Rebuilding Bridges

By: Alpcan Karamanoglu, THO Non-Resident Fellow

In the end of September, Mr. Erdogan paid his first official visit to Germany as the First President of the New Constitution. Odds were high, and his wish list from Berlin was longer than ever. He was welcomed at the Belvedere Palace with a special ceremony both by President and the Chancellor. He attended the opening of the biggest mosque in Germany. When he came back, he was thrilled to call this a ‘successful trip’ as he made no promise to improve democracy and human rights at home, but got a word for being visited by some German business committee in the upcoming weeks. For now, Mr. Erdogan can market his meeting with Merkel as ‘normalizing ties’, but the reality is far from it. After losing her friend across the Atlantic, Turkey is alone without D.C, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Now, she is trying to go back to her old friends. However what seems like a recovery is not much more than a mutual economic interest. Mr. Erdogan will soon realize that rebuilding bridges is not as easy as burning them. Going back to old Western friends will not be as easy as replacing those, with authoritarian allies, Russia and Qatar.

Mr. Erdogan with his utilitarian approach towards foreign policy has generally been successful in changing his friends like changing seasons. He worked foreign relations very liberally in favor of his domestic populist politics. When his cabinet was not welcome in the Netherlands last year before the constitutional referendum, he called the Dutch fascist. When he could not campaign for the referendum in Berlin, he called Merkel Nazi. His portrayal of the European Union at home helped him create a language of us versus them, which conveyed his nationalist populist policies easier than he ever thought. Europe’s populist and protective measures against Turkey has helped Mr. Erdogan to develop his own measures at home.

His brave tone and language lost him friends in Europe but got him new ones. Developing stronger ties with Russia and Qatar, while still having US on his back made it worth to lose a couple of old partners. Winning the historic referendum, and the country’s most powerful position ever created the following year, confirmed this trade-off. Burning a couple of bridges down secured him a decade more of being the country’s strongest leader since the founder president Ataturk.

However, bravery in rhetoric can only exist if there is a strong back up which one can rely on. For Turkey, this was the United States. As a NATO ally, Turkey has felt the support of the USA, despite the complications. Not only that US never officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, but also has given her support for Turkey’s accession to the EU, both being historically significant topics. All this long-lasting partnership, however, was not strong enough to keep the both countries allies when it came to Priest Brunson issue. When Turkey did not respond to USA’s demand of releasing him, Donald Trump’s tweet on August 12th summarized the dynamics: “I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on steel and aluminum with respect to Turkey, as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

This was Erdogan’s first time seeing an actual economic consequence of his actions in foreign policies. For the first time he could see that his economy can be held accountable if he does anything wrong to his allies. In addition, it was the first time for Erdogan to see that economics was not all that separated from politics both home and abroad.

The loneliness Erdogan felt from losing his last Western ally, motivated him to search for new ‘old’ friends. As the Turks say ‘Denize dusen yilana sarilir’ (the one who fell to sea will hug to a snake) meaning desperate times call for desperate measures. These desperate measures now include going back to EU. This time, not to Brussels, because that door has been shut for a long time for Erdogan. But to Berlin, as the economic de-facto capital. Mr. Erdogan has to put aside his pride, and his rhetoric of blaming Merkel as a neo-Nazi, and ask for economic help, FDI, and perhaps even infrastructural aid. He does know that politically he cannot get any support from Merkel, and all that there is left for him is economic. The danger, however, will be the same as what she experienced with the US. Despite Erdogan’s mercantilist view of the world, it is hard for strong economic ties to develop with political disputes and challenges. Mr. Erdogan is not ‘normalizing’ any political relations, instead he is buying the falling economy some time. A true turning from the economic crisis would require political reforms. However, Mr. Erdogan did not spend years constructing a system of patronage just to abandon at the first sign of a crisis.

As it is nearly impossible to save the country’s free-falling currency with superficial deals with some German companies, there will be only two exclusive options for the Turkish president. One is to accept the shut doors and focus on Russia, Qatar and hopefully China’s partnership, or to really go back to his Western allies both economically but also politically. For Mr. Erdogan, the latter seems less attractive.