Civilianization of Turkish foreign policy

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu 

The Presidency is the main actor in charge of defining Turkey’s foreign policy interests and their implementation. Constitutionally speaking it is the elected representatives of the Turkish people that have the final authority to determine Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. Even though the Turkish Parliament seems to have lost some of its privileges in the making and overseeing of foreign policy decisions following the transformation of the system from parliamentary democracy into strong presidential system, the fact that Turkish President is chosen more than half of the votes cast in the presidential elections suggests that Turkish president has strong degree of legitimacy in this context.

Despite the primacy of elected civilians in this process, the history of Turkish Republic is replete with various examples of appointed bureaucrats in state administration playing decisive role. Bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council and the high level generals in the military were more influential than elected civilians in the government. The governments that were formed in the aftermath of military coups did not have the confidence to challenge the privileged position of state elites/security establishment in this context. It is with the reign of Justice and Development Party governments that the process of civilianization in Turkish foreign policy has begun to take strong roots. Many key foreign policy decisions since the early 2000s have been taken by elected politicians and high level bureaucrats in state administration have been relegated to advisory roles. The historic decision to support the Annan Plan in 2004 in the context of finding a solution to the Cyprus dispute before the accession of the island to the European Union as well as replacing the decades-old realist-exclusionary policy with a liberal-integrationist one towards Iraqi Kurds in the first decade of the twenty-first century would not have been taken had the elected civilians not demonstrated a strong degree of courage to challenge the so-called foreign and security policy establishment in state bureaucracy.   

Foreign policy decision making process in Turkey is now both centralized and civilianized. The input of public opinion is traditionally limited, yet recent decades have witnessed that governments have increasingly taken into account the potential consequences of foreign policy decisions on domestic politics. The question of how foreign policy choices affect the legitimacy and internal standing of political parties, most importantly the party/ies in government, has become extremely important. Conducting foreign policy with domestic policy motivations has now become a norm and this attest to the growing importance of public opinion in foreign policy making process. Even though approaching foreign policy with some domestic political considerations in the background seems to have injected a populist element to the whole process, the fact that foreign policy performance of governments has begun playing a decisive role in the prospects of their re-election should be seen a strong indication of democratization of foreign policy making process.

As of today, Turkey has more than 200 diplomatic missions all around globe. While ambassadorial missions deal with diplomatic and political issues, consulates are in charge of dealing with social, cultural and similar problems of Turkish people living in other countries. While many embassies are located in the capital city of other countries conducting official diplomatic relations between Turkey and the country in which they are located, some embassies represent Turkey in international organizations, such as the United Nations, European Union and NATO. Recent years have seen that Turkish ambassadors were appointed to high level positions in many international organizations. The point worth underlining in this context is that Turkey has recently opened many diplomatic missions in Africa and other far distant places. This shows that Turkish diplomacy has now gained a global vision and scope.      

Turkey’s strong military power capability constitutes the most important source of Turkish diplomacy. Unless buttressed by military power capability in the background, diplomatic initiatives might not yield positive results in the anarchical environment of international relations. Deployment of Turkish military units outside Turkish boundaries has in recent years improved Turkey’s ability to score diplomatic gains against its contenders. Military operations organized in northern Syria attest to this. Another crucial point to underline in this context is that as Turkey’s military capability seems to have increasingly relied on more domestic than external sources, Turkey’s leverage over its contenders and rivals has simultaneously increased. This seems to account for why Turkish governments have recently increased investment in the development of national defense-industry.     

The employment of civilian and soft power instruments in Turkish foreign policy iplomacy has also become noticeable in recent years. Since the time Turkey began to intensify its effort to become a part of the ongoing globalization process and opening itself to the world, businessmen came to the fore as important actors in Turkish foreign policy. Through their organizations, they lobby Turkish governments in order to ensure that their economic interests be taken into account in the formulation and implementation of Turkey’s foreign policy interests. Many high level state visits that Turkish decision makers regularly pay to other countries show that sizeable groups of businessmen accompany them. Improving economic relations with multiple countries across the globe and contributing to the strengthening of interdependent commercial relations between Turkey and other countries have already become one of the most important tools of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.  

Desecuritization of bilateral relations with neighboring countries, particularly with the ones located in the Middle East; helping bring into existence EU-like regional integration mechanisms in its region; investing in multilateral problems in its effort to find solutions to regional problems; taking ‘mediatory and facilitation initiatives’ in the solution of disputes between other countries’ and intensifying the social and cultural exchanges with other countries in social, cultural, tourism and educational levels all now shape Turkish diplomatic practices decisively. 

Improving Turkey’s positive image in the eyes of other countries does also constitute an important part of Turkey’s foreign policy agenda in recent years. Investing in public diplomacy initiatives, transforming the Turkish Airlines into one of the largest air-carriers all over the world, founding the English language TRT-World, redesigning the TRT as a multi-lingual broadcasting company, increasing humanitarian and development aids to poor and needy countries, and establishing particular state institutions in charge of dealing with the problems of Turkish-origin people in the countries which host sizable Turkish communities can all be considered as important soft power initiatives.