(Photo courtesy of Daily Mail)
The agenda of Erdoğan’s visit to Washington this week was clear way in advance. It was not going to be about the relations with Armenia, or Israel, for that matter, despite the wishful thinking of some. Rather, it was going to focus on the current agenda-toppers: Afghanistan and Iran. Of course, we can never know what exactly went on during the private two-hour-long discussion that Obama had with him; but from what the “unnamed officials” are telling the media, the disagreements are still there: Erdoğan refuses to commit more combat troops to Afghanistan, he is still willing to talk with Iran, and he still dislikes – very much – whatever happened in Gaza last winter. Despite all that, he made sure to demonstrate his devotion to the U.S. by talking at the Trans-Atlantic Leaders’ Forum at Johns Hopkins University, after the official part of the day, giving himself another pat in the back, calling for more understanding of his government, and praising the Americans for their support.
Mark Lynch wrote in his Foreign Policy blog that “There is probably no more interesting figure in the Middle East diplomacy these days.” I tend to agree with him. Erdoğan indeed is trying to live up to this characterization, learning from the West and gradually realizing that often perceptions matter more than deeds.
I am not quite sure there was the need for a show this time, though. Obama still hailed Turkey as “a great country” and stressed he is “strongly committed to creating the best possible relationship between Turkey and the United States.” However, did he have an alternative, given the attempts to leave Afghanistan and Iraq while saving face, and given the strong desire to stay out of Iran as much as possible?
Not only has Erdoğan capitalized greatly on the geo-strategic importance of Turkey’s location and relations developed over the past fifty years, but he has also successfully positioned himself and his government in the center of East-West relations. Despite all the accusations of Islamism inherent in his party, he seems to have internalized the “democracy-speak” very well, and the U.S. certainly likes it. He was the one to co-sponsor Zapatero’s Alliance of Civilizations initiative in the UN General Assembly in 2005, making a conspicuous show of good will in taking up a greater role in mediation and international diplomacy. His government has also come up with all the various initiatives on “peace in the region”: be it regarding Greece, Syria-Israel, Armenia, Iran, or Georgia-Russia.
His JHU speech underscored the value he gives to strengthening Turkey’s position as such. Just as throughout the past year, he once again criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza – particularly the use of the phosphorus bombs – by appealing to what he called “humanist” values, and at least trying to demonstrate impartiality, openness, and desire for justice (however, these claims can be easily refuted in light of ongoing trouble over the Kurdish issue). Neither did he shy away from defending Iran’s right to have a “peaceful nuclear program” and from calling on the West to “practice what they preach,” openly criticizing the attitude towards Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.
Turkey has been a largely disliked and distrusted actor in the region, given the history, as well as its close ties with the U.S. and Israel. Being consistently rejected by the EU, increasingly recognizing the further potential benefits Turkey can reap thanks to its location (and to the recently renewed energy hype), and playing on the strong popularity at home, Erdoğan has set out to truly achieve his “360-degree look at the world.” And again, he did not miss the opportunity of criticizing “some people who are unhappy […] [and] envious of Turkey’s position” and achievements in the region, and who are “trying to disrupt the process.”
At JHU he openly talked of Russia and Iran being Turkey’s top business partners, with $30 billion and $10 billion of annual trade with each of them, respectively. And yet, he still emphasized his desire for Turkey to join the EU and take upon the recognition as a secular, democratic, and prosperous state. He was not modest in stating his objectives for 2023, the centennial of the Kemalist Republic: to be one of the top 10 economies in the world, and to be a major agenda-setter in global affairs.
Although he claimed there can be no “shift” in Turkey’s foreign policy focus because of its inherently diverse nature, the West is indeed getting increasingly wary of the more independent path Erdoğan seems to have chosen. However, given the key role Turkey has come to play in the region in all respects – be it military, economic, or political – it cannot be ignored in any of the calculations. Knowing this, Erdoğan gets yet another boost of confidence, making his vision for 2023 Turkey ever more reasonable.