Anatomy of a Revisionist Interview
On Turkey's Ukraine policy, the Eastern Med, and "the Century of Turkey Vision"
İbrahim Kalın is no stranger to Turkey watchers. He has collected various official titles, but his main job is to be the Turkish version of the National Security Advisor (NSA) in the United States. He doesn’t have to deal with any of the bureaucratic day-to-day that the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, or even the chief of intelligence have to deal with. He is presumably at a higher, more strategic level, presiding over key portfolios like the war in Ukraine.
I think one of Kalın’s major strengths is that he seems supremely reasonable and professional. The way one veteran Turkey watcher once put it to me, Kalın “just oozes reasonableness, and you get lulled in and suddenly you’re like ‘where the hell am I?’ I also oppose Islamophobia and wish I could have a mustache like that. I get this guy.”
That might be one aspect of diplomacy: gently easing others into opinions they might not otherwise hold, or even find deeply objectionable.
Also, it is a very intriguing mustache.
Kalın did an interview on October 11 that I found interesting. I was going to share some short notes on it, but revisiting the material, found that it deserved a to be unpacked in more detail. I think this is mostly because of the way Murat Çiçek, the interviewer here, interacted with his guest. Every time Kalın “oozes reasonableness,” Cicek sort of insists on drawing out some of the deeper implications of the ideas in question. He does this not because he wants to put Kalın in a difficult position, but simply because he’s very enthusiastic about the realization of “New Turkey’s” goals. So it’s not so much a conversation between a journalist and a public official, but rather one between the two different registers of the Beştepe palace: one diplomatic, the other popular, and it’s not at all clear which one is the more real than the other.
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Let’s jump in.
3-5 min: They start with the war in Ukraine and Turkey’s role as mediator. Kalın says they understand that it might be difficult to maintain talks during a conflict, but want to look at it in the long term. He has hosted his Ukrainian counterpart recently in Istanbul, and reports that they don’t want talks with Russia, and are "right from their own perspective, because they want to reclaim their soil," but Turkey's goal is to maintain the basis for talks in the future. "This won't mean the recognition of annexation," says Kalın, stressing that Turkey has not recognized any annexed territory, including Crimea.
7 min: Something interesting starts happening here. Murat Çiçek quotes president Erdoğan's words accusing Western countries of warmongering, then says "or let me have said that. We see from our various reading that the United States of America wants this [the war] to go on." He finally gets around the question: is the West behind Ukraine’s refusal to engage in talks?
Kalın says that there’s two dimensions of the conflict: there’s the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, which must stop, and there’s a broader confrontation between the Western and non-Western world, which is legitimate. Russia really wants to move past the first and get to the second, the broader geopolitical confrontation. That’s because the agreements that the West and Russia made after the Cold War,
"especially the Bucharest memorandum that was signed in 1997." (I think he means the Budapest memorandum of 1994, but let's not get hung up on that) "no longer overlaps with the realities of today. There is a new world today. The Russia that signed that understanding in the 1990s has remained in the past. There is a new Russia today, there is a new world today. Russia is saying 'Come let us make a new treaty that will take into account these new balances.' They have said this in different places and continue to say it. You may think they are right or not, you may agree with their arguments or disagree, you may accept their historical references or not, those things are - "
Çiçek jumps in: "do we agree with this?" (9 min in)
Note how Çiçek asks whether "we," presumably being the regime to which both men belong, agree, rather than whether Kalın agrees, or whether the government to which he belongs agrees. And I think it's a perfectly genuine question. As someone working in pro-government media (commonly referred to as “the pool media” in Turkey), I think Cicek wants to know how strongly he should push Russia’s line. Because it’s not always obvious, and Russophilia doesn’t come natural to Turks, so he wants to know: just how close are Ankara and Moscow? Should they think of the Russians as friends now? The source of his opinions (or someone infinitely closer to the source than he will ever be) is sitting in front of him, so I think he’s asking more for himself than for us, the audience.
But let’s get back to the question: “do we agree with this?” asks Çiçek, and Kalın takes a second and sort of slows down, "now look, after the Cold War, a world order was not established" and launches into that Voltaire quote that made the rounds, about how Voltaire said that the Holy Roman Empire "was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire," and that similarly, the "new world order" (he avoids the L-word) was "neither new, nor worldly - global - nor was it an order," but was simply a transition from a bipolar to a unipolar system. That unipolar system is now collapsing as the non-Western world is catching up. This means that we will enter either "a long period of war, of which we are perhaps in the first phase" or a grand summit of world leaders redesigning global governance in some fundamental way. (Faisal Devji and Galip Dalay have made a similar argument here.)
But that’s not the answer to Çiçek’s question. He wanted to know whether Ankara was in sync with Moscow on the big picture. So Çiçek - this is why I love this guy - asks his question again: is Russia's perspective valid "for us?" It ought to be, he suggests, because Russia wants to go back 30 years, and Turkey has deals from "100 years ago" that it wants to revisit because they are causing big headaches today (how this is isn’t ever clear, but they suggest it has to do with “terror”). "We're actually saying the same thing. 'Come let's change these treaties.'" He is of course, referring to the treaty of Lausanne, which was signed in 1923 and formed the legal bedrock of Republican Turkey's borders today. "I'm talking about the Islands" he says, by which he means the islands in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"Not just the islands" says Kalın, it's about global governance reform (around 14 min in now). "At the bottom of it is justice. Can we form a world order that is just?" Kalın says again, that unless a big renegotiation of the global order takes place, awful wars are going to happen.
"That is why I'm saying, we are at the precipice of a decision. Either, as some Western countries say, more war, more conflict, 'let's beat the Russians in the field of war, let's make them pay a price.' You can fan the flames of this war, and they advise Ukraine in this direction. This of course is an approach that makes things difficult for the negotiation table."
Or, he says, a big renegotiation of the world order should take place (I know this is a bit repetitive, but bear with me - Et-tekrârü ahsen velev kâne yüz seksen!*). These are two perspectives, Kalın says, and the West will have to choose one. “What perspective are you taking?” asks Çiçek. “Turkey of course takes the second perspective,” says Kalın, “and the only leader who can in practice do this is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” He says what makes Erdoğan special isn't just his tactical maneuvers, but the strategic perspective he brings into the picture.
This idea is key to the evolution of the Erdoğan brand. The president, you see, is no longer just Turkey’s savior, but the key to global justice. The presidential palace has built this detailed image of a world on the precipice of a terrible global war, and the only person who can avert senseless bloodshed is - and it is customary to utter his full name in moments like this - Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is the savior of the world, not just because of what he can do, but because of who he is. He represents the righteous fury of the dispossessed, but also wields the diplomatic and military power to exert leverage on the masters in the West. His leadership transcends mere politics, it is the only force capable of reversing Western hegemony and initiate the “century of Turkey.”
But let’s get back to the interview.
Çiçek says that what Kalın is describing is an ideal scenario, but are things really going that way? Is the new world coming about through wise leadership, or do we have to have the gruesome wars?
Kalın says that the "partisans of war are currently in a stronger position… for one reason or another. Right now, a significant part of the European countries and the United States of America prefer the war to continue." He says that there is"war profiteering" going on (he uses the English word), and that various lobbies, including weapons lobbies, want a big war every decade or so.
18-19 min: He argues that in this type of war, a big peace treaty may not be possible, but that one should do small deals that make things better, like the grain corridor, occasional ceasefires, or the prisoner exchange that happened recently. "We are currently in this fragmented period," he says.
I think that’s a fairly organized way of thinking about Turkey’s role.
The next section of the interview is on the Eastern Mediterranean.
20 min: Çiçek says that the US and Greece are now doing military exercises, and though they pretend that these are harmless, they really intend to threaten Turkey. He then asks: "Is Greece on the path to being Ukraine? I mean are they going to put us into the role [kılıfına] of Russia?"
Yes, he is asking whether Turkey is going to invade Greece, but I think we can all agree that putting it that way would have been entirely inappropriate. It wouldn’t do. This is much better.
Anyways, Kalın audibly sucks in air, subtly clears his throat, then goes “it’s a good question.” He says that Greece has taken advantage of the "the mood against Turkey regionally and globally" to devise an “Eastern Med” strategy, and "has been partially successful in this." Citing various alliance-building initiatives that the Greeks have been undertaking in the region, as well as in Brussels and DC. (In a more recent interview, Kalın says that the Ukraine-Russia analogy to describe Turkey’s relations with Greece is deplorable.)
This was a problem, he says, but Turkey's subsequent rapprochement with the Gulf, has deftly countered the Greek initiatives and killed the East Med project. The Greeks are angry about this, and are working with France and the United States to get back at Turkey.
Kalın says that Athens is thereby making a strategic mistake, because its allies in the West, "those you call older brothers," will let them down. This echoes what officials and government pundits say about the PKK, and its partnership with the US (and not without reason). The idea is that Western countries are projecting power from far away, and if their alliances are put under stress, they tend to leave their much weaker, “local” allies to fend for themselves. (There is also a belief that political alliances are inherently brittle. So coalition governments, for example, are doomed to fall apart. You need a great nationalist leader to hold things together and raise your country up. Hence the presidential system.)
"What Greece needs to do” says Kalın, “is to define from anew what kind of relationship with Turkey it is to have, within its own framework of power." Only that way, he says, can Greece and Turkey “develop a perspective that is based on mutual interests."
He points out that Greek allegations of air space violation are highly dubious and not based on law, and that the Greeks are militarizing the islands. He says that he recently talked to Jake Sullivan, his American counterpart, about this, telling him that they defined "tensions" and harmony by Greek standards. "What the Westerners are telling us, again with the Greek urgings, is that the air space violations are very important things, and please don't do these things." He says that a lot of this is political, relating to the midterm elections in the US, and that Turkey (or rather, anti-Turkey rhetoric) is always a significant part of the discussion during critical elections in the West. (Turkish leaders and officials reporting on their phone calls with their Western counterparts always brag about how they lectured the other side on things. They also portray their counterpart as urging some small degree of moderation on their own behalf. The Turkish side is always the manly voice of the dispossessed, speaking truth to power, while the other side is “the system,” a griping, sniveling compromiser of sorts.)
Çiçek strikes back: “Could it be an advantage from Turkey’s perspective that Greece is raising the pressure [on the Eastern Mediterranean]? In the issue of having the islands brought back on the table, in having them repositioned, in having their ownership changed - ”
“Now look, we..”
Çiçek again, realizing perhaps that he’s gone too far, “or do we have such an intention?”
“Our president says it very aptly” says Kalın, “Greece is not a country that can rival Turkey. it must see the limitations of its own power and engage Turkey in reasonable and legitimate relations. Once this has been done, then we will make the Aegean, the islands - these places - not the places of conflict, but of peace and tranquility, economic exchange, tourism, a place where all these things grow and prosper.”
He points out that there are conflicts within Greece about their allegiance with the West (specifically how the leftists are against being a “vassal of the United States”), so they “would benefit from taking into consideration the cost opposing Turkey [Türkiye karşıtlığı] would have on their national interests.” He smiles gently and pauses a second, as if saying that that statement was the real answer to his question. “We don’t want such a conflict,” he says, and anyways, “we aren’t in the same weight class [siklet], we aren’t the same mass,” and that this whole thing would be pointless and wouldn’t succeed in weakening Turkey. Turkey is only going to get stronger and geopolitically more important. That, he says, is inevitable.
Çiçek kind of nods and smiles, then says “you of course, as the spokesperson of our honorary president, must choose your words very carefully, I’m aware of that, but before this broadcast I saw that a Greek island was 545m from Kuşadası (a touristic town on the Aegean coast). Seeing this, and considering that 100 years have passed since [he doesn’t say since what exactly, but he means the founding of the Republic, and more importantly, the signing of the treaty of Lausanne], I’m sure that a ‘alright, this time god willing [inşallah]’ passes through the hearts of many of our compatriots.” Both men smile, “I’m not asking you this question.”
How considerate he is.
So on Russia-Ukraine, Çiçek repeated his question . Here, he isn’t. He’s recognizing that his question isn’t appropriate for on-air conversation, still he can’t help himself but bring it up once more and publicly ruminate on what it would be like to fight a territorial conflict with a neighbor.
It’s not news of course, that Turkey is prepared to conduct military operations against Greece. I just find it interesting how they talk about it. It’s always this hush-hush thing that has to be expressed by locker room analogy, a wink, a boyish smile.
Here’s president Erdoğan responding to the question:
A Greek reporter asks him what he means by “we will come [unannounced] during the night,” which, after the operations in northern Syria, has become Erdogan’s way of saying that he might stage a military operation to a neighboring territory unannounced. I think he likes the effect it has on people.
Either way, this reporter asks her question, and Erdoğan’s response is “yani konuyu anlamışsın aslında,” which roughly means “you’ve actually understood the topic,” and that his words are valid for “any country that disturbs us [bizi rahatsız eden], attacks us [bize saldıran]… they [Athens] must know it in this way, they must understand it in this way. As of now, since you have understood it, they must have understood it as well.” That phrase though, referring to something as “the topic,” is often used in instances where the topic in question is inappropriate for public discourse, even promiscuous in a way.
So what does the statement mean in terms of policy? The idea is so krass that people don’t seem willing to entertain its literal meaning. A military conflict between Turkey and Greece, after all, would be unfathomably painful for Turkey. It would probably cut it off from its most important market, becoming a version of Iran/Russia without hydrocarbons. I can only assume that its entire security infrastructure - rooted in NATO as it is - would have to be reconfigured on the fly. In material terms, the payoff would be a few useless islands in the Mediterranean. Surely, not even Erdoğan, however much of a revolutionary he is, would do such a thing.
Yet I would submit to you, dear reader, that Çiçek hints at a very deep truth. Tens of millions of Erdoğan supporters believe that Turkey’s power and influence is growing, and that this growth will bring with it some kind of territorial expansion. They do seem to believe that next year, the centennial of the Republic, a glimpse of that new future will come into sight. This is the great difference between liberalism and revanchist nationalist. The liberal status quo puts people into the grind, with the dubious promise that their children and grandchildren will be better off. Revanchist nationalism promises them greatness in their lifetime. That belief is a source of great motivation in times of economic impoverishment, and it has of course, been planted by the presidential palace itself. (I have argued in my previous post that Greece seems to be taking advantage of the situation, amassing political support against Turkey’s long standing, and otherwise reasonable positions on the Eastern Med.)
But there is more to discuss on the Mediterranean! The men now turn to Libya, where there has been renewed fighting. Kalın explains at length how Turkey has summoned the warring parties and averted the crisis from getting worse. His thoughts then turn to that fateful treaty signed on November 27, 2019 that was meant to cement Turkey and Libya’s status as naval neighbors, thus discrediting Greek claims.
Turkish foreign policy can be haphazard, but I think this has been an exception. The government based its claims on the arguments of naval officers going back to the 2000s, secured parliamentary support from the opposition, and leveraged themselves into Libya in a way that gave the idea legs. “One has to look at the map from a different perspective” says Kalın. He repeats Turkey’s official argument, about how Turkey has the longest coast on the Mediterranean, yet the West was “trying to imprison us in the gulf of Antalya.” The 2019 deal with the Libyans broke that encirclement. “Turkey, in a way, drew the first lines of its own map. If you are talking about the Eastern Mediterranean, you cannot draw a map without Turkey”
The Greeks, he says, had a childish reactions to this treaty (they wrote angry tweets and expelled the Libyan ambassador), and the whole thing formed the grounds for Turkey’s hydrocarbons search in the region. It’s staggering that a country with such a long coastline had no hydrocarbon exploration fleet before, Kalın says, but it now owns five ships dedicated to this purpose. Both men reiterate the president’s belief that “not every seeker finds, but finders are always seekers.”
Considering his theological world view, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the president has faith that he will find significant hydrocarbons. That would indeed free his hand in ways that Çiçek may like.
The interview is kind of winding down now, and they are moving more quickly. Putin apparently says he “isn’t Assad’s attorney” and would prefer for Erdoğan and Assad to sit and talk. Erdoğan hasn’t excluded the possibility, says Kalın, but has preferred not to so far. The refugees can’t be sent back forcibly, he says, considering that their safety cannot be ensured under the Assad regime. Turkey seems fairly comfortable with the status quo on that issue, and is willing to let it play out.
Çiçek finally asks Kalın about the meaning behind the presidency’s new slogan: “The Century of Turkey Vision.” Kalın says it’s about inviting people to build the country of the next century, launching into one of his 2000s-style talks about how Turkey is more pluralistic than ever before, that the Jewish and Christian minorities are happy (under a supposedly Islamist government? How counterintuitive! How interesting!) and that they are now reaching out to Alevis as well. “Our approach is that nobody must remain outside of this story … everyone must be there with their own identity, their own texture, and build a Turkey that way. We are different, we have differences,” and then he lightly leans forward and wags his finger “but there [musn’t be] division [tefrika].”
Çiçek ends with a question about how Kalın, among his many pressing duties, finds the time to write books and stage music performances. Kalın responds by saying that it’s about loving what one does and budgeting one’s time accordingly. This is something I’ve wondered about myself. I don’t think that his writing would take a long time (the books aren’t very original), but he does juggle what must be a very busy official schedule along the one of a minor celebrity, and makes it look easy. His appearances are polished, and notwithstanding minor errors, he does have a command of detail that’s rare among the political class today.
I think much of his criticism of the Western stance in the Ukraine war, as well as their approach to global politics overall, is worth serious consideration. The lack of even a sliver of criticism towards the Russian and broader Eurasian model, however, as well as the awfulness of the domestic situation in Turkey, sucks out any moral credit he might otherwise have. That is the tragedy of Turkish foreign policy in the Erdoğan era. It has a clearly defined idea of what it opposes (the Western liberal order), but it lacks the intellectual, social and institutional resources to produce a real alternative. All that remains are patches of mimicry and greater dependency on forces that are at least as objectionable as the thing it objects to.
That is also why, at the end of the day, Kalın remains a front. He is an ever thinning cover (ha!) for the more naked thirst for power and prestige that his host so aptly channels on here.
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