Turkish Foreign Policy: Back to Kemalism?

Turkish Foreign Policy: Back to Kemalism?
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Burhanettin Duran

In the wake of Turkey's rapprochement with Israel and Russia, the opposition started talking about the need to go back to Kemalist foreign policy.

Change is absolutely necessary, but necessity does not make it easier to comprehend change. Individuals and entire societies, much like foreign policy makers, experience a lot of pain to correctly identify the nature and direction of change as well as to adapt to changing circumstances in the international arena. What makes their job more difficult is the need to not only grasp change itself, but also identify trends and understand what other players think.

Over the past decade, Turkey's opposition parties conveniently ignored that the country needed stable neighbors for "zero problems with neighbors" to work.

To be fair, the task is even more challenging for people and organizations that must relate to a government and understand policy changes after having watched the show from the sidelines for too long, such as Turkey's opposition parties. In recent years, opposition parties directed their criticism at the government's perceived ideology and intentions rather than performance.

Having repeatedly blamed Turkey's foreign policy troubles on what they called the government's Islamist and sectarian ideology, opposition leaders discovered that they could account for anything that happened in or around Turkey by blaming the rest on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's leadership.

Over the past decade, Turkey's opposition parties conveniently ignored that the country needed stable neighbors for "zero problems with neighbors" to work. At a time when the Arab Spring revolutions sent shockwaves through the Middle East, they blamed the government for Turkey's troubles with the West rather than acknowledge the fact that the region was being reshaped and traditional alliances had been uprooted. The fact that the U.S. and NATO ignored the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD) threat to Turkey's national security and Washington's willingness to build bridges with Iran amid protests by U.S. allies in the region immediately come to mind.

Keeping in mind that Syria and Iraq have turned into two big failed states exporting refugees and terrorism to the world, Turkey needs more rational policy proposals and less ideologically charged finger pointing.

Keeping in mind that Syria and Iraq have turned into two big failed states exporting refugees and terrorism to the world, Turkey needs more rational policy proposals and less ideologically charged finger pointing. Today, what each country does, or does not do, could place their interests at risk. For Turkey, the specific risks involved include fighting DAESH and failing to eliminate the PKK and PYD elements in Syria.

In the wake of Turkey's rapprochement with Israel and Russia, the opposition started talking about the need to go back to Kemalist foreign policy, which effectively means three things: Emphasis on peace, secularism and isolationism.

In recent days, opposition leaders repeatedly made the case that Turkey should prioritize peace above all else. To support their argument, they often resort to the old Kemalist maxim of "peace at home, peace in the world." What they conveniently ignore, however, is that this core principle is not fundamentally different from "zero problems with neighbors" or "increasing the number of our friends and decreasing the number of our enemies." At the end of the day, whether Turkey can accomplish this mission depends on the behavior of other players.

Secondly, they argue that secularism should play a more prominent role in Turkish foreign policy. The problem is that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been primarily interested in promoting stronger economic cooperation with other nations. By extension, Islam's influence on foreign policy has never outweighed the strict rationality of national interests. Turkey acted out of a broader commitment to democratic legitimacy while supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. And having publicly recommended secularism to ousted President Mohammed Morsi's Egypt, Turkish leaders have recently shaken hands with Israel.

Turkey's opposition parties like to reminisce about the good old days, but they conveniently ignore the cold hard facts of today.

Finally, the proponents of a return to Kemalist foreign policy argue that Turkey should not attempt to pursue its own agenda in the international arena, which begs a few questions: What does it really mean to re-embrace Kemalist foreign policy in the contemporary Middle East? Would assuming a passive stance in the world shelter Turkey from vital threats such as DAESH and the PKK? What can we accomplish by making up with the United States, which effectively told regional powers to settle their disputes through violence? Would PKK and the PYD's People's Protection Units (YPG) militants in northern Syria give up violence if Turkey shakes hands with Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia to embrace isolationism? The simple answer is no.

Turkey's opposition parties like to reminisce about the good old days, but they conveniently ignore the cold hard facts of today. Not only do they not take into account parallels between the AK Party's foreign policy and Turkey's foreign policy tradition, they also stop short of answering questions about the benefits of re-embracing isolationism.

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