Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy, or the revival of a familiar division of labor?
by Daniella Kuzmanovic.
Friday the 27th of March brought to the fore two contrasting answers to the question of the Turkish stance on the issue of whether Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is to become general secretary of NATO.
First, President Abdullah Gül used his visit to Brussels to express that Turkey had no particular objections to any of the persons mentioned in relation to the NATO post, and that Mr. Rasmussen had served well as prime minister of Denmark. President Gül, hence, gave the impression that the reluctances, previously expressed by both anonymous Turkish officials and by senior AKP official Suat Kiniklioglu, were no longer standing in the way of Mr. Rasmussen taking up the NATO post. In other words Gül gave the clear impression that Turkey was now ready to fall in line with all other NATO allies, and support Mr. Rasmussen.
Later in the evening, however, prime minister Erdoğan came out on Turkish news channel NTV and claimed that he would have great difficulties telling his fellow countrymen how come Mr. Rasmussen would be such a good candidate, given his lack of diplomacy during the cartoon crises and given the inability of the Danish authorities to deal with ROJ TV, which Turkey accuses of supporting PKK terror. Erdoğan, thus, gave the impression that the Turkish government is still considering a veto against Mr. Rasmussen, is he to announce his candidature, and that the party in office has not at all decided whether they will fall in line.
What are we to make of these two contradicting statements? Does it simply reveal a complete lack of foreign political coordination between the office of the prime minister and that of the president? Or could there perhaps be some sort of explanation for these various statements? Even though Abdullah Gül is now president of the republic, and hence no longer officially part of the AKP, one must assume there to be some sort of communication between the president and the prime minister. Not least given that these two persons have been key figures and worked closely together with regard to the establishment of the AKP, and with regard to shaping AKP policies.
From 2002, when AKP took office, until 2007, Gül was foreign minister for AKP and thus the face of the party in office on the international stage. During those years an interesting division of labor could be observed on several occasions. Erdoğan would primarily concentrate on what he does best, namely domestic policies and voter mobilization in Turkey, whereas Gül would concentrate on what he is good at, namely international diplomacy. The two men each has his characteristic political personality and qualities. Erdoğan is the populist able to rally support in large sections of Turkish society, Gül is rather the diplomat able to cater and communicate to Western audiences.
An example of this division of labor could be seen during the Turkish attempt to achieve access negotiations with the EU in the period 2002-2004. Erdoğan was the one telling international diplomacy how the EU clearly had double-standards with regard to Turkey, and was the one up on the barricades when too much was demanded of Turkey from the EU. Gül was the one who then smoothed things over, when Erdoğan had stirred things up and upset the European countries.
This kind of double signaling was also an attempt to cater to various political audiences. At home AKP could not be seen as simply putting their heels together and accepting whatever demand the EU made. This would upset a number of skeptical voters and the opposition, who would accuse the AKP of not being able to look out for national interest and of looking weak vis-a-vis the European countries. As AKP was simultaneously attempting to develop ties with a number of Muslim countries in order to play a role as a moderator between the West and the Muslim world, display of weakness and a too-eager-to-please stance could also make Turkey look too Western and much too less Muslim. At the same time, however, Turkey still needed to remain on good foot with both the European countries and the US. They also needed to show to the various European publics that Turkey belonged in the European realm by mastering the art of diplomacy and compromising. In such a context the Erdoğan-Gül combination of hard talk and diplomatic soothing had some effect.
With this in mind, one could ask if Erdoğan and Gül are attempting to do something similar in relation to the issue of who is to be general secretary of NATO. At least, one could claim, Turkey is facing equally many and diverse political audiences with stakes in this issue. At home simply falling in line and not looking out for national interest is never popular. Moreover, a majority of Turks were indeed insulted by what they believe to be Mr. Rasmussen’s lack of diplomatic skills when it came to handling the Cartoon crisis.
Turkey, it must be said, is heading towards local elections (to be held on 29th of March). The campaign, though, has been much more related to issues pertaining to the national political agenda rather than concerned with local questions, and Erdoğan has moreover put himself centre stage in the campaign in order to duplicate the success of the national elections in 2007, where AKP received 47 percent of the votes. In order to repeat the 2007 success he has to keep his voters mobilized. A critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen in the current situation helps in this regard.
At the same time a critical stance towards Mr. Rasmussen, as I have written in an earlier article on this blog, is crucial in order for the AKP to maintain a good reputation in the Muslim world, where Mr. Rasmussen is not particularly popular. At the same time, however, Turkey still has to remain on good terms with their Western allies including the US, particularly if they envision an entrusted role for themselves as moderator and facilitator between the West and the Muslim world. They therefore must at the same time display willingness to be part of international diplomacy and the culture of compromises.
In other words, one could ask whether a familiar division of labor between Erdoğan and Gül is being revived in order to cater to the many political audiences listening in on the ongoing debates over who is to be the next general secretary of NATO.