Pax Erdogana: Is this the end of an era?

Turkey must take a long, hard look at what went wrong with its regional ambitions – and why.

While Pax Ottomana drew its strength from diversity, Pax Erdogana viewed diversity as confusion, writes Unver [Reuters]

On October 19, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated emphatically that he would never allow passage to Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces into Kobane from its border with Syria, nor would he allow US arms transfers to PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish fighters in the besieged town. Yet the following day, the US airdropped weapons and supplies to PYD fighters in Kobane, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Turkey would allow their “Iraqi Kurdish brothers” to join the fight against ISIL in Kobane.

“We want the region to be cleared of all threats. We assess the military and medical materials aid provided by our Iraqi Kurdish brothers and airdropped by the United States to all forces defending Kobane in this framework,” said Cavusoglu.

So what changed in the span of less than 24 hours to weaken Erdogan’s resolve?

For some observers, this drastic turnaround in Turkish foreign policy might be a sign that what had once jeeringly been termed “Pax Erdogana” is coming to an end.

The term Pax Erdogana refers to Erdogan’s policy of neo-Ottomanism, and his attempts, since he took office as prime minister in 2003, to revive “Pax Ottomanica” – the zenith of Ottoman power, wealth and influence in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During this period, the empire was strong both militarily and administratively, but it had also developed a working model of cosmopolitanism, and ethnic co-existence, along with impressive architectural, artistic and literary achievements. Pax Ottomanica eventually fell with a loud thud, leaving behind lessons in statecraft, war and peace. For secular modernists, the Ottomans’ primary shortcoming was their inability to keep up with Europe’s rapid modernisation. The clerical establishment, on the other hand, believes the empire fell because it deviated from the original tenets of Islam and was becoming a “European abomination” of sorts. These two worldviews survive today and represent the primary polarity in Turkish politics and culture.

Enter Pax Erdogana

Turkey’s traditional foreign policy – often dubbed “Kemalist” – emphasised the importance of Turkey remaining a part of the western alliance, carrying the traumas and bitter experiences of the empire’s final decades. “Troop numbers don’t win wars; technology does,” was the motto, and according to this logic, Turkey had to situate itself among the most advanced technologies of the world if it wanted to stand a chance at surviving in a troublesome neighbourhood.

Turkey to let Iraqi Kurds join Kobane battle

While the “new Turkish foreign policy” is heavily attributed to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, it actually derives from a much older political tradition. Following Alexander Wendt’s constructivist critique of anarchy as an integral component of the world system, the new Turkish foreign policy criticised the older approach, which saw every incident in its vicinity as a security threat.

At the beginning of the new millennium, Turkey had over-accumulated deterrence from the last century and the new era required friends and partners, not potential security threats.

Pax Erdogana was thus a call for de-securitisation; elimination of threat perceptions from mainstream political discourse. Davutoglu’s “zero problems policy” was just one way to legitimise a new de-securitisation regime, whereas the proliferation of an unmanageable number of peace-making initiatives (generously initiated, but rarely finalised) reinforced Turkey’s “soft power”.

By embracing its “historical area of influence”, Turkey would wake up from its isolation and start re-engaging with former Ottoman territories in a proactive way. But, while Pax Ottomana drew its strength from diversity, Pax Erdogana viewed diversity as confusion or distraction. Thus emerged the fundamental dilemma of Pax Erdogana: too localised in its administrative and cultural capital to be able to make a larger, regional impact.

Closed circle

The narrow nature of this worldview was exacerbated by the persistent appointment of party loyalists to key positions in foreign policy decision-making, which otherwise required years of training and hands-on experience.

As the foreign policy cadre was reduced to a closed circle, which brewed in its own echo chamber, Ankara’s ability to make sense – let alone impact regional actors – diminished exponentially. Out of three highest-risk decisions Turkey made after 2011 – Morsi, Assad and Kobane – all have backfired with significant backlash. Turkey was perhaps theoretically righteous in the first two decisions, and strategically true in the latter, but the new Turkish foreign policy was never really good at calculating beyond short-term implications and viewed essential tools of international affairs – caution, balancing, foresight and planning – as unwelcome distractions. Not evacuating the Mosul consulate, despite ISIL’s advance, resulting in the consulate staff being taken hostage, was perhaps the most dire and recent of these examples.

The final gambit of Pax Erdogana came crumbling down in Kobane in the early hours of October 20, as US C-130s airdropped arms and supplies, while Iraqi Peshmerga will soon cross the Turkish border to reinforce the town.

Seizing history

Ankara had exerted its weight on issues that had little relevance to its long-term interests for the sake of “seizing history” and disregarded more immediate concerns that required its attention. Just as Pax Ottomana ended, Pax Erdogana found its overstretched calculations in far-off territories creating a myopia that impeded Ankara’s ability to deal with threats, as well as to seize opportunities next door.

More than ever, the Turkish foreign policy establishment is at a crossroads: Turkey can follow in the footsteps of an amply tried and failed web of predispositions and distorted preconceptions, or it can return to the drawing board and take a long, hard look at what went wrong, and why. The former option can go all the way to Turkey leaving NATO and creating a dangerous self-isolation, impossible to be spin-doctored into “splendid isolation” variants.

On the other hand, the latter option can indeed help create a regional “pax”, which is true to its name and purpose, where Turkey can use its diverse identity, worldviews and capabilities. The extent to which this soul-searching is done truthfully and honestly will determine the future level of success and impact of the Turkish foreign policy phoenix – if it is ever going to rise from its ashes.

Akin Unver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul, and an energy and political risk consultant. He is the winner of 2010 MESA Social Sciences Award and a former lecturer at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department.