Friday, 1 February 2013

Understandable Preference For Foreign Policy

Turkish foreign policy in the last few years has become something wondrous to behold. It really has. Before the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party the country’s foreign policy was somewhat predictable and, well, boring. Highly educated, multi-lingual diplomats worked quietly and professionally to promote the interests of Turkey within the solidly western oriented framework of Ataturk’s republic. No more. Now the country’s foreign policy is firmly in the hands of the prime minister. Zig-zagging from the Middle East to Africa and back again to central Asia – with scarcely a glance at the European Union – Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan is desperately seeking a seat at the high table of global affairs. With all this frantic activity -- including opening several new embassies, seeking potential new alliances, and aggressively expanding the national airline’s route network --  it is perhaps only natural to find a hefty portion of hypocrisy and bombast.

Take the recent events in the hitherto little known African country of Mali. Threatened with radical Islamic insurgents, the government of Mali requested French military assistance. Supported by the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and most of the Western world the French sent a military force to help the government. This annoyed Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu greatly. Why the detested French of all people? Ignoring the deep linguistic, diplomatic and commercial ties between France and many West African countries, not to mention the UN and African states’ approval, Turkey complained that the former colonial power should not intervene. Perhaps the prime minister was miffed because none of Turkey’s former colonies has asked Turkey for armed assistance. Turkish media hinted darkly that the real goal of the French was to exploit the natural resources of the region, as if Turkey’s new best friend China was not already exploiting African resources on a major scale all over the continent.  As in the case of Libya, however, this initial opposition can soon turn to approval once it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing.
Should these be Turkish troops?
The prime minister’s dislike for the European Union is well known. He is angry at the long delay in Turkey’s admission to the club and resents continuing EU criticisms of things like Turkey’s human rights record, abuse of the journalists, and a dysfunctional judicial system. His cronies made a big point of publicly throwing the latest highly critical EU ‘progress’ report into the trash bin and saying that they will come out with the Ankara proposals – whatever they may be.

Now, as if to show the EU that it is not the only game in town, Erdoğan has said perhaps Turkey should join something called the Shanghai Five. For those not familiar with this particular grouping (actually six countries), it is a loose alliance of authoritarian regimes and includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan – the greater part of Central Asia. Turkish papers report Erdoğan suggesting to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Turkey could say farewell to the EU and join this group. From Erdoğan’s point of view this grouping has certain obvious attractions. No one is going to write scathing reports about such issues human rights, for example. Erdoğan’s distaste of journalists with their annoying questions is shared by the other Shanghai Five leaders.

At least the Shanghai Five do not ask annoying questions
While the desire to thumb his nose at the EU is understandable, his rush to join this clique of autocrats does present a couple of problems. One is the sticky issue of NATO – of which Turkey happens to be a member. According to the American think-tank Brookings Institute the Shanghai Five can also be construed as a group that would like to limit the power of the United States. The prime minister’s desire to join such a group could be tricky to explain during his next meeting with President Obama just as NATO is installing Patriot missiles in Turkey to guard against threats from the East and South.

One sad result of all this foreign policy noise is to divert attention from some of the serious, long term issues that negatively impact the Turkish economy. In arecent article Prof. Güven Sak of Ankara University noted that Turkey lags way behind others in attracting major high technology investment. “Turkey is considered a good pharmaceutical customer – not a manufacturer.” He added that some of the reasons for this failure to attract more high tech manufacturing can be seen in the results of the Global Competitiveness Report.  Between 2006 – 2012 this report said the ranking of Turkey’s judicial system declined from 56th to 83rd place. The tax regime declined from 95th to 117th place. And, perhaps most important of all, the education system declined from 58th to 74th place.

One can understand the prime minister’s preference for foreign policy. It is so much easier and satisfying to jet around the world lecturing others on what they should or should not be doing rather than dealing  constructively with these difficult, long-term structural problems at home