Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 138

From July 15 to 18 more than 200 Turkish diplomats, including 103 of the country’s ambassadors and heads of missions serving in different countries around the world, met in Ankara to discuss Turkey’s short and long-term foreign policy goals.

The unprecedented gathering of virtually all of the high-level personnel from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) was the brainchild of Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who described it as providing “a setting for a focused exchange of views and consultation” in order “to make coordination between the headquarters and our missions abroad more efficient and productive” (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, www.mfa.gov.tr).

Since he succeeded Abdullah Gul as foreign minister in August 2007, Babacan has often appeared out of his depth. He has also frequently been upstaged by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Gul’s absence, Erdogan has assumed a much more active role in foreign policy, retaining tight personal control over what he regards as important foreign policy initiatives and meetings and only trusting Babacan to assume complete responsibility for relatively minor issues.

As a result, the four-day conference in Ankara was probably designed as much to assert Babacan’s authority as to improve the coordination of the country’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, both Babacan’s opening address and the 19-paragraph statement released at the end of the conference underlined what appears to be an continuing shift in Turkey’s foreign policy priorities since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took office in November 2002.

In the period from 2002 to 2007, a combination of Ottoman nostalgia and sense of Muslim solidarity led to a marked increase in contacts with the countries of the Middle East, as the AKP sought to establish Turkey in what many in the party regard as its natural role as a regional superpower. Over the last year, however, the AKP has begun to look farther afield.

In his opening address to the conference, Babacan made it clear that he had now set his sights on transforming Turkey into a global player, stressing the importance of Turkey’s bid to secure a seat on the UN Security Council for 2009-2010 (see EDM, April 17) but insisting that this was only the first stage in a process.

“Our goal in the longer term is to raise Turkey to a position of global power, particularly in the economic field in the 2020s. Turkey has more than the necessary dynamism and human resources for this purpose,” declared Babacan (www.mfa.gov.tr).

“We shall be in the forefront of the struggle against dangerous tendencies such as xenophobia both within societies and between countries, racism, discrimination, intolerance, extremism and violence. We have to aim at making Turkey a center country, both in its near geography and on a global scale,” proclaimed Babacan (www.mfa.gov.tr).

Babacan noted that Turkey was planning to open 15 new embassies in Africa and lauded the first ever Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit, which is to be held in Istanbul in August. “Many heads of state and government have been invited and we expect 53 countries to be represented,” he said (www.mfa.gov.tr).

“We are also starting a strategic dialogue process with the six member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council,” added Babacan. “Similarly, we would like to enter into a closer working relationship with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization” (www.mfa.gov.tr).

Babacan announced that Turkey was also looking to expand its traditionally limited political and economic ties with Latin America, including opening a number of new embassies.

Interestingly, Babacan made only a passing reference in his opening address to Turkey’s ties with the United States, merely commenting that it was “necessary to further widen these relations in the economic, technological, social and cultural areas” (www.mfa.gov.tr). The slightly more expansive statement released at the end of the conference contained only platitudes noting that the agendas of Turkey and the United States “overlap to a large extent” and that bilateral relations were important not only for the two countries themselves but “for the promotion and maintenance of regional and global peace, security and stability” (Anadolu Ajansi, July 19).

Perhaps more revealingly, Babacan insisted that the EU was solely responsible for Turkey’s stalled EU accession process. “Turkey should not be subjected to discrimination and different treatment in this process,” he said. “The messages coming from EU countries on the subject of Turkey’s membership should be of a consistent and encouraging nature” (www.mfa.gov.tr).

In contrast, Babacan absolved the AKP of any blame for problems in relations with the EU. “There is no deviation from our full membership goal,” he said. “Turkey will do what falls upon it and will continue with its reforms. There has not been the slightest change in the determination of our government in this respect” (www.mfa.gov.tr).

Few would deny that the EU is partly to blame for the slow pace of Turkey’s accession negotiations, particularly given the reservations about Turkish membership expressed by key member states such as France and Germany. However, Babacan’s claim that there has been no change in the AKP’s determination to fulfill the criteria for EU membership is contradicted by the contrast between the battery of democratizing reforms passed before Turkey opened accession negotiations in October 2005 and the virtual absence of any since. Nor has Turkey yet fulfilled a 2005 agreement to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes; a failure Babacan has repeatedly defended on the grounds that the EU only asked Turkey to sign the agreement not to implement it.

In this context, Babacan’s glittering vision of Turkey as a global power threatens not only diplomatic overreach but also the diversion of time and energy from more pressing concerns. It is impossible to argue that in the short or medium-term, Africa and Latin America have more to offer Turkey than EU membership. Nor is there any disputing the disparity between the enthusiasm with which Turkey has recently been cultivating closer ties with Africa and Latin America and its manifest failure to take any steps to restart the stalled EU accession process.