Zero Problems with Neighbours: Turkey’s Regional Strategy, London, 8 February 2010

ZERO PROBLEMS WITH NEIGHBOURS: TURKEY’S REGIONAL STRATEGY

Global Strategy Forum, London, 8 February 2010

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the outset, I would like to express my great pleasure to address such a distinguished gathering. I would also like to convey my appreciation for the organization of this timely event in this highly esteemed venue. This organization and the high level participation it enjoys serve to underline the importance our British friends attach to Turkey’s role in the world. Needless to say, this is an honour and privilege for us Turkish participants.

As a result of the transition which the country is undergoing and the economic growth it is achieving, Turkey has been assuming a greater role not only regionally, but internationally as well. The developments and the climate in international politics are also providing Turkey with a larger space and more flexibility.

In this context, certain regions and countries which previously did not have a high priority for one reason or another are resurfacing on Turkey’s agenda. Consequently, there is a diversification of Turkey’s areas of interest. However, these new areas gaining prominence as a result of this diversification should not be regarded as rendering the already existing areas of interest less relevant. Indeed, Turkey’s relations with the Western World in general continue to progress smoothly and Turkey is satisfied with this.

As for the relations with the EU, they are not developing to the full satisfaction of Turkey. The main reason for this is certain statements made by the leaders of some EU countries. No significant change is to be expected in the attitude of these leaders. Nonetheless, Turkey is progressing in a determined manner in its EU accession process. It surely is an uphill task, but we believe we have the capacity to accomplish this undertaking.

This however is not sufficient. There is also the domestic front, where the Turkish public opinion is highly frustrated with the attitude of the above mentioned political leaders. We have to keep on working on the public opinion and drawing attention to the fundamental fact that Turkey’s interlocutors in the EU are neither the individual member countries nor their leaders. Turkey’s interlocutors are the institutions of the EU.

Meanwhile, Turkey will remain determined to move steadily in its way to improve its standards in all fields to be a first class democracy, with properly functioning institutions, with a more transparent market economy and with more widespread fundamental rights and freedoms.

Now, let me touch upon another issue, contemplated, disputed and even hotly debated in some quarters: Is Turkey drifting away from Europe? The short –and clear-cut- answer to this question is “No. It is not.” The longer –and more ambiguous- answer will be better understood if placed in the right context.

Turkey is a middle size country located in a geography that is full of challenges and opportunities: It is a negotiating country with the EU. It is also part and parcel of the Middle East. It is a major country in the Black Sea basin. It has close cultural and ethnic ties with countries of the Central Asia. It is a major player in the Islamic world. It is a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population. As a matter of fact, secularity is among the irrevocable provisions of its Constitution. This unique quality provides Turkey with a further advantage to contribute to the dialogue of civilizations. (This is why the Secretary General of the United Nations asked the Prime Minister of Turkey to assume, along with the Prime Minister of Spain, the co-chairmanship of the initiative of the Alliance of Civilizations. )

Turkey is the 6th biggest economy in Europe and 17th biggest economy in the world. It occupies a land mass that constitutes the most economical natural bridge for the transport of oil and gas to Europe and to international markets from both Gulf and Caspian Sea basins.

It is only natural for Turkey to try to reap the advantages of what history and geography offers her and, on the other hand, cope with (and whenever it can, take up)  the challenges of this critical geography. This is exactly what Turkey is trying to do. No more, no less.

(It will be misleading to perceive this as drifting away from the West. Turkey genuinely believes that its improved relations with the countries of the region are not a substitute for its relations with the EU. On the contrary, they are complementary. And this complementarity is a valuable asset for not only Turkey, but for Europe as well.)

In this framework, Turkey’s relations with its neighbours in particular and with the adjacent regions in general, acquire a particular importance. After all, history teaches us that only those powers enjoying a high standing in their own region are capable of exerting an influence in farther parts of the world.

During the last century, Turkey was in a poor position to pay appropriate attention to its neighbours and its region. There were several reasons of this and these reasons were mostly beyond its control.

Firstly, the Cold War and the international order imposed by it imposed barriers between Turkey and some of its neighbours. The Balkans, the Caucasus and the Central Asia were deeply affected by this division and the so was the Middle East.

Secondly, the unhappy recollections of the  Middle Eastern fronts of the First World War on the one hand and the way the reforms in Turkey and its Western orientation were perceived in the Middle East on the other, also set some psychological barriers between Turkey and the Middle Eastern countries. Especially, Turkey’s relations with the Arab world and the Islamic countries were distanced and restrained despite the cultural affinities.

Actually, there regions were not “terra incognita” for Turkey. They were well known regions with a shared history dating back to five centuries from the viewpoint of both the policy makers and the ordinary people. At the same time, the Turkish cultural heritage was not unknown to the people in those countries either. People of nearly all regional countries had their distant cousins in Turkey and the ancestors of so many people in Turkey today were from one of these countries. Yet, on account of political reasons and limited resources of Turkey, relations with these countries could not become one of the key priorities of Turkish foreign policy.

As a result of its growing economy and overall development, as well as a more favourable international climate, presently Turkey is in a better position to pay closer attention to its neighbouring regions. Its fundamental  values and principles, such as Western orientation and enhancing its role in its institutions, adoption of  contemporary values, taking its proper place in the European integration and full EU membership, inevitably call for  a more active role not only in its region, but beyond it as well.

In this context, Turkey’s regional initiatives and its policy objective of “zero problems with neighbours” are not to be regarded as something out of blue. Neither it is that original; indeed it was the founder of the Republic who not only formulated, but implemented it by means of an opening towards Greece, the principle adversary in the War of Independence. (Turkey was in need of peace and constancy around in order to repair the damage of decades of war and destruction and to settle down as a newly founded republic.)

This remained our fundamental principle. Besides, any country aspiring to assume wider-raging roles and to make its contribution to regional and international peace and security, initially embarks on resolving the outstanding issues with its neighbours. In fact, “policies towards neighbouring countries” are already an EU policy area.

Perhaps at this point we should briefly attempt to review the general state of the international scene. There appears to be closer cooperation between the United States and Russia following the “transition period” in the aftermath of the Cold War. Indeed, it seems that the “transition period” which followed the end of Cold War came to an end. And we have ended up with something resembling a multi-polar world order. The U.S., Russia, the E.U.(hopefully),China, India and Brazil (potentially.) The problem here is, as ever, the Middle East, closely followed by the Caucasus in terms of instability. We need some order in these areas as well. This actually, has been one of the fundamental objectives of let’s experimentally say the “new look “of Turkish foreign policy, to try and help attaining  some form of stability, durability in these highly volatile regions and it  certainly is a natural continuation of previous policies as I have been explaining.

Should I perhaps conclude my words by summing up that, if there is indeed a change, it is more in the way the international configuration has been shaping up. What Turkey has been trying to achieve is merely adjusting its policies to the realities, to the needs and requirements of current global world while maintaining its essential tenets.

Thank you very

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