Turkey's Finland-Sweden conflict: Just too big of a gamble, ex-envoy says

Turkey is playing too big of a gamble by blocking Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, said Namık Tan, former Turkish ambassador to the United States.

Turkey is risking its position in NATO and its reputation as a whole for the “sake of consolidating the disintegrating ranks domestically” at a time when it is also in dire need of foreign capital, Tan said in an article published in the Yetkin Report on Monday.

“Bargaining is in the nature of international relations,” Tan said, but added: “If you choose the wrong methods to communicate this truth, you might not get what is rightfully yours.”

The government may not be acting in the country’s interests, Tan said.

“I believe that the government has chosen to take this attitude in order to leverage the issue to rally it’s disintegrating base at home and to cover up economic problems that are likely to become even worse, motivated by political opportunism rather than cool analysis of Turkey’s long-term interests,” he said.

A full reproduction of the article follows below:

In foreign policy, it is not always enough to be right or for the other party to be wrong. After all, you have to make sure that you will be able to convince all relevant stakeholders that your position is legitimate and explain eloquently that you have been wronged by actions of another party or country. You also need to consider the entire spectrum of your opponent’s abilities, goals, priorities and expectations.

Empty rhetoric can help you rally your base domestically but in the foreign policy arena domestic popularity is largely irrelevant. Similarly, it is essential to understand that sentimentality is often not a good north star to chart a country’s foreign policy course. It is therefore a very big mistake to formulate foreign policy based on domestic politics and domestic grassroots sentiment and ideology. Over time, ideology-based diplomacy can cause the international community to see you as the root of all problems. You will become increasingly isolated and even friends and traditional allies will start leaving your side. Before starting a fight, it is vital to understand the full range of the abilities and resources that your opponents can mobilise and when allocating your own limited resources it is key to prioritise long-term interests rather than short-term goals.

When you take big steps while by ignoring these basic principles of foreign policy, you may not only fail to get what you want, but you may suffer other negative externalities and embarrassment.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey approaches Finland and Sweden’s applications for NATO membership negatively on the grounds that they have been supporting the terrorist organisation PKK. This statement has had wide-spread repercussions internationally.

It is no secret that PKK constituents have been protected in Finland and especially in Sweden for years. Therefore, it is hard to argue that Turkey’s basic premise is wrong and it shouldn’t be a large ask to ask candidate NATO countries that they should end every action that could hurt the national security of other NATO countries who are already a member. However, if you choose the wrong methods to communicate this truth, you might not get what is rightfully yours.

Bargaining is in the nature of international relations. But you have to plan it, allocate enough time and resources, mobilise professional support such as expert lawyers, academics and PR specialists to make sure you come out on top and still enjoy the good will of your allies.

We are one of the oldest members of the Alliance. We should have been able to resolve certain disagreements and conflict before the issue becomes a public debated problem. Especially since everyone knows that there are other NATO countries that also support the PKK, first and foremost the USA. While we are displaying an understandable reaction, the Ukraine crisis continues with full force. Some will consider our attitude incompatible with the spirit of the Alliance at a time that solidarity is of such vital importance. It is not possible to handle and properly resolve these issues if we manage them as if they are domestic political confrontations.

Turkey supported every NATO enlargement since the end of the Cold War and has made supportive statements in preliminary contacts with Finland and Sweden as well when it first became public that they might apply for membership. Messages of support were given at the highest levels. And regardless of how much we are in our right to demand an end to policies facilitating the PKK and its Syrian arm, the YPG, abrupt reversal of such promises inherently raise questions about our reliability, predictability, and consistency.

If Finland and Sweden do not change their attitudes, Turkey will continue to block the membership of these countries to NATO. However, we need to evaluate the full spectrum of repercussions such an outcome will have on our political and economic relations with these countries and with other NATO member countries, especially the U.S., as well.

In every final declaration of consecutive NATO summits in recent years, Russia was identified as an adversary. Turkey signed on to these declarations and it is no secret Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides in every major conflict in the region. Aside from its position in these conflicts, Russia is also supporting the PKK, which was founded by the Soviet Union, and allows the YPG’s official representative office to operate in Moscow. One can question the wisdom of ignoring these Russian actions while turning a similar attitude by two friendly countries into a hard veto that will ultimately create a favourable outcome for a bigger adversary, i.e. Russia. We should also be aware that our shortcomings in democratic governance and individual civil rights, can be leveraged against us in the future as reasons to mobilise sanctions against Turkey.

At a time that the global economy is distressed and our national economy is even more fragile and we are in dire need of foreign capital, I believe it was too big of a gamble to risk our position in the Alliance and our reputation as a whole for the sake of consolidating the disintegrating ranks domestically.

Considering everything that’s at stake, I don’t think that the statement regarding the candidacy of Finland and Sweden for NATO membership was made for the right reasons; following rational, consistent and realist evaluation of the facts and circumstances. I believe that the government has chosen to take this attitude in order to leverage the issue to rally it’s disintegrating base at home and to cover up economic problems that are likely to become even worse, motivated by political opportunism rather than cool analysis of Turkey’s long-term interests.

Diplomacy requires thorough training and experience and shouldn’t be left to self-taught diplomats. I hope we will not end up paying a heavier price than what we started out to salvage.

We must remember that our integration in NATO and our candidacy for membership to the EU and NATO are decisive leverages in our foreign policy standing. Being a part of the political, economic and social infrastructure of the West empowers Turkey substantially. It is therefore of critical importance for our national interest to act in harmony with allies and to continue making meaningful contributions to Alliance. If we fail to remember this, we will no longer be considered as a predictable, reliable and trustworthy ally.

(The original version of this article can be found here.)

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