Tag Archives: EU

Lack of coordination in Turkish foreign policy?

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.

Turkish Reluctance

Turkish reluctance towards Danish prime minister as head of NATO – The symbolic significance of public dissociation

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

Turkish government last week publically announced their reluctance towards the idea of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen becoming head of NATO. They even went so far as to threaten to veto his possible candidacy. How come this overt display of reluctance, when the implications could easily be that Turkey upsets a number of significant NATO allies?

In order to understand this, one of course has to take into account concrete reasons stemming from the somewhat strained relationship between Turkey’s current AKP led government and its Danish counterpart. But in my opinion a far more significant reason is to be found in the current foreign political outlook and vision of the ruling party in Turkey, in which a rapprochement towards the Arab world plays a significant role. Due to active Danish participation in the US led alliance in Iraq, and the so-called Cartoon Crisis, a majority of countries in the Middle East  would probably rather see anyone but Fogh Rasmussen as head of NATO. Through their public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen Turkey has clearly signaled that the concerns of the countries in the region have been heard.

There are several concrete reasons why Turkey’s government is opposed to Fogh Rasmussen’s possible candidacy. First, there is the issue of the Kurdish TV channel, Roj TV, broadcasting from Copenhagen. The Turks have repeatedly asked that the TV channel be closed by the Danish authorities, since Turkey accuses the channel of supporting, both in words and financially, the PKK. During a visit to Copenhagen in November 2005 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to speak and then left a press conference due to the presence of a reporter from Roj TV. The Danish response has been staunch in the sense that the Danish government has informed the Turks that their claims against Roj TV lack substantial evidence, and that the TV channel is therefore allowed to continue to broadcast from Copenhagen protected by the rules of free press. Second, there is the issue of the so-called Cartoon Crisis. Also the Turks were upset with the firm stance of the Danish prime minister during the Cartoon Crisis. He was seen as unwilling to listen to the concerns of a number of Muslim countries, hence displaying lack of diplomacy. Particularly with regard to Turkey, this became obvious in the eyes of the Turks when Fogh Rasmussen flatly refused to take into consideration a letter from the then Turkish ambassador to Denmark urging him to stress to his public the responsibility of the media with regard to depicting Islam. Third, the Danish prime minister is seen as displaying a great amount of reluctance towards the idea of Turkish EU membership, and has among other in a debate article in a large Danish newspaper, stated that EU has to carefully consider further enlargements of the European Union, not least Turkish accession. Finally Denmark is part of the US led alliance against Iraq, a war Turkey strongly opposed. In 2003 the Turkish government refused US troops access to Northern Iraq through Turkey.

Each of these reasons gives ample ground for Turkish reluctance towards Fogh Ramsussen as head of NATO. But the question is whether they provide the key to understanding how come the Turks publically display their strong disliking of the Danish prime minister? In order to comprehend this I suggest we must also turn to the foreign political ambitions and vision of the AKP in general. Throughout the past couple of years it has become increasingly clear that the current Turkish ruling party envisions a grand role for Turkey on the foreign political stage. A role where Turkey is a key strategic partner and central political player in the wider Middle East, but also a role where Turkey stands out as able to act independently and on its own and not only as part of a Western alliance. This is what has been named a Neo-Ottomanist Turkish foreign policy. The diplomatic activity of the Turkish government, not least the rapprochement between Turkey and a range of Muslim countries, indicates the presence of such visions. Turkey has thus attempted to present itself as a possible moderator in talks between Israel and Syria, Iran and US, just to mention a few of the current relations topping the political agendas, and has throughout the past years on several occasions hosted meetings between Muslim countries in Turkey. Traditionally, relations between Turkey and Arab-speaking countries in the region have been strained, given that Turkey has been a key US ally, has had extensive relations with Israel, not least with regard to defense cooperation, and does not share a history of being colonized but rather used to be the colonizer in the region. Particularly, relations with Syria have been tense. In order to develop a role as a key player on the foreign political stage in the wider Middle East, though, Turkey needs to stay on good terms with the various countries of the region. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s display of anger against Israel in a session on Gaza during the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in late January 2009 gave him some street credit if not points for diplomacy.

However, in order to reaffirm the Turkish position as an independent and significant foreign political actor with good ties to traditional Western allies, i.e. the US, but sympathetic to concerns of Muslims countries, dissociating from Fogh Rasmussen in public is a fruitful way of signaling this position. It, on the one hand, allows the Turks to signal their independence and willingness to speak out against what is held to be the wish of major Western alliance partners. This plays well at home, where Fogh Ramussen is not a popular choice, and where displays of Turkey as being a significant and independent foreign political actor are welcomed by many Turks. On the other hand it also allows Turkey to signal to the wider Middle East that Fogh Ramsussen was never their choice for head of NATO even if he should eventually become so, and that they are thus in effect in line with a range of other countries in the Middle East when it comes to him. Hence, their newly established credentials among other countries in the Middle East are kept intact. At the same time the Turks might even be able to use the prospect of an eventual, reluctant accept of Fogh Rasmussen on their behalf as a bargaining chip with regard to advancing their position in relation to some of the issues high on their agenda. Should Fogh Rasmussen not become head of NATO the Turks can even claim that they have some amount of influence with significant countries, most notably US, within NATO. Why else should Turkey be the first Muslim country Barack Obama is to visit, if it was not seen as a significant strategic partner?

Stakes are high, since Turkey’s clear public dissociation from Fogh Rasmussen will obviously annoy a number of countries within the NATO alliance. On the other hand the Turkish government has a lot to gain from such a public display of opposition to possible candidacy of the Danish primeminister both at home and abroad.