Speech

A View from Turkey: Current Regional Issues and the Way Forward

June 02, 2014

Honorable School Members,

Dear Students,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to you all.

I am honored to speak in the historic atmosphere of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Kennedy School brings together some of the brightest talents around the world, including students and academics from my country.

I would like to thank Prof. Nicholas Burns —a friend of many years— for his kind introduction. I would also like to thank the Belfer Center for organizing this event.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

One month from now marks one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War.

The twentieth century had, in fact, started with great achievements and high hopes for humanity.

Then came the most destructive war in history.

The Great War bred most extremist ideologies, new conflicts and another world war.

I am very pleased to see that many historians are benefitting from this bitter anniversary to look back at the origins and the consequences of the First World War with a fresh insight.

They offer a lot of lessons for the current and future leaders of the world.

I believe, the most important lesson is to realize that international relations are not necessarily a zero-sum game.

There are ample opportunities for all of us to gain if we work together.

To achieve that, we have to go beyond narrow interest perceptions and egoistical calculations.

Our actions should be guided by wisdom, empathy, prudence and foresight.

Dialogue, diplomacy and compromise are therefore the biggest assets that we have for a better common future.

A historian, Prof. Christopher Clark, named the leaders of the world in the eve of the Great War as ‘’The Sleepwalkers’’.

However, we, the current leaders of the world, have an advantage over them: A more democratic environment with a free press and a civil society, which did not exist then. These are becoming more and more influential -if not always instrumental- in alerting the governments to act responsibly against the risks of war.

I hope that the future historians will not label our generation of leaders as ‘’Sleepwalkers’’.

Against this background, let us now discuss what chances remain for peace, stability and sustainable development in Turkey’s neighborhood with due consideration to international norms, and rule of law based on human rights.

In fact, President Obama was quicker than me to touch upon these issues the other day.

That is because a ten hours flight and eight time zones separated us from the West Point Academy. Another token of globalization!

But I fully share the President’s emphasis on cooperation against terrorism with key partners. I also took careful note of his pledge to preserve American leadership in the face of global challenges.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin my analysis today with a positive note.

Revitalization of the Middle East Peace Process by the Obama administration last year is a most welcome development.

I was, like many others, very much encouraged by the start of direct talks between the parties thanks to Secretary Kerry’s efforts.

Despite certain setbacks, this initiative remains the only basis for reaching a just and comprehensive settlement of this core issue.

On the other hand, promising news come from Tunisia, where the fuse of the Arab Spring lit. A new constitution is adopted in January with broad consensus. By the end of the year, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held.

Tunisian political leaders and people who acted with utmost prudence throughout this process deserve our particular praise and support.

Last but not the least, the deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a great opportunity, which provides a solid basis for parties to reconcile their differences and move forward.

If achieved, it is in the best interest of all parties to keep displaying utmost diligence in a prospective post-settlement phase in Iran.

Drawing on its great state tradition, wisdom and common sense seem to guide Iran’s behavior.

Our position on this topic is clear. A world free from nuclear weapons remains our common goal and aspiration. The same applies to the Middle East.

Dear Guests,

As I pointed out at the UN General Assembly last September, internal conflicts increasingly have implications for global peace and security.

Today, peace and security are dependent on the maintenance of domestic order in each and every nation.

For example, hopes arose after the Egyptian revolution as its democratic transition meant a lot for the region.

Egyptians indeed succeeded in holding free presidential and parliamentary elections. The military coup that followed, however, signified a radical interruption in the democratization process.

I, personally, would like to see Egypt return to normalcy and democracy through an inclusive political process with all legitimate political actors taking part freely. In this context, releasing political prisoners would help greatly to dialogue and reconciliation.

For sake of Egypt’s long-term stability and sustainable development, self-enclosure cannot be an option. Egypt deserves and is perfectly capable of integrating with the world. This may be achieved through upholding universal principles of rule of law, fundamental freedoms and open market economy.

I wish that the new leadership in Egypt considers breaking away with the dictatorship mentality of their previous leaders. If this can be achieved, Egypt can easily reverse the vicious cycle it has been in for decades.

In Syria, the current régime keeps ignoring and violating Security Council resolutions, starves and bombs its own people. Aleppo, an ancient city in UNESCO’s world heritage, now lies in ruins; just like much of the rest of the country. Besides, close to a million Syrians have taken refuge in my country.

It is regretful to see a second UN Special Representative resigned and the UN Security Council once again gridlocked over Syria in the last few weeks.

Nevertheless, we should insist on a strong, resolute and coordinated action in helping end the great human suffering in Syria as well as the ever growing threat of terrorism.

The international community cannot continue escaping this responsibility any further.

Dear Guests,

The South Caucasus has historically served as a trade and transport “land bridge” linking Europe to the Middle East and Asia. The region is also home to rich energy resources.

Unfortunately, ethnic conflicts have kept this critical region from fully exploiting its potential.

Today, the countries in the region are faced with heavy financial burdens because of arms race as well as due to the high cost of refugees and displaced people.

Yet, it is time to move from the common conception of “locking in walls” towards “gates of interaction and cooperation”. This can only be done by consolidating dialogue, interaction and interdependency.

Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan are making important strides to this end. We are mobilizing all our efforts for building a web of energy and transport links to enhance regional peace, cooperation and prosperity.

For further progress, exploring the means to find a just and lasting solution to frozen conflicts including Nagorno Karabakh is also a must.

Armenia, with whom we share a common history and border, should also be in the regional scheme.

At this point, let me emphasize here that we approach neighboring Armenia sincerely and open-heartedly.

I was the first ever Turkish President to pay a historic visit to Armenia in 2008 upon a kind invitation by President Sarkissian. Unfortunately circumstances did not allow this beginning to run its complete course.

But there is still hope to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s message last month paying condolences to the grandchildren of the Armenians who lost their lives in 1915 is an important step forward.

The year 1915 is indeed the most painful and mournful year in the history of Anatolia. This is so for all the peoples of Anatolia and for many reasons.

The tragedies of the First World War reflect our shared pain.

To evaluate this period through a perspective of just memory is a humane and scholarly responsibility. To this end, we opened our archives to all researchers.

Achieving progress is not an easy task. Strong reciprocal will, joint efforts and a good measure of mutual understanding are absolutely necessary.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The crisis in Ukraine started with an obligation on Kiev to make a choice between Europe and Russia. This should not have been done so!

The Crimean peninsula, the first hotbed of contention in the Ukrainian crisis, is the motherland of the Crimean Tartars, millions of whom live in Turkey for decades.

The international community including Turkey does not recognize the annexation of Crimea. Yet, there is now a new reality on the ground. Today, the “de facto” Russian authorities are responsible for the well-being, security and rights of the people in Crimea, including the Tartars.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to seek a political resolution to the crisis.  A lasting solution is only possible on the basis of democratic rights and liberties, as well as the international norms about sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to congratulate the new Ukrainian President, Mr. Poroshenko. Upon his shoulders lies a historical mission for the future of Ukraine. The way he manages the crisis will no doubt have wider repercussions on stability and security in Europe. I am sure he will serve most wisely and responsibly.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At this point, I want to draw some guidelines, which, I believe may lead us through the future. Needless to say, I have not invented these. Yet, they continue to shed light on our way forward in our region and elsewhere.

First, peace and stability is the backbone of any effort to steer economic growth and development. And the key to achieve stability is the supremacy of law, and, in today’s world, an institutionalized democracy.

Second, confidence and predictability is what makes any system credible and worthy. A system most observant of transparency, accountability, highest legal standards and equal treatment is therefore a must.

The internal tier of sustainable peace, thus, goes through democratization, rule of law, improving human rights standards and free market principles.

The biggest asset for countries like Turkey, which are in possession of little natural resources but sizable populations, is human capital.

In order to make the best out of this asset, one needs to combine the human element with what I have just explained.  This is what we have done in Turkey during the last decade.

This goes hand in hand with the external dimension which calls on sovereign equality, territorial integrity and international law.

The international community must be united in terms of well-thought transition and exit strategies before pursuing a certain course of action. Some of the ramifications of the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are striking examples of mistakes in this regard. Yet similar mistakes have unfortunately been repeated in Syria and Libya where chaos, terrorism and human suffering unfortunately continue.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This brings me to the last part of my speech.

Today, Turkey stands a safe haven in a troublesome geography. It is a country that reflects modern values and ideals in this part of the world.

Turkey understands the unique role it can play for lasting peace, and prosperity in its wider region.

To do that, Turkey has to keep its character as a forward-looking, dynamic, and pluralistic society.

This is why we have invested heavily on human capital and upgrading our standards. Over the last decade, we made great strides and undertook comprehensive economic and political reforms.

To be precise, raising the democratic standards for our young and dynamic nation had a multiplier effect on our economic development.

Our own experience shows that enhancement of the rule of law, human rights, and pluralism as elements of good governance both feed and draw on economic development. They are, in fact, parallel processes that strengthen each other.

Turkey’s European vocation and membership negotiations with the EU were instrumental in this respect. This technical process must be seen to its end.

I want to believe that in the meantime Europe will overcome challenges such as economic crisis, illegal migration and extreme right tendencies.

Despite some fluctuations in the pace of reforms which raised questions about our good reputation, there will be no change in our path, nor in our direction or orientation.

This is because democratic values, which are in harmony with our own belief system, are owned up across the Turkish society such that sometimes, the society runs ahead of the politicians.

Both political determination and ownership on this irreversible path towards further democratization and development is strong.

This is evidenced by the strong record of economic growth and the steps taken within the process of reconciliation with our Kurdish citizens. Ever increasing participation of women in local governance and the public sector after lifting the ban on headscarves is another example.

We are resolute in moving along this path, knowing that there is still way to go.

We will keep on upgrading our standards because this is the way to make our people happier, wealthier and stronger.

Both Turkey and her partners will win in peace, cooperation and prosperity.

Thank you.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation:A View from Turkey: Current Regional Issues and the Way Forward.” Video, June 2, 2014.