Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s manoeuvres south of Turkish border and broader global ambitions are finally getting the attention they deserve. Foreign capitals are waking up — albeit slowly — to Turkey’s expansionist agenda.
Turkish officials are making no effort to hide their intentions. They are taking every opportunity, including at international forums, to employ defiant and often threatening rhetoric. This muscle-flexing was evident at the Rome MED Conference, as well as in Doha and Kuala Lumpur.
When looking at Turkey’s place in the world, it is important to recall that both world wars were caused in part by “ostrich mentality” — the refusal to deal with problems at hand.
Has this lesson been learnt? Do world powers fully appreciate that the course of history is sometimes determined, for better or worse, by single leaders?
If we presume this to be the case, it is clear appeasement is no way to move forward when facing a dire threat.
I was struck by a simple fact when listening to two senior international analysts react to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu’s rowdy defence of Ankara’s positions on Syria, hydrocarbon drilling off Cyprus and the Libyan conflict at the Rome MED conference. Despite Turkey’s known aversion to traditional diplomacy, no one expected such a maximalist stance, especially at a forum whose declared motto was “positive agenda.”
One gentleman I spoke with after the event exclaimed that “we are fooling ourselves regarding Turkey.”
When asked how, he replied: “Look at Syria, and look now what’s happening with Libya…Here we are, pretending as if the entire picture has all the options to turn rosy and we have just heard a foreign minister, whose government doesn’t recognise Cyprus, whose embassy in Damascus shut down, whose diplomatic relations with Israel and Egypt are nearly non-existent.
“Whichever major issue we choose, we see Ankara as the one with a problem and solution-oriented…”
Another attendee chimed in: “We have a rogue state at hand, nobody wants to openly admit that and that’s the point.”
Is Turkey a “rogue state?” Let’s have a look at the definition. Collins dictionary defines a rogue state as “a state that conducts its policy in a dangerously unpredictable way, disregarding international law or diplomacy.” Cambridge dictionary describes it as a state “dangerous to other nations.” Wikipedia describes “rogue state” as “a term applied by some international theorists to states they consider threatening to the world’s peace. This means being seen to meet certain criteria, such as being ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian governments that severely restrict human rights, sponsoring terrorism and seeking to proliferate weapons of mass destruction.”
A combination of unilateralism and maximalism in action helps explain the meaning of the term.
This was not the first time I heard the term “rogue state” applied to Turkey and I am afraid it won’t be the last. Since the collapse of normalisation protocols between Turkey and Armenia a decade ago because of Erdoğan’s last-minute change of heart, Turkey has engaged in irredentism, so far uninterrupted.
Its incursion into Syria, challenging major governments in the Eastern Mediterranean on gas drilling and signing a memorandum with the Government of National Accord in Libya are all part of its expansionist policy. Everything Ankara does indicates it is planning to go all the way and all alone. The latter is the part the international community is waking up to, in slow motion.
As Tom Ellis commented in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini: “Turkey is behaving like a mighty country that doesn’t need anyone’s support. Almost like a superpower. It takes every opportunity to show that it is determined to do what it wants to do, without accounting for the reactions of the international community, including those of the United States…. a mirror of Erdoğan’s own megalomania, which has only grown worse following how easily he was allowed to carry out his operation in Syria at almost no political cost.”
“Greece’s already difficult neighbour is becoming even more unpredictable, if not downright unhinged. Turkey no longer seems bound by rational thinking and balance of power considerations,” he added.
There are objections to the rogue state argument. “Turkey believes — rightly — that regional power structures are being reconfigured; its aggressive foreign policy stance is an attempt to position itself for this reconfiguration,” wrote Howard Eissenstat, a professor at Saint Lawrence University.
However, while Turkey’s positions may have been caused by the need for recalibration, the way it has conducted itself has fuelled polarisation in the region while alienating Ankara.
One issue that is rarely considered is that the core of Turkey’s foreign office is broken. The rational, first-rate, soft power-oriented diplomatic staff has been replaced with third-rate footmen, directed vertically by the palace in Ankara.
Rogue state or not, the militarisation of Turkey’s foreign policy is a harbinger of far deeper regional troubles.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany’s ‘Journalistenpreis’ in 2018.