Perhaps no other country in the world exists at the nexus of as many different geopolitical interests as Turkey. Nabi Sensoy, the Turkish ambassador to the United States, said his nation would not have it any other way.
The career envoy — now on his third tour of diplomatic duty in the United States — will retire at the end of 2010, but in a recent interview with The Washington Diplomat, he was brimming with thoughts on Turkey’s increasingly vital role in shaping the post-Cold War era.
A longtime ally of Europe and the United States, Turkey has in recent years looked to become a more prominent player in the Middle East. While some U.S. analysts view that with trepidation, Sensoy insists it will not jeopardize Turkey’s embrace of pro-democratic Western ideals.
“There is no reason why Turkey should change its course,” Sensoy said matter-of-factly.
Although Turkey’s population is more than 99 percent Muslim, the nation is a secular democracy, despite lingering fears that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since late 2002, would impose an Islamist agenda on the country.
But Sensoy says Turkey’s mix of secularism and Islamic underpinnings is what makes it uniquely positioned to broker understandings between Muslim and non-Muslim states. Historically a crossroads between the East and West, Turkey maintains important economic and political relationships with the United States, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, many countries in Africa, the southern Caucuses, Russia and more. In recent years for example, Ankara has facilitated talks between Syria and Israel, tried to negotiate with Hamas to recognize Israel, and at the same time built stronger relations with Iran and Syria.
That global reach is a far cry from just a few years ago, when Turkey “was a marginal player at best in the Middle East,” according to Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The AKP governments, first under Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and since early 2003 under [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, embarked on an ambitious foreign policy — concomitant with their equally bold domestic political and reform program — that sought to secure Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union while simultaneously cultivating relationships with Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, and Tehran,” Cook wrote in “The Evolving Turkish Role in Mideast Peace Diplomacy” earlier this year. “Turkey’s effort to draw closer to both Europe and the Middle East reflected a belief within the AKP that its foreign policy needed to be normalized.”
The ambassador told The Washington Diplomat that Turkey’s growing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs doesn’t threaten its relations with the West, which could even benefit from that involvement. “If Turkey is successful and contributes to peace and stability, that is going to be a big help to what the West is trying to achieve in this part of he world,” Sensoy said.
“The fact that some analysts might say Turkey is becoming more inclined to the Islamic world takes nothing away from the fact that Turkey is democratic, respects human rights and freedoms and the rule of law,” he added. “Our president once said, ‘We are not turning our face toward any other group of countries or part of the world — we hope those countries are going to turn their face to us.”
That even includes Turkey’s longtime nemesis, Armenia. In October, the two neighbors and adversaries signed historic accords in Zurich to establish diplomatic relations and reopen their borders. The pact — though still tenuous — marked the first major thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations in 100 years. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly scrambled to allay last-minute tensions over the wording of statements that Armenian and Turkish officials planned to make at the ceremony. The solution? No statements were made by either side.
Sensoy downplayed the significance of the last-minute wrangling over wording in the statements and focused on the fact that an agreement was ultimately reached.
“It has not been easy to come to this point, let’s be frank about it,” he said. “A lot has been said about the last-minute delay. It wasn’t an easy ride and the developments at the last minute have shown that. But what isn’t important is the three-hour delay — it’s the 100 years it took to get here.”
The reconciliation, which ends decades of conflict stemming from the Ottoman slaying of thousands of Armenians, still needs parliamentary ratification by both nations before it becomes official — a major hurdle. Turkey seems to be conditioning ratification on progress with Armenia’s territorial dispute with Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, while many Armenians — including the powerful American-Armenian lobby — oppose a normalization of relations until Turkey acknowledges that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against up to 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in 1915.
The new agreement doesn’t solve that longstanding disagreement, but rather would establish an independent commission to examine historical documents on the matter.
“There are claims about the numbers of lives lost during that period,” Sensoy said. “The numbers might be exaggerated but the important thing is hundreds of thousands of people were killed on both sides. The fact remains that even one loss of life is too many and we mourn the loss of every person, whether they are Armenian, Turks, Muslims — it doesn’t really matter.”
But it does matter to many Armenians, who worry Turkey will use the commission to shirk responsibility for the World War I killings. The Turkish people, meanwhile, are concerned about their ally Azerbaijan, which is pressing Ankara for help in recovering the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been controlled by Armenian troops since the early 1990s.
“The position [of the Turkish government] is that the invasion of one country by another country should really stop and the Armenian occupation should end,” Sensoy said, noting that “about 1 million Azeris are refugees in their own homeland.”
The ambassador acknowledged that the tentative agreement is only the first step on a long road toward full reconciliation with Armenia, and although he declined to predict how the Turkish Parliament would vote on the pact, he still sounded an optimistic note. “It is very difficult to prejudge,” he said. “But we did this because we believe in it and we hope it will go well.”
Sensoy said he is also unsure how or if the Turkish-Armenian accord will advance Turkey’s seemingly never-ending goal of becoming a member of the European Union. But he rejected outright the suggestion that somehow the EU bid is no longer on the table, or even important to Turkey’s long-term future given its recent overtures to the Middle East or Europe’s distaste for further enlargement.
“It has been a very long saga for Turkey,” he admitted. “It is not going with the pace we would like to see, but it’s still going on. It is one of the things on top of the foreign policy agenda. It’s part of our Western vocation. We are part and parcel of all the Euro-Atlantic structures.”
In addition to being a vital energy transit country for Europe, Sensoy pointed out that Turkey’s economy — bolstered by strong agriculture and textile sectors — is the 17th largest in the world and the sixth largest in Europe. Turkey’s gross domestic product has tripled over the past six years from 0 billion to 0 billion, and despite the global economic downturn, Sensoy said his country remains in an unparalleled position to influence its region, not only economically but politically.
“Turkey has really grown,” the ambassador said. “It gives us the power to facilitate give and take in the region.” As one example, Turkey launched a trilateral summit process among itself, Afghanistan and Pakistan in February 2007, pledging to increase coordination among the three countries’ political, military and intelligence tiers in the fight against militancy and terrorism.
Sensoy also noted that Turkey has sent about 1,000 troops and 0 million to Afghanistan to help with the U.S.-led rebuilding efforts there. “This is of course helpful to what the United States is trying achieve because everything can’t be solved by military means,” he said in a tone reminiscent of Turkey’s initial skepticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which strained relations between the two allies. Nevertheless, Sensoy insists, “We are always supportive of U.S. policies, now in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq.”
But perhaps most complicated of all is Turkey’s relationship with Israel. Turkey is considered Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world, but that strategic relationship has begun to sour in recent months amid speculation that Turkey is realigning itself closer to other countries in the Middle East, especially after serious disagreements with the hawkish new Israeli government. Ankara earned kudos in the Arab world but raised eyebrows in the West with its prime minister’s withering comments about Israel’s Gaza offensive earlier this year, when Erdogan stormed out of a World Economic Forum debate after getting into a heated argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
More recently, Turkey decided to exclude Israel from participating in a NATO war games exercise — reportedly because of lingering anger over the Gaza assault — at the exact time that Ankara upgraded its relations with Damascus.
Ever the diplomat, Sensoy sought to tamp down alarm over Turkey’s supposedly fraying relations with Israel. “There is an international dimension but let’s not forget this is a Turkish exercise,” Sensoy said of the postponed NATO exercise. “There will be other occasions in the future.”
He also pointed out that Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel and that his country is home to many Jews who “enrich our society.”
“Between Turks and Jews, there has been only friendship — this is a fact,” the ambassador said. “It is an unshakable relationship. Whatever happens to us today or in the future will happen between the best of friends. But there are times when you don’t see eye to eye.”
He said the prime minister’s remarks simply reflected the sentiment of the Turkish people who recoiled at the punishing Israeli retaliation in Gaza that by various estimates killed hundreds of civilians. “When children die and there is destruction, you feel this in your heart,” Sensoy said. “No government can be indifferent to the feelings of its people and that is what happened. But in other aspects, our relationship with Israel is going well.”
Speaking in a broader sense about the Middle East, Sensoy said Americans and others in the West should not be worried that Turkey is aiming to become a more substantial player in Middle Eastern politics. “The Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire and that’s why we have an affinity for the Middle East, including Israeli people,” Sensoy said. “We’ve come to a very critical point of starting to talk to each other. Turkey is trying to have a zero-problem policy with its neighbors and widen its influence and contributions to a wider scope.”
He explained that the end of the Cold War has reshuffled the geopolitical deck and Turkey simply wants to have a winning hand.
“At the end of the Cold War, we are faced with a new atmosphere and a new world order is in the making,” Sensoy said. “It’s a time of change. In this atmosphere of change Turkey is, of course, trying to adapt to a new reality. It has been part and parcel of the West for a long time but at the same time, Turkey has a cultural affinity for the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucuses … it has many shapes and importance, but the most important part of it is our ties with the Western world.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.