Turkish Foreign Policy, In the Post-Referendum Era

Turkish Foreign Policy, In the Post-Referendum Era

Crafting a political system where foreign policy power would be both more effective and democratic requires a systemic analysis of foreign policy making procedures. Foreign policy making should rely on standards such as accountability, rationality, and a rapid decision mechanism, especially in times of crisis.

Measuring the success of a country’s foreign policy is not a straightforward practice. Evaluating the relationship between a political system and the crafting of its foreign policy thus begs the question ‘what kind of political system best serves the interests of a strategically important country?’ and ‘How can a country ensure a coherent foreign policy strategy that provides more security and prosperity to its citizens, while being in compliance with moral principles?’ The constitutional amendments, on which the Turkish people voted on in the April 16 referendum, aim to resolve many structural problems, and bring more effective and democratic mechanisms to foreign policy making.

First, the formulation of the foreign policy making process in the new presidential system needs to be clarified. With the sharp separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, the president will become the dominant actor in foreign policy making, although he will not be acting in a vacuum since his actions would be audited by the parliament. International agreements ratified by the president will also be subject to the approval of the parliament. Because the new amendments introduce the criminal liability of the president, which the present constitution does not have, any action taken by the president will have to be compatible with the rule of law. Under the new system, many actors within bureaucracy, institutions and agencies will be able to contribute to foreign policy. Each specific actor’s expertise is crucial, as long as there is an ultimate civil authority providing coordination and harmony among them. This coordination mechanism will be established by the president whenever it is necessary.

Democratization of Foreign Policy

Turkish foreign affairs have long been the produce of the elites, ruled by bureaucratic and military tutelage, and shaped behind closed doors. The last 15 years have seen a struggle between the democratically elected government and the political elite who did not want to lose their hold over institutions and policymaking processes, including foreign policy. From coup threats to controversial decisions of the Constitutional Court, the elite resisted against democracy. With the new amendments, the last remnants of tutelage will cease to exist. For instance, the Constitutional Court still has two members appointed by the military, which in itself is an undemocratic practice. In this sense, new amendments will empower the civilians who are represented by democratically elected officials. Furthermore, non-governmental actors such as the academy, civil society organizations, think tanks, and media outlets will all have a say in the making of foreign policy, turning the process into a more inclusive and democratic one. Since the president is elected by the popular vote and accountable to the public, civil society will thus be able to influence his decisions.

Effective Foreign Policy

A successful foreign policy needs long-term goals and strategies. In the past, short-lived coalition governments in Turkey, averaging around one year under the parliamentary system, were far from establishing long-term foreign policy goals. In the parliamentary system, the government remains under the pressure of the legislative branch when crafting foreign policy. A minister of foreign affairs can face removal from his post with a vote of no confidence due to political infighting. As a result, the power of the executive branch is weakened and the vulnerability of the foreign policy making procedure increases. The new presidential system would grant the government with an uninterrupted five-year term, preventing the constant change in the formulation of foreign policy strategies.

Another part of the debate is the elimination of the ambiguity about which branch of the state has the final authority to conduct foreign policy decisions. The current system where two heads of state have equal legitimacy leads to confusion of authority within the foreign relations structure of the country. Both the president and the prime minister have the authority to represent the nation in foreign affairs and have signing authority for international agreements. Clearly, this constitutes a conflict in representation, and is open to misuse. Turkish political history saw several disagreements between the president and the prime minister. In the 1990s for example, the policies of President Turgut Özal and Prime Minister Yildirim Akbulut on the Gulf War conflicted, leading to friction between two leaders. In the same vein, President Özal and Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel even argued over who would participate in the 1992 BSEC Summit. The proposed constitutional amendments will abolish the system of dual authority, thus resolving the issue.

The elimination of dual authority will also serve another purpose: a stronger representation in the international scene. The parliamentary system, which only grants symbolic power to the president, does not satisfy the catering of a strong and steady image.

The presidential system also gives the “small group model” a chance to function in times of crises. This model points to the need for decisiveness, discretion and rapidness in foreign policy making, and proper management of the flow of information from top to bottom in an extraordinary situation. We see the best practice of this “small group model” in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President Kennedy dealt with the crisis in a commendable fashion and exemplified the effectiveness and practicality of this model. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Congress, majority of the bureaucrats, and military commanders all called on the US administration to adopt a much more aggressive approach in dealing with the Soviets. A comprehensive military action, air strikes and even a nuclear strike were the options on the table. A possible nuclear war could have destroyed the world. In order to overcome “group think” and avoid war, President Kennedy created the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm), consisting of the National Security Council and Kennedy’s trusted advisers and bureaucrats, and through closed meetings where members could discuss the issues freely, ExComm managed to steer the US from military action against the Soviets and prevent a possible nuclear war.

Reforming the State

Today’s international politics has multilateral, complicated and uncertain characteristics. Therefore, a nation’s foreign policy has to be very dynamic and flexible to keep up with constantly changing alliances, and manage crises. The international political system has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, and regional and global balances of power are changing very quickly. The lack of response to the developments on the global scale requires a reform in political systems at both national and international levels. Every nation has its own characteristics depending on where it is located, how the culture of governance is established, and what it needs for better governance. These characteristics determine the kind of government system that is suitable, and should be adopted by the state. Humanitarian crises, unending civil wars, growing tide of radicalism, collapsing regional order in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as rising populism, far-right nationalism and Islamophobia in the West, and the Russian defiance of NATO are all driving Turkey to perform with greater resilience in its stability while demonstrating stronger leadership. All of these regional and international factors of influence require important measures to be taken, and reforms to be implemented in the country’s governance system.

Unstable countries are not capable of responding to such challenges, and fail to bring solutions to crises where atrocity becomes rampant. As a result, they end up stuck in vicious circles of violence and instability. As a country surrounded by neighbours suffering from either internal conflicts or economic crises, Turkey has to adopt a system that serves both its interests and the prosperity of the region. In the same regard, the Syrian civil war is posing a threat to the region as a whole and also has the potential to spread further. Overcoming the instability and its spillover effect is highly dependent on a system in which a strong leadership holds the capacity to solve these crises. In this sense, a presidential democracy is a more stable system than the parliamentary one, and more suitable for Turkey.

Responding to Security Threats

Currently, Turkey faces multiple security threats that require more empowerment of the executive body in order to quickly and effectively respond to challenges. The country is in a continuous struggle against separatist terrorist organizations like the PKK, its Syrian wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and Daesh. The latest major threat on Turkey’s list of terror organizations is the FETÖ that established networks across the world, and constitutes an existential threat to the country. The tactic used by FETÖ is infiltrating strategic state institutions as “sleeper cells,” waiting for the order to cause violence and overthrow the government, as we saw with the July 15 coup attempt. The PKK against which Turkey has been fighting for the last four decades, uses its Syrian branch PYD to train and obtain substantial support on the false pretense of fighting Daesh, only to use this newly gained power to attack Turkey. Daesh terrorist group also made several attacks in Turkey, as Turkey has launched a successful Operation Euphrates Shield which beat Daesh and forced it to retreat. By infiltrating state institutions and misusing state funds for terrorism, both the PKK and FETÖ had substantial advantages, which they no longer have due to drastic security measures taken by the judiciary and security apparatus. Unfortunately, these terrorist groups also have strong footing beyond national borders and enjoy foreign support, which in turn deteriorates Turkey’s bilateral relations with its partners. By reforming the system, Turkey will prevent such terror groups from taking advantage of the state, and by eradicating their hold within the country, will deter foreign powers to use these terror groups for their own interest. Such radical and drastic measures require a strong executive branch, which the new amendments will aim to bring about.

In sum, the fact that Turkey is located in a geopolitically challenging part of the world and currently under high security threats and fighting against several terrorist organizations, it is essential for Turkish foreign policy to operate within fast and consistent mechanisms. This is what the new constitutional amendments aim to provide. In terms of practical necessity, bureaucratic productivity, and better coordination mechanisms, the presidential system promises a more efficient foreign policy approach. It does not only establish a viable and stable government, but also ensures a more successful foreign policy implementation. This is because, under the presidential system, the foreign policy decision-making process is more systematic and well-structured; it eliminates the current predicament of having two heads of state, and improves bureaucratic inertia and interagency rivalry. Turkey is holding a referendum to turn its governance system similar to the ones in its NATO allies, like the US and France. The presidential system is not a silver bullet that will solve each and every problem that Turkish foreign policy faces, but one thing is for sure; if the presidential system is adopted, Turkish foreign policy is bound to change for the better.

By: Ali Yasin Serdar

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