Pushing the Boundaries: An Interview with Oya Dursun-Ozkanca by Curtis Smith

Dr. Oya Dursun-Özkanca (University of Texas at Austin, Ph.D.) is College Professor of International Studies (Endowed Chair), Professor of Political Science, and Director of International Studies Minor at Elizabethtown College, PA. Her research interests include Turkish foreign policy, transatlantic security, European Union, South East Europe, and peace operations. She is the author of a newly published book, Turkey–West Relations: The Politics of Intra-alliance Opposition, by Cambridge University Press in November 2019. She is also the editor of two books – The European Union as an Actor in Security Sector Reform (Routledge, 2014) and External Interventions in Civil Wars (co-edited with Stefan Wolff, Routledge, 2014) as well as many scholarly articles in leading peer-reviewed journals, such as Foreign Policy Analysis, Civil Wars, European Security, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, French Politics, Perspectives on European Politics and Society, and Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, among others, and chapters in various edited volumes. She served as a Visiting Fellow of Research on South Eastern Europe (LSEE) at London School of Economics (LSE) in 2013. She received grants and fellowships from, among others, Georgetown University, the London School of Economics, the European Commission (multiple grants), the University of Texas at Austin (multiple fellowships), Deutscher Academischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the European Union Studies Association, and the Elizabethtown College (multiple grants). She serves on the Editorial Boards of Ethnopolitics, International Review of Turkish Studies, and Public Communication Review. Dr. Dursun-Özkanca is the inaugural recipient of the Kreider Prize for Teaching Excellence at Elizabethtown College (2015), and the recipient of the Richard Crocker Outstanding Service to Students Award (2018).

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Turkey–West Relations: The Politics of Intra-alliance Opposition. Can we start with what led you down this path of interest and how you ended up with Cambridge University Press?

Oya Dursun-Ozkanca: Thank you, Curtis. I am thrilled about the publication of the book! I have been conducting research on Turkish foreign policy since 2003. The front pages of leading newspapers frequently question Turkey’s reliability as a Western ally. The widening gulf between Turkey and the West and the increasing number and the growing complexity of the issues over which the two sides differ make it imperative to understand the dynamics of the relationship between Turkey and the West. Consequently, in the book, I examine the dynamics behind Turkey’s relations with the West and ask how and why Turkey increasingly goes its own way within the Western alliance and grows further apart from its traditional Western allies. I was further motivated by a need in the International Relations (IR) literature to differentiate between various tools of statecraft based on their intensity, delineating the motivations behind each tool. Therefore, in the book, I ask why states select the tools they use within an alliance. Developing a framework of intra-alliance opposition, I seek to explain the trajectory of Turkish foreign policy behavior vis-à-vis the West, particularly the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States (US), and assess the motives and dynamics behind the drastic shift in Turkish foreign policy behavior from 2010 to the summer of 2019. This, I argue, would help us make a more accurate projection for the future of Turkey’s relations with the West.

Cambridge University Press is the oldest and one of the best publishers in academic publishing. It has been a dream of mine to publish a book with them. Throughout the years, I have been in touch with my editor, Robert Dreesen, at various political science conferences. He suggested that I organize a mini-book manuscript conference, inviting the leading experts on my book topic. Following the receipt of a faculty grant from Elizabethtown College to organize a mini-book manuscript conference, I received very helpful feedback from the participants. Upon revising my book manuscript, I sent my manuscript along with a book proposal to Cambridge University Press and was thrilled to learn that they offered me a contract.

CS: Much of the book addresses Turkey’s changing role in its relationships with the EU, the US, and NATO. After years of relative stability, I think many Americans are currently confused about where our countries stand. What would you tell the average American to try to help them understand the situation?

ODO: Turkey has traditionally been well embedded in Western security infrastructures, such as NATO since 1952 and has been a staunch US ally during the Cold War. Over the past couple of years, we have frequently seen reports or headlines questioning Turkey’s reliability as a Western ally. We are currently observing the most turbulent period in Turkey-US relations, even though Presidents Trump and Erdoğan have a good rapport. While it is natural to observe occasional disagreements between allies, the frequency and the intensity of such disagreements have increased sharply over time, creating major trust issues between the two countries. The international and regional changes, domestic politics, and issue-specific differences between Turkey and its Western allies seem to motivate Turkish foreign policy to act more ambitiously. There is a deep sense of resentment and mistrust towards the West over the lack of understanding of Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, needs, and sensitivities. For instance, the US and Turkey supported different factions in Syria. While Turkey prioritized the fight against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), since it considers the YPG as identical with the PKK terrorist organization that claimed about 40,000 lives in Turkey; the US prioritized the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization and supported the YPG in the fight against the IS. Turkey’s rapprochement with an increasingly assertive Russia on a number of energy and security/defense initiatives since 2016, such as the acquisition of the S-400 missile defense systems and the TurkStream, the nearly-established gas pipeline from Russia, adds to growing concerns about Turkey’s trustworthiness as an ally. US policymakers have long warned that the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system would constitute an act that is sanctionable under the US law and presents a threat to NATO due to security infiltration risks and lack of interoperability. Turkish authorities frequently express that they feel let down by their NATO allies on the acquisition of a missile system, due to challenges of pricing and technology sharing.

Domestic political factors are similarly influential in contributing to the ongoing bilateral rift. The extradition of Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric that lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, who is the alleged mastermind behind the failed coup in July 2016, proved to be another major factor driving bilateral tensions. According to a November 2016 survey, 79% of the Turks believed the US was behind the 2016 failed coup attempt (Zanotti and Thomas 2017). Turkey demands Gülen to be extradited to Turkey, but the US authorities emphasize the lack of any direct evidence implicating his direct involvement with the failed coup (Jeffrey 2016).

Similarly, the passage of a bipartisan bill by the US Congress that recognized the events that took place in 1915 as the Armenian Genocide infuriated the Turkish public opinion and confirmed the sentiment that the US is motivated to punish Turkey. While Turkey maintains the second-largest military in NATO and remains an important NATO ally, the aforementioned factors seem to provide significant friction in bilateral relations between Turkey and the US.

CS: The book’s structure is interesting. You take six case studies from 2010 to 2019 and then use them as tools to illustrate some of the hidden truths impacting the relationships between Turkey and the West. Can you briefly tell us about these six cases and what drew you to them? Which do you think has the most important lessons for us in the West?

ODO: In the book, I examine six case studies in Turkish foreign policy from 2010 to 2019: 1) Turkey’s pragmatic foreign policy in the Western Balkans, 2) the Turkish veto over the EU-NATO security exchange, 3) the EU-Turkey deal on the refugee crisis, 4) Turkey’s energy policies, 5) Turkish rapprochement with Russia in security and defense, and 6) Turkish foreign policy on Syria and Iraq.

Many of the cases that are covered in the book occurred after I began writing the book. I continuously monitored the situation between Turkey and its Western allies to find developments that would help us understand the motives behind changing relations. These cases are vital for us to see the change in Turkey’s relations with the West. The two most vital cases are the final two case studies. How they are concluded will have important repercussions on whether Turkey will transition from soft balancing to hard balancing against the West. Therefore, they will essentially serve as major turning points for the future of Turkey’s relations with the West.

CS: You categorize tools of statecraft into three processes of intra-alliance opposition—boundary testing, challenging, and breaking. Can you explain these concepts and how you use them to frame your thesis of Turkey’s current foreign policy?

ODO: In boundary testing, the parties engage in bargaining and try to understand what the limits are when navigating relations with the other members of the alliance. Throughout this process, actors engage in self-limiting and rely on existing patterns of behavior. Testing the boundaries is a constructive process, as long as the relationship is perceived to be a reciprocal one. In boundary challenging, the challenging party seeks independence from within the alliance. Here, the goal is to produce better outcomes the next time around. Nevertheless, the key thing to emphasize here is that even though the allies pursue independent foreign policies that diverge from that of the alliance, they actively work to signal their willingness to remain within the alliance and fulfill commitments to their allies. In boundary breaking, the ally signals a growing dissatisfaction with membership in the alliance and displays an increasing willingness to transition into hard balancing. Here, the opposing party increasingly explores alternative alliances that may potentially undermine its existing alliance obligations and make alternative commitments outside of the alliance. In that sense, boundary breaking may be regarded as a transitional process that signifies a move from intra-alliance opposition to opposition to the alliance from the outside.

The sequence of developments examined in the six case studies in the book points to an interesting trend. Turkish foreign policy starts with boundary testing in the initial years under study, then goes into boundary-challenging, and increasingly into boundary-breaking behaviors. The book then argues that it is possible that we may see hard balancing from Turkey against NATO, the EU and the United States in the future, based on Turkish foreign policy’s trajectory. However, it is important to acknowledge that boundary testing does not inevitably lead to boundary challenging, and boundary challenging does not automatically lead to boundary breaking, and any escalation in bilateral relations may revert to a lower-intensity intra-alliance opposition behavior, as long as the damage is not irreparable.

CS: There’s a lot of research here—and hundreds of interviews. And in the end, you, as the author, are left to sift through your material—fact-checking and tying together strands—to determine what makes it onto the page. Most of the people I interview write fiction or poetry, and I imagine the kind of writing in your book carries a pretty big responsibility. Can you talk about this—what it’s like to take so much information and pin it down in a way that makes sense to your readers?

ODO: It took me about six years to finish writing the book. It certainly didn’t help that the dynamic of the relationship between Turkey and the West was changing continuously during that time. I conducted over 200 semi-structured interviews with government officials, diplomats, academics, intergovernmental (IGO) and non-governmental organization (NGO) officials, and journalists in Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States. I triangulated the content of these interviews to supplement my arguments and cross-checked the facts to compare what my interviewees were telling me with the accounts from newspapers, journals and history books for accuracy. It was definitely a challenge, but I enjoyed conducting my research tremendously.

CS: Can we switch gears and talk about the book on the sentence level? I know the book’s audience is primarily academic, yet I know you want it to shine line-by-line. In terms of writing on this level, do you have any guidelines you set for yourself in terms of structure and/or flow?

ODO: The book is written in an accessible manner and will appeal to a wide audience – upper-level undergraduate students, graduate students, academics in International Relations, Security Studies, and policymakers who are interested in Turkey, the EU, NATO, the Middle East, emerging powers, and the transatlantic security. It uses a systematic, theoretically-grounded, empirically-supported, and up-to-date perspective to draw conclusions on Turkey’s relations with the Euro-Atlantic actors. The structure of scholarly works in Political Science is quite generic. I first started by identifying the puzzle this book seeks to solve, followed by a historical overview of Turkey’s relations with the EU, NATO, and the US. I then shed light on the methodology used in my research and provided an outline of the book. I provided a discussion of the existing scholarly works in the literature and elaborated on the framework of intra-alliance opposition that my book offers. I then moved on with an examination of the six case studies that more or less follow a chronological order to identify the changes in the tools of statecraft used by Turkey in its dealings with its Western allies. In the concluding chapter, I discussed three major factors behind the Turkish foreign policy behavior vis-à-vis the West, examined three alternative scenarios for its future, and made recommendations for engaging Turkey in a mutually beneficial way.

CS: What’s next?

ODO: I already started conducting research on my next topic – Turkey-Russia relations. I would like to examine whether a strategic partnership is feasible between these two countries. Parts of my current book already deal with this issue, but I would like to extend my analysis to include the immediate neighborhoods of Turkey to see if these two actors see eye to eye with one another on the pressing issues of these regions.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

2 responses to “Pushing the Boundaries: An Interview with Oya Dursun-Ozkanca by Curtis Smith

  1. Pingback: Pushing the Boundaries: An Interview with Oya Dursun-Ozkanca by Curtis Smith — JMWW – Mohsen Behnam·

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