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Philip Robins, on foreign policy and the national security state

Philip Robins

A former Middle East correspondent for the BBC and The Guardian, Philip Robins entered academia in the 1980s. In 1987, he joined Chatham House, a prestigious think tank, where he later founded the Middle East Programme. Having taken up a teaching post at Oxford University in 1995, Robins published Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War in 2003.

The book covers Turkey's role in a changing international system, players and processes, and the role of ideology and history in policy making.

Writing at the turn of the century, Robins could not have predicted the changes that Turkish foreign policy would undergo after the 2002 elections. His book's greatest value, therefore, lies not in detailing where current Turkish foreign policy is heading, but in showing where it came from (and how far it had to come).

"History", as Philip Robins puts it, "tells Turks to be suspicious, especially of their neighbours, who covet their territory or seek to erode the greatness of the nation through devious means."

"Turkey is a status quo power. […] Turkey's foreign policy elites remained wedded to the sanctity of borders, of states, of multilateral institutions and of norms of conduct, even when it became clear that systemic changes have rendered some of these continuities no longer tenable."

Robins stresses the huge "normative gap" that opened up between Turkey and other European countries in the 1990s:

"The 1980s saw the beginnings of a new norms based approach to international affairs, especially in Europe and the developed world. […] The ideological change related to the emergence of a hegemony of liberal values, with their emphasis, in the political domain, on democracy, pluralism, human rights and civil society. […] Turkey just did not connect with the spirit of these normative changes. […] By the early 1990s, rather than being transformed by liberal, exogenous factors, Turkey was retreating from such values as a process of de-democratization began to take hold."

This normative gap, Robins notes, was to have a tangible impact on Turkey's standing in the world. In the 1990s relations between Turkey and the international human rights community "deteriorated precipitously". In 1996, Freedom House labelled Turkey as "partially free", placing it in the same category as Kuwait.


Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War

Articles of the Turkish Penal Code at the time did not distinguish between acts of violence and thought. Between 1991 and 1994 thousands of claims of torture were submitted to human rights organisations; thousands of mystery killings took place; by the spring of 1996, some 3,000 villages had been razed to the ground in southeast Anatolia, as the state battled the PKK.

National politics, to a large extent, had been hijacked by an opaque and unaccountable "deep state" or "national security state", which was justified by the need to fight Turkey's enemies, particularly the PKK in South East Anatolia:

"The methods of the deep state involved the use of force, physical and psychological intimidation, extra-judicial killings, and the creation of a cordon sanitaire through the razing of villages and the displacement of rural populations."

Robins notes that Turkey had nine foreign ministers between July 1994 and June 1997, reflecting profound governmental instability. Foreign policy was set by the National Security Council (NSC) an "advisory" body in name only. Chaired by the President of the Republic and composed of civilian and military members, the NSC was in fact a conduit for the military to give (and impose) its views on different policy issues. Its Secretary General was a senior officer. The NSC was also represented on civilian institutions like the High Board for Radio and Television (RTK) and the Commission for Higher Education (YK).

It was here, and not in the cabinets, that foreign policy was made in the late 90s:

"[The NSC] dispenses 'advice', but in practice it is virtually unheard of for cabinets and parliaments publicly to question its views, and it is a proud claim made by the NSC secretariat that there are no examples of recommendations in the realm of foreign policy that have remained unimplemented."

Reading Robins' book today one realises the extent to which Turkish foreign policy has evolved as a result of Turkey's democratisation. A number of major structural changes have taken place. As of 2003, for example, the NSC is a purely consultative body having no authority to demand the government to follow up on its recommendations with a civilian majority and a civilian Secretary General. In addition, the NSC is no longer represented in civil institutions.

In recent years Turkey has also made efforts to close the normative gap with the rest of Europe through a variety of reforms affecting the quality of its democracy. Steps have been taken to eliminate torture as an instrument of state policy. Alleged members of the so-called deep state, including senior military officers, have recently been put on trial in civilian courts.

In 2003, Robins was able to write that "it is no coincidence that Turkey has not been a non-permanent member of the Security Council since 1961." In the fall of 2008, Turkey was elected to the Security Council and, given the progress achieved over the past few years, this is no coincidence, either.

As Robins argues in a recent interview with Today's Zaman, a new balance has emerged in Turkish foreign policy.

"Turkish foreign policy under the AK Party is definitely more geographically rounded than was the case before. In previous years, the overwhelming priority was on 'Western' issues, from NATO to relations with the US and of course with the EU. The Middle East and the Islamic world more generally were regarded as lower priorities, largely ignored or simply reduced to one or two core issues, such as terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. Under the AK Party relations with the Middle East have been revalued, but without devaluing those with the West."

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