Türkiye’s foreign policy between East and West is one of the most debated and questioned issues worldwide. On that matter, we interviewed Prof. Nurşin Ateşoğlu Güney. Prof. Güney is Member of the Turkish Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Council.
The Council was established in 2018 with Executive Order No1, following the introduction of the presidential system in Türkiye.
The President appoints its members. The Council’s duties are to provide strategy and policy proposals alongside presidential decisions, to deliver reports to the presidency, to advise public institutions in its area of expertise and to execute orders given by the President. President Erdoğan regularly chairs the meetings of the Council.
The interview was conducted prior to the recent second round of presidential elections and slightly edited for purposes of readability.
I consider this period as the rise of the New Cold War. Though this time it is not about ideology, the conflict is still threatening.
In the past, it was the United States and NATO, with China as junior partner, against the Soviet Union. This has obviously changed today, especially in the East. This time, Russia has become the junior partner of China n this rivalry or competition between the two sides.
So, this global competition or rivalry, what ever you prefer to call it, at the strategic level has unfortunately negative affects on the regional level, whether it is in the Middle East or the Pacific.
So, when you look at her geography, the geopolitical stance of Turkiye is very precious. The way she stands right now, I consider Turkiye to be an island of stability. If she leans more to the West or the East, this would change the entire balance of power on the ground.
What Turkiye is trying to is to put aside this two blocks, or to merge into one of them. As an academic, I call this position ‘the third way’, which means not to choose any of the poles that are emerging in this New Cold War and instead, staying neutral and trying to solve all kinds of emerging problems, be they regional or global.
This is not an easy situation, because you try to balance the two big, great powers. But take for instance the relations with Russia. The West frequently accuses or calls Turkiye that she should know or choose her side, since she is a member of NATO. But in the concept of the third way that I mentioned, Türkiye tries to compartmentalize her problems with Russia and continue working or cooperate with Moscow on an issue-based stance.
This is actually how the great powers themselves lead their relations, which at one topic include conflict while at the other make cooperation necessary.
We often find ourselves in a conflict situation with Russia, especially in the Syrian civil war, but still we try to deal with them and balance our relationship. On the other side, we are cooperating with them in energy matters. In matters of trade and tourism, we cooperate with them.
There are lots as areas of cooperation and lots of areas of conflict. Compartmentalizing and issue-based interaction is the key here in dealing with the big state that we are neighboring here, across the Black Sea.
With the West, it is the same story. Türkiye is trying to explain herself to them that things have changed. In the last two decades, we have developed a lot in regard to capacity. We have developed a huge experience in diplomacy as well, and this all has accumulated to the situation where Türkiye can act more freely now.
Policy of balance
This is strategic autonomy, what by the Way the European Union is currently also trying to achieve. Strategic autonomy is another way to call what I mentioned earlier as the Third Way. So, whilst you have the capability o continue this strategic autonomy, you go along with it.
It means that as long as your interests converge, you cooperate with anyone, the West, Russia or China. And in the meantime, you try to diversify your relations in every sense, from military, over economics to energy relations. As I said, this is also what the European Union is – at lest trying – to do.
Our problem is that we do not succeed in explaining to our friends in Europe and beyond the Atlantic what we are doing. This may be because they learned about Türkiye in the 1970s, and are still stuck there. But since then, everything has changed, and so has Türkiye too.
Does Russia understand this concept better than the West?
I guess so. That is how we managed to continue our relationship, and this, I can tell you, is not an easy task. Russia is a great power, it has a huge land mass, it owns huge energy resources, it is a veto power in the UN Security Council etc.
Türkiye on the other side is a middle-size power. She tries to use all her capacity in the relation with all of them, Russia, the US and in the future maybe with China as well.
Being a middle-power is sometimes confusing, also among Western academics who make distinctions in their research and writings. They consider those countries that were middle-powers already before the 1980s, which were mostly pro-Western, as positive.
On the other hand are those that emerged after the 1990s. And these are not considered status-quo-powers. Most of the BRICS and also Türkiye are considered in this category.
Who is the revisionist in international relations?
The problem with the West and especially the current administration in the US is the following: They are trying to progress with the so-called like-minded states. They go into the Indo-Pacific, consider the rise of China as a threat and bring up new coalitions with such like-minded countries. But this ‘othering’ is not good, because middle-sized powers could bring a lot of benefit for the good of the international system. Hence, the best way forward is not to ‘other’ but to include them.
The debates in the literature on international relations support this idea as well. If you take a look into the Western literature, Russia and China are considered there as revisionist powers. But if you look at the reality, the United States is a revisionist power too. This is not my opinion this is the judgment of Western academics that recheck the theories.
Take the international system as it emerged after World War II. All its institutions, like the United Nations and so on, were founded on principles put forward by the United States. But today, the United States itself acts with these new coalitions, with these groups of like-minded states, leaving aside these institutions and at the same time, calling others revisionist powers. Here, its very debatable who is revisionist and who is not.
Is this policy of balance not also dangerous, as it leaves Türkiye alone without any true allies?
I don’t think so, because everyone is doing the same thing. If you for instance look to the European allies: They seem to go along with the US in the Ukraine conflict, but they also insist on proceeding with their strategic autonomy.
Take as an example French President Macron. He paid a recent visit to China, declaring his will to strengthen relations with that country.
Or if you take a look at the Gulf countries: They are doing the same. They diversified their relations with India, China and Russia, but they didn’t break relations with the West. This is the world we are living in.
Another example is energy. The Ukraine crisis has shown that you have to diversify your energy resources. You cannot rely only on gas, for instance. Germany as an example has much been criticized for its energy dependence on Russia, but at the same time, they introduced the Energiewende (energy transition, YS). Here in Türkiye, we are trying to do the same.
Possible to maintain equidistance to both, the US and Russia?
As for the Turkish-American relations, there are well-known tensions, which include threats to Türkiye’s national security as the Americans are supporting the PYD in Syria. They are also questioning Türkiye’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The latter not as much as they used to do. They retreated from the East Med project for instance. That is a turning point.
When I compare Turkish-Russian and Turkish-American relations: The United States seems to not respect Türkiye’s security in the north of Syria. Is it not dangerous to stay in equidistance to these two powers in that context?
In today’s international relations, there are not hard-shell alignments like we used to know in the Cold War years. The alignments that we see are quite flexible. They are issue-based. And the countries that get into these alliances are benefit-oriented.
Take for instance the alignment that was formed before 2021 in the Eastern Mediterranean between Israel, South Cyprus, Greece, France, Egypt and even some Gulf countries like the UAE. Today, we see that things are changing rapidly after 2021.
Because of Türkiye’s stand and determination to protect its legitimate rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, of course within the international law, and because these countries made cost-benefit-analyses, they decided to leave this alliance.
And now, there is that tau that we are talking about in the Eastern Mediterranean, these normalization waves. Even between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered by China. Who could have expected this?
Türkiye is improving her relations with Egypt that once we were confronting, with Israel, with the UAE. Nothing is constant. And as for the case of Syria, there are other countries involved too.
Don’t you fear that after the elections, the West will increasingly pressure Türkiye to choose her side, especially in the Ukraine conflict, and to question existing Turkish-Russian ties?
Yes. On the other side, the West always does this. I don’t think there will be much change. And while we are continuing our relations with Russia, we are also developing good relations with Ukraine. This has started even before the war.
I don’t know how long the war will continue, but as long as it does, there will be pressure from the West that we should apply sanctions against Russia and so on.
Israel, the most important partner of the US in the Middle East is in a similar situation. Israel has still not imposed any sanctions against Russia, which has to do with the country’s strategic interest in regards to Syria and Iran, where they Iranian militias in Syria. There are S-400 stationed there, but Russians permit Israel these strikes. That is what I tried to describe previously: That everything is changing.
So, Western insistence will of course continue, but Türkiye will try to balance its relations. She needs to be rational enough and maintain equidistance to the two competing great powers.
But still, that does not mean that we do not want to construct a new kind of relationship with the US. I know that the government has tried very hard during the beginning of the Biden administration. They said ‘OK we have a bunch of problems with you, but let’s put them aside and start with issue-based cooperation’.
But at this point, the US focus is somewhere else. Therefore, it didn’t work out. And this is also a problem for Europeans, for Gulf Countries, which expected more from the US in terms of their national security, also given the expiration of the nuclear deal.
But the focus of the current US administration was in the Pacific.
What if the West blackmails Türkiye economically?
Türkiye has gone through a terrible earthquake, which cost a lot of lives and places a huge economic burden on the country. Don’t you fear that the West might try to exploit Türkiye’s economic needs for political purposes?
Well, some circles say that the West already did so. But I also think that it’s not in the interest of the West to loose Türkiye.
Would they loose Türkiye in such a case?
It shouldn’t be in their interest. Türkiye is in a crucial geographic position. And its good she pursues the Third Way, because otherwise, she would contribute to the escalation of relations between the two powers. That is my opinion.
And if the West exercises a kind of economic blackmailing, would Türkiye resist?
It tries to resist of course. I hope this will not happen, because Türkiye is very precious for the West as well. Our borders are also the borders of NATO. And for instance there is the migration problem, where Türkiye tries to help, and the energy issues where the Europeans are in need of pipelines that carry energy via Türkiye to them. There are many issues.
So I hope it wont come to that. But if so, there are instances that have shown that the imposition of sanctions does not work. Iran is an example for that. They are under severe sanctions since 1979, but that did not stop them from reaching the nuclear threshold.
The same with Russia, where they have placed sanctions but could not deter Russia from entering Ukraine and waging a war – which is an illegitimate one.
Unless the whole world agrees to impose sanctions on a country, there is always leave-outs in the sanctions regimes.
I hope that our Western partners will sit at the table and look for dialogue to find constructive solutions, and I hope that this will come out someday.