The Islamicization of Turkish Foreign Policy?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 137

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (Source:

Since the ousting of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has adopted a fierce anti-coup rhetoric and engaged in an intense, if futile, diplomatic campaign to reverse the developments in Egypt. So ardently has the AKP sided with Morsi that Egypt’s interim government, which asked Ankara “not to take sides” on July 9, expressed “strong resentment” over Turkey’s interference with Egypt’s internal affairs on July 16. A spokesman for the Egyptian interim government, Badr Abdelatty, called on AKP leaders to put “the historic relationship and shared interests” of their two countries above any “narrow party interests” (Hurriyet Daily News, July 16).

Yet the AKP’s partisan strategic and ideological interests seem to have narrowly defined Turkey’s foreign policy since at least the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as foreign minister in May 2009. A few choice headlines from Western media indicate as much, as well as the alarm bells this has sounded: “How the West Lost Turkey” (Foreign Policy, November 25, 2009); “What Happens If Turkey Leaves the West” (Atlantic Wire, October 26, 2009); “Turkey: An Ally No More” (Jerusalem Post, October 28, 2009); “Turks’ Eastern Turn” (Financial Times, November 25, 2009); “Turkey’s Worrisome Approach to Iran and Israel” (Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 2009); “A NATO Without Turkey” (Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009); “An Islamist Pivot to the East” (Washington Times, November 6, 2009), “Disillusioned with Europe, Turkey looks East” (Spiegel International, December 12, 2009); “Turkey and the Middle East—Looking East and South” (Economist, October 29, 2009).

Such alarmism notwithstanding, the end of Turkey’s Europeanization process, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent championing of his country’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Davutoglu’s “Neo-Ottoman” and pan-Sunni foreign policy endeavors in the broader Middle East, and the AKP’s close relationship with the international Muslim Brotherhood movement raise important questions about Turkey’s relationship with the transatlantic security community (see EDM, January 30, February 13, July 12).

As a matter of fact, recent amendments to the Law on the Statute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs allow AKP cadres from outside the ministry to take senior policymaking and administrative positions within it, thereby further influencing the trajectory of Turkish foreign policy in the midst of regional turmoil. According to the new law, which was integrated into an “omnibus bill” that the parliament voted on at midnight on July 10, senior policymaking positions in the ministry will no longer be reserved for career diplomats (Hurriyet Daily News, July 11).

Under Davutoglu, the foreign ministry has already appointed nine non-career ambassadors. Yet under the new legislation, even persons with no experience at all in the Foreign Service or in any other public institution will be able to serve at the highest level in ministry headquarters, possibly becoming undersecretary of state, assistant undersecretary of state, or general director and bypassing longtime, accomplished career diplomats. As Kadri Gursel of al-Monitor (July 16) acknowledges, with this amendment “Davutoglu, if he wants, can post an activist of the Islamist NGO IHH [Humanitarian Assistance Foundation] that he worked closely with behind the scenes during the flotilla affair [2010 Israeli-Turkish diplomatic standoff over breaking the naval blockade of Gaza] […] as an ambassador and then recall him a few months later and post him as a deputy general director of the Middle East Department.”

The change of procedure has reportedly caused serious unease among both currently serving and retired diplomats, leading the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to appeal to the Constitutional Court (Hurriyet Daily News, July 16). Diplomats and opposition figures worry about the obvious: the penetration of foreign diplomacy by partisan politics, which would weaken well-established institutional norms of promotion based on seniority and merit, tarnish the ministry’s career structure, and create possible drawbacks for Turkey’s international relations. As Osman Koruturk, a CHP deputy and a retired ambassador, asked, “Can you imagine the implications of appointing people whose foreign policy experience is only three, four years as an ambassador […] as director general of the Middle East Department, or of NATO or of West Europe?”

On July 21, a group of 150 retired ambassadors and consul-generals signed a statement to President Abdullah Gul about the amendments’ inherent threat to the foreign ministry’s institutional structure. The statement underlines the creation of a double-tiered staff system in the ministry, unsettling the well-established hierarchy of seniority. The signatories call on Gul “to take the necessary steps to preserve the institutional identity of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (Hurriyet, July 21).

Amid these developments, all eyes now turn to the president, who had positioned himself as a potential alternative to the hard-liner Erdogan. During the Gezi Park protests, Gul had adopted a conciliatory, moderate, and unifying discourse, in contrast to Erdogan’s polarizing “us versus them” rhetoric. But Gul has hardly vetoed any government legislation—he unblinkingly approved even the controversial recent bill limiting the sale of alcohol in Turkey. Gul’s stance on appointments to the foreign ministry, therefore, represents a critical test case to see if an ideational difference exists between the president and the prime minister—and if Gul indeed offers a viable alternative to Erdogan from within the AKP’s own ranks.