Foreign policy and the presidential system: Interview with Mehmet Ali Tuğtan

By Fatih Resul Kılınç

As the most important referendum in recent Turkish history approaches, both sides have stepped up their efforts to explain pros and cons of the proposed presidential system. In order to add to this debate, we present a series of interviews with experts exploring the potential impact of a newly empowered executive on a variety of fields. We begin with Professor Mehmet Ali Tuğtan, a prominent Turkish foreign policy scholar from Istanbul Bilgi University.

Turkish military units at the Syrian border as part of Opperation Euphrates Shield. Source: Middle East Monitor

Independent Turkey: Historically, foreign policy has been understood as an area which domestic politics is detached from it. However, the upcoming constitutional referendum arms the presidency with executive powers while allowing him/her to keep his/her ties with political parties. Do you think this will eventually mean the further politicization of foreign policy in Turkey? What will be the consequences for Turkey in the long run?

Mehmet Ali Tuğtan: The assumption that foreign policy is a distinct field of activity is a rather realist assumption. It was more prevalent during the Cold War era. When the Cold War came to an end, the realist theory increasingly came under attack different perspectives. And as more populist governments — both popular democratic as well as authoritarian — came to power across the world, we realised that foreign policy was increasingly leveraged as a tool for making ends meet in domestic policy.

Whenever there is a domestic political crisis now, most populist governments resort to a form of foreign policy as a solution to that domestic crisis. One early and striking example of that was Margaret Thatcher in 1982. For Turkey, it is not much different. The current government is linking foreign policy with domestic policy; seeing it as a whole, as a continuous body, and trying to solve problems that are essentially domestic through manoeuvres in foreign policy.

Turkey’s Syria policy is a very recent and clear example of that kind of behaviour. Therefore, the referendum will only hasten this process. If the result of the referendum is positive for the President, that will mean there will be further unification, further continuity, seamlessness if you will, between foreign and domestic policy in Turkey.

But then, does it mean that as popular governments are gaining ground all across the world, are we going to have more conflict in international politics?

Of course. Look at the Trump administration in the United States: the way they are dealing with the issue of terrorism threat as a completely domestic political issue. Any reasonable, prudent calculation of US national interest in the realist sense would forbid such reckless behaviour, and yet, there they are, causing trouble abroad in order to entrench their position at home. So we cannot expect Turkey to be any different from this general conjuncture.

So what would be the consequences of this shift in linking domestic policy with foreign policy for Turkey in the long run?

Before Turkey changed course in Syria in 2015, I was once asked by a group of bureaucrats what is the policy supposed to be? And my response was this: there is a man here, sitting in this room, and he claims that he can walk through this wall. What would be your prediction? Would you think that he can actually walk through the wall or would you call the paramedic?

Similarly, linking foreign and domestic policy for purposes of domestic political gain is one thing, but solving domestic political problems through foreign policy movements without negatively affecting your foreign political position is quite another.  Sometimes a foreign policy move aimed at solving your domestic policy problems is exactly the kind of move that you should avoid to preserve or improve your foreign policy position.

It’s the same for Turkey. The way we are dealing with Syria, Europe, Russia and the United States is not conducive to improve our relations with these countries. Leveraging foreign policy for domestic politics solves some domestic problems for the current government, but in the long run, it will cause us increasing amounts of trouble.

Is this linking of domestic policy and foreign policy an inherent feature of authoritarian governments?

No, it’s an inherent feature of populist governments, be they authoritarian or democratic. Populist governments tend to play to the audience. They want the audience, the electorate, the people, to be satisfied. And they usually do that at the expense of more prudent or cool-headed foreign policy analysis. For example, calling the German chancellor a Nazi might receive some cheers at home, but there is always a price to be paid for such excessive behaviour in foreign policy. And we’ll see the consequences of it.

Do you think that last year’s coup attempt has changed Turkey’s priorities in foreign policy? Do we see a kind of break with the past?

It wasn’t the coup attempt that triggered either the presidential bid or the change in Turkish foreign policy. Even before the June 2015 elections, the proposition on the government side was: give us 400 MP’s and we’ll bring the presidential system. The government failed in June 2015 elections. Therefore, the new referendum can be considered as a response to that failure.

Meanwhile, former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of previous epoch of new Ottomanism in Turkish foreign policy, resigned and was replaced with Binali Yildirim.

Although the traces of new Ottomanism are still prevalent in Turkish foreign policy, its focus much more narrow and its orientation is much more mechanically realist, particularly towards Syria. Therefore, Turkey experienced a pendulum swing from lofty idealism to crude realism, but failed to stop in the middle in what E.H Carr would describe as prudent politics or ideal politics.

This swing means that Turkey is dealing with the other actors in the stage largely through its physical capabilities, threatening them with the use of military and ultimatums. Though the coup attempt came during these changes to both foreign and domestic politics, we cannot say that it was a response to that change in Turkish foreign policy.  

There were very vitriolic exchanges between Turkey, the Netherlands and Germany. How should we understand these escalating rows between these three countries right before the elections?

It is the instrumentalization of foreign policy for domestic political aims. Netherlands had an election, Turkey has an upcoming referendum. Turkey first tried to antagonize Germany for domestic gains for the referendum, but the relationship with Germany is too delicate and too important to sacrifice. Therefore, the Netherlands was a more suitable partner for this kind of exchange. For the Netherlands’ part, the Dutch government obviously wanted to look tough right before their elections, so we ended up having this diplomatic crisis.

But you have to know the limits, and you have to know the script in such instances. The Nazi rhetoric is one such example. There are words you should simply not use.

Turkey did not experience the Second World War the way Europe did, and we didn’t experience the Holocaust the way Europeans experienced it. So Turkish politicians and the Turkish public tend to use some words rather lightly, they don’t understand the connotations of those words for the European audience. This results in a kind of excessive rhetoric that would lead to undesired consequences. And if it continues, it will harm Turkish-German relations.

And after these events, do you see any gleam of hope for Turkey to become a member of the European Union?

Well, it’s not a question of hope really, it’s a question of conjuncture. The current conjuncture is obviously not suitable. But there is always the possibility for Turkey to become an EU member because it is beneficial for both Turkey and Europe. The rationale of the Turkey’s candidacy back in 1999 still holds true: Turkey’s geography didn’t change, Turkey’s demography didn’t change much, Turkey’s economic significance for Europe didn’t change much. However, given the current political mood, one cannot say that there is much hope for the time being.

Turkey is currently depicted as a lone wolf in the international politics. How do you see the future of Turkish foreign policy in the long run?

Well, in the short run, Turkey seems increasingly isolated. But Turkey can never remain a lone wolf in the long run. There were similar discussions about Turkey at the end of 1990s. But by 1999, Turkey ended up becoming a candidate for the EU membership. There will be a shift eventually, but how that shift is going to take place is a question of speculation. The events in Syria will ultimately force Turkey to reassess her position, not just in Syria but in world affairs in general. Of course, this reassessment would also be part of an overall domestic policy transformation.

Given that the Trump administration is willing to support the YPG and Kurdish groups in northern Syria, does that mean that Turkey is going to move towards Russia?

Russia supports the Syrian Kurds and the YPG as well, so Russia is not a solution for the conundrum of Turkish foreign policy in Syria. From a realist perspective, again, Turkey is a middle-sized state, and it is not wise for it to take on two great powers like Russia and the United States, without the backing of equally powerful actors. A middle-sized state taking on several local small to medium-sized states and sub-state actors, plus two great powers, is very unlikely to prevail.

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