Watch Out for the “Rover”: Turkey’s New Foreign Policy According to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

December 3, 2010

The Wikileaks documents have caused a political ruckus in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is threatening to sue Eric Edelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, for reporting rumors to Washington in 2005 about the Turkish leader’s alleged bank accounts in Switzerland.

It’s going to be entertaining to see if Mr. Erdoğan actually takes Mr. Edelman to court for a classified report he wrote at a time when he had diplomatic immunity.

Now, a less sensational but more important Wikileaks document shows how the U.S. government has perceived analyzes Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to a report, which the U.S. embassy in Ankara allegedly sent to the State Department early this year, Turkish foreign policy in the last few years appears to both fascinate and worry American officials. In the report, titled “What Lies Beneath Ankara’s New Foreign Policy,” former Ambassador James Jeffrey jokingly asserts that Turkey’s new activist foreign policy has “Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources.”

Discussions about Turkey “moving away from The West” and becoming a “neo-Ottoman” power in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus have been raging for nearly two years.

In line with those discussions, Ambassador Jeffrey’s January 2010 report takes a cautious line. For example, Mr. Jeffrey correctly points out that the ruling AKP’s “desire to be more independently activist and Islamic orientation” informs Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to the report, however, “rational national interest, particularly trade opportunities and stability considerations also drives Turkey’s new slant.” (Turkey’s trade with the Arab world and Iran has increased from $6.5 billion in 2002 to nearly $30 billion in 2009.)

Nodding to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” maxim, Ambassador Jeffrey seems to appreciate Ankara’s efforts to resolve the Cyprus dispute, its rapprochement with Erbil and Baghdad, mediating the indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria from 2006 to 2008, and attempts to bring the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks closer for a safer and prosperous Balkan peninsula (which, after the report was drafted, resulted in Serbian President Boris Tadic apologizing for his country’s role in the Bosnian War and his participation to the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica last summer).

But the report has less than flattering passages as well. For example, according to Mr. Jeffrey, Turkish mediation in the region’s conflicts “has not achieved any single success of note.” Worse, Ankara’s efforts to present itself as “a bridge between East and West” are not working.  Mr. Jeffrey observes that AKP’s efforts to present Turkey as a “successful meld” of “Europe’s secularism” with “oriental religiosity does not seem to carry much weight in most European capitals, let alone populations.”

In all fairness, Turkey’s foreign policy overtures have had their limits: The border with Armenia remains closed and Ankara’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties with Yerevan has angered its allies in Azerbaijan. In the Balkans, Bosniak-Serbian reconciliation runs the risk of relapsing into old enmities; in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus remains divided; in the Middle East, the Israeli-Syrian proximity talks have not resumed; the future of Iraq remains uncertain; and the Iran nuclear standoff is as troubling as ever.

(As for growing conservatism in Turkey, a 2008 study shows that it’s simplistic to claim that Turks are becoming more religious; the situation is a lot more complicated than that.)

To be fair to the Turks, only in the last five years have they begun immersing themselves in their region’s conflicts. In fact, they are getting some modest but tangible gains. For example, after coming very close to forging a peace agreement between Israel and Syria until the Gaza war, Turkey has reciprocally lifted travel visas with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Qatar. And last summer, Turkey agreed to create a free trade zone with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

These results are not that modest if one considers how Turkey came close to fighting a war with Syria barely twelve years ago and only had basic relations with other Arab countries.

Since the aftermath of the Cold War Turkey has capitalized on its large population and rapid economic growth to become the political and economic fulcrum at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The process simply accelerated under the AKP government.

But will that process succeed? No one can tell at this point. But going back to Ambassador Jeffrey’s “Rolls Royce-Rover” analogy, we need to remember that luxury cars can be disadvantageous in rough terrain. Sitting at the eye of multiple geopolitical storms (the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Middle East), if Turkey can get a skilled driver, its Rover just might outmatch the Rolls Royces in that part of the world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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