recent article published by Project Syndicate, Sinan Ülgen argues that Turkey’s now failed “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy lifted Turkey among “league of influential nations” but the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.
He is correct in suggesting that Turkey’s zero problems foreign policy strategy has become unsustainable but he is wrong in claiming that the policy failed because dictators have started to tumble.
He asserts that Turkey cultivated unconditional relations with authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and when the Arab Spring put these despotic regimes in danger, Turkey was forced to pick sides and forsake its previous policy of maintaining good ties with autocratic regimes.
Turkey experts Mustafa Akyol, Soner Çağaptay, Gönül Tol also argued here, here and here that zero problems foreign policy failed because of the Arab Spring. They basically claim that zero problems foreign policy meant zero troubles with dictators.
The argument seems simple and appropriate at initial glance. But is there any state that puts democracy or human rights record as a precondition in building ties with another state? Those states who highlight and criticize lack of democracy in a country do so to make their already strained or bad relations more legitimate and seem to having foreign policy based on moral principles. How does Turkey deserve blame for improving its ties with neighboring countries? This should not be the source of guilt.
It is not Turkey’s fault to have good ties with authoritarian regimes, it is what nations do. Above all, who decides what is a “good government?” Every ruling structure has its own distinct fallacies and shortcomings.
It was, however, Turkey’s fault to build its foreign policy based on personal relationships, principles and naive assumptions that states can be trusted. Turkey worsened its relations with countries like Libya or Syria not because of brutal crackdown on protesters by Gaddafi and Assad regime. Turkey’s leadership decided to cut ties with these countries only after its foreign and prime ministers felt betrayed and insulted.
Turkey vociferously rejected the idea of military intervention in Libya and even opposed sanctions at the outset but it later dramatically changed its position only after realizing that Gaddafi shrugged off Turkey’s recommendations and not because he became a monster.
Turkey did not severed its ties with Damascus until August, when Assad forces had already killed more than 2,000, and Erdoğan dumped Assad as a friend only after he felt betrayed, lied and not because he became "evil mass killer." It was easier for Turkey to call on former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to step down because Turkish-Egyptian relations were driven by national interests not mutual trust.
A closer look at the nature and dynamics of authoritarian regimes, it is obvious to note that fallen dictators remained in power for decades. Alternative to Turkey’s close ties with dictators would be its previous foreign policy of isolationism that brought no benefit and it is unfair to accuse Turkey of cultivating relations with dictators and see it as a chief culprit in bringing down the zero problems foreign policy.