means being a winning party of axial dislocation”. I think this argument is very important in order to understand changing policies in Turkey more clearly. If we describe Turkey’s position in global political system correctly, we can easily understand shifts in Turkish domestic policy. So, we can decide that whether these changes are revolutionary or not. Or else, are they new forms of renewal in existing regime? As Akif Emre says, in this period, extremist opponents are integrated to this process. This is very important period for Turkey like post-1950 period. Again, as Akif Emre said, this axial dislocation is not ideological; but the renovation of the Republic regime by means of addressing public. So, I think, evaluation of axial dislocation from this perspective will be very interesting because they are not separate periods.
Is it Isolation of Iran?
As Ramzy Baroud said in his article entitled “Turkey seizes its moment”, Turkey will find a very receptive audience among Arabs and Muslims all over the world who are desperate for a powerful and sensible leadership to defend and champion their causes. Needless to say, for the besieged Palestinians in Gaza, Erdogan is becoming a household name, a folk hero, a new Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970. The same sentiment is shared throughout the region.
Although when talking about moderate Islam, Tayyip Erdogan has said that “It is unacceptable for us to agree with such a definition. Turkey has never been a country to represent such a concept. Moreover, Islam cannot be classified as moderate or not”, some commentators evaluate the axis shift in Turkish foreign policy as a part of Greater Middle East Initiative. So, they claim that Turkey’s new attempts actually refer to isolation of Iran and Great Turkey as a new rising power.
As is known, US is very worried about Iranization of Middle East and they prefer to secular Turkey as a land of new caliph. Indeed, main debates about axis have shaped around this issue. I think this is very important reality which should not overlook. As I said above, Erdogan seems as a hero in Arab world and although there is always hostility to Iran because of its Shiah identity in Arab world, they did not see Iran as a direct enemy because of its support for Palestine and its victory over Israel through Hezbollah.
So, it can be good effort to think on ‘axial dislocation’ issue in relation to Middle Eastern balance and US’s plans on Middle East. Maybe, from this perspective, some attempts may become more understandable.
When Seyfeddin Kara criticizes Turkey’s foreign policies, he mentions Turkey’s zigzags about relations with Israel: “There are many incidents that create confusion in the Ummah. Last January, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Danny Ayalon publicly insulted Turkish ambassador Oguz Celikkol over a scene, aired in a Turkish TV show, Valley of the Wolves. Israeli humiliation of the ambassador offended Turkish pride and drew harsh criticism from Turkish politicians and the media. However, three days after the crisis, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak received a warm welcome from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu and both politicians acted as if nothing happened in their meeting.
In another development, on December 18, 2009, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, agreed to mend relations, to make them ‘positive and stable’. However, three days later, at a joint press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Erdogan slammed Israel for violating Lebanon’s airspace and for its air strike in Gaza. How is it possible that on the one hand Turkey voices strong criticism of Israel and on the other talks about “positive and stable” relations? What is the reason for this ambivalent relationship between the two countries?”
Of course, there are important developments in Turkey’s actions on Europe, US and Middle East. But, we should think on what it does mean. If we answer what the limits of this axis shift are and what main aim is, we can easily explain the meaning of this picture. In my opinion, although there are very important steps which can be interpreted as Islamic actions, main foreign policy rationale of AKP government focuses on pragmatic steps in order to protect domestic and regional balances. As is known, politics is multi-dimensional equation and AKP tries to pass an examination with a minimum damage. But, I think it should be more careful about putting public values on the agenda and it also should describe its references more clearly.
Otherwise, although AKP government want to win this global chess, it can be a pawn of global superpowers. This is the most horrible scenario for AK Party.
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