Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the 'Istituto Affari Internatzionali in Rome. The following commentary draws from the policy paper ‘A Trilateral EU-US-Turkey Strategy for the Neighbourhood: The Urgency of Now’.
"At the turn of the century, 9/11, the end of the Middle East Peace Process, the search for a credible alternative to EU enlargement, and Turkey’s growing regional prominence converged, upping the stakes for a joint EU-US-Turkey strategy. Yet the greater the need for joint action, the less likely it appeared to be. Particularly between 2009 and 2011, talk in the West about the “loss” of Turkey, Turkey’s “change of axis” and its “drift to the East” was commonplace.
True, Turkey was recognised as an increasingly important actor in its neighbourhood. Yet the prospects of a joint transatlantic strategy with it seemed dim. As Turkey turned its hybrid identity into a foreign policy asset, it came to value its newfound strategic autonomy. This did not necessarily mean its distancing from the West, but it did mean that when US and EU interests clashed with Turkey’s, Ankara had fewer qualms parting ways with its transatlantic allies, be this over Russia, Cyprus, Iran, Syria, Israel or the Palestinians. A trilateral strategy for the neighbourhood was definitely off the cards.
Then came the Arab spring, which has transformed, once again, the tone of the debate. The Arab spring has cast Turkey back into the Western fold and away from alternative alliance patterns which seemed to be in the making only a few years earlier, both in the Middle East and in the sovereignist global south. Turkey, of course, remains far from being a trigger-happy interventionist power in its neighbourhood. Moreover, it continues to pursue its strategic autonomy and has not turned back into an uncritical subject of the West. But the discourse of Turkey’s axis shift is now passé. Ankara’s support for the democratic aspirations of its neighbours is careful, cautious, and above all conditional upon multilateral cooperation with its partners, be it the EU and the US, or the Arab League. Well aware that the challenges facing its neighbours are too great to confront alone, Turkey seems to have rediscovered the virtues of cooperating with its allies.
Also from a European and American perspective, the logic of joint action with Turkey has become more compelling, given the renewed significance of the Turkish model in a neighbourhood undergoing profound transformation. No longer simply a US-inspired and static Turkish/European embraced slogan, the Turkish model or, more aptly put, the Turkish experience, may become a more dynamic and articulate notion that Arab leaders could explore (alongside other examples) as they grapple with domestic change. Naturally, what is of interest here is not a clear-cut and static emulation of Turkey’s situation, an emulation which would be neither possible nor desirable. Rather, it is a dynamic observation process of Turkey’s ongoing experience, learning from its steps forward and, perhaps even more critically, from its mistakes.
But assuming a trilateral strategy is both desirable and possible, what would it consist of? Such a strategy could include the establishment of a standing trilateral working group for the neighbourhood, which would determine whether, when and in what policy areas complementary action should proceed, separately or simultaneously.
When it comes to diplomacy, there could be a useful division of labour between the three. The EU and US may be better placed to focus their interventions on universal norms grounded in international law. When resting on the solid turf of international law, the EU and the US, whose reputation in the neighbourhood is far from spotless, would be less the object of criticism. Turkey, by contrast, could pinpoint its diplomatic interventions on more specific political topics, particularly those on which its own experience grants it greater legitimacy.
Following the same line of reasoning which led a post-Islamist like Erdoğan to praise the virtues of secularism in Cairo, one could imagine retired Turkish military officials advocating the democratic oversight of the armed forces; or Turkish business people calling for export promotion policies in the neighbourhood. Breaking down the elements of the Turkish model, a variety of Turkish actors could send diplomatic messages to neighbouring countries which, while coordinated with those of the US and the EU, would differ somewhat from theirs and could be better received because of the incompleteness of Turkey’s ongoing democratisation process.
Turning to assistance, we could imagine bilateral EU-Turkey action on governance support, by bringing Turkey into EU twinning and Taiex programmes in the neighbourhood, and US-Turkey action on political party support in the neighbourhood, applying specifically the AKP’s experience to political party development in the region.
In the field of security instead, as currently demonstrated in Syria, rather than a division of labour, joint action would be warranted. Spearheaded by Turkey and its transatlantic partners, the Friends of Syria group is testing the way forward for possible modalities of humanitarian intervention, and ways to support the Syrian opposition and broaden the international consensus on what to do in Syria. The work of the Friends of Syria group could act as a useful precedent for trilateral security cooperation if and when other crises erupt in the neighbourhood.
This is not to downplay the many obstacles that hinder foreign policy cooperation between Turkey, the EU and the US, foremost amongst which is the dire state of EU-Turkey relations. But responding effectively to the shift in tectonic plates underway in the neighbourhood is a challenge none of the three can afford to shy away from."