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Turkey: Ambitions Vs. Reality in Ankara's ME Foreign Policy

Perhaps one of the most quoted Wikileaks cables to come out of the American embassy in Ankara is one from 2009 in which the ambassador at the time, James Jeffrey, describes Turkey's Middle East policy as based on "Rolls Royce ambitions, but with Rover resources."


Many in Ankara interpreted the ambassador's comment as an indication of Washington's discomfort with Turkey's increasingly autonomous and high-profile Middle East foreign policy, but a new study released by a Turkish think tank confirms a simple truth that lies at the base of Jeffrey's assessment: Turkey, at this point, simply lacks the human resources and institutional capacity to back up many of its lofty foreign policy goals. Reports Today's Zaman:

The Foreign Ministry’s present infrastructure in terms of its corporate body and personnel is insufficient for Turkey to become a “regulating actor” or “central country” in the Middle East, according to a new International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) report.

Osman Bahadır Dinçer, the think-tank’s Middle East researcher, has said the shortcomings in terms of personnel are being felt more deeply since Turkey has started to follow a foreign policy in the last 10 years that is multiple-lane and multidimensional, with Turkey often being cited as a role model in the region.

At a press conference at USAK headquarters in Ankara on Wednesday Dinçer said, “Only six out of 135 people in Turkey’s 25 diplomatic missions in Arab countries can speak Arabic.” He stressed that the capacity of the Foreign Affairs Ministry as a corporate body and the competence and sufficiency in number of the ministry’s staff are key factors in obtaining the desired results in a foreign policy initiative.

Given that in 2011 the total number of Arabic speaking personnel in the ministry was only 26, up from 10 in 1990, and that the total number of personnel being 135, the report concludes it is difficult for the ministry to penetrate local information channels. “In view of these facts, it’s difficult to describe Turkey as a regulating actor in terms of diplomatic power,” Dinçer remarked, drawing attention to the fact that Turkey’s diplomatic infrastructure, given the large region it pays attention to, is lacking in comparison to other actors who aim to “establish order” or to “keep the status quo.”

Turkey's foreign ministry is not unaware of its shortfalls. In a paper just released by the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu writes, "We have already initiated a major restructuring of the Foreign Ministry’s organizational structure as well as improvements in the quality of its personnel through new educational programs." At the same time, Davutoglu also writes that his understaffed ministry has opened 30 embassies in different parts of the world in the last two years, which raises the question of whether Ankara is overextending its diplomatic capabilities.


The USAK report also looked at Turkey's economic activity in the Middle East and its "soft power" in the region, particularly through the popularity of Turkish soap operas. In both cases, while Turkey has made important inroads in the region, the study warned that these gains have so far failed to create deeper "centers of gravity" for Ankara. In the economic sphere, the study points out that the bulk of Turkish trade to the Middle East is made up of cheap goods that could be easily replaced with those from other countries. In the "soft power" realm, the study says that beyond soap operas, Turkish media has little influence in the region. 

"A great disparity exists between the role that Turkey wants to play and the capacity it has,” the study says. “We cannot say that regional actors, be them small or big, are following Turkey’s lead. The current attention accorded to Turkey is at the level of just sympathy. Any mistakes or Arab misunderstanding of certain rhetoric or policies hold the potential of quickly eroding the favorable attitudes that Turkey enjoys.”

Turkey: Ambitions Vs. Reality in Ankara's ME Foreign Policy

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