SETA > Opinion |
Will the Earthquakes Lead to Change in Foreign Policy

Will the Earthquakes Lead to Change in Foreign Policy?

It is necessary to uphold the sense of solidarity, which emerged among states after the earthquakes. Last but not least, one would hope that the humane way of thinking can triumph over the idea of interest and exploitation in international relations. This is a time to focus on moral values and solidarity – not realpolitik.

Türkiye experienced the most severe natural disaster in its history on February 6, when two major earthquakes took place in Kahramanmaraş. The tremors, which directly affected 11 provinces and 13.5 million people, claimed more than 45,000 lives. In the wake of the earthquakes in its southern territories, Türkiye declared a state of emergency – for the first time due to a natural disaster – and officially asked other nations for assistance in an unprecedented move. More than 100 countries responded to Türkiye’s call for assistance. Some governments sent their search and rescue workers to the quake zone, while others made cash and/or in-kind donations. Even states and international players with insufficient capacity pushed their limits to stand with the Turkish people. The rest, which lacked even such limited resources, offered their prayers and sympathy. Looking at the international response from a political standpoint and skimming through the list of countries that delivered assistance to Türkiye, however, it is possible to conclude that not all nations took action for the same reasons. Obviously, the Turkish people appreciate and thank all nations and peoples for their assistance and contributions. Nonetheless, one would have expected Türkiye’s allies to have made greater contributions at this difficult time. Whereas some states pushed their limits to help Türkiye, others, unfortunately, did less than they could have. This article briefly analyzes what transpired after the Turkish government’s call for assistance vis-a-vis foreign policy and how foreign governments responded to the disaster in Türkiye. Strengthening Friendships It is possible to group the countries that offered to assist Türkiye into three categories. States like Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Qatar, which fall within the first category, used all of their resources and means to help the Turkish people. As those governments made in-kind and cash donations, their citizens mobilized to assist Türkiye as well. Moreover, official representatives from those nations, which further strengthened their friendship with the Turks, visited the country to inspect the affected area personally. In this regard, the first foreign leader to visit Türkiye was the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahbaz Sharif, visited Adıyaman, one of the hardest-hit towns, shortly afterward. Likewise, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, traveled to the quake zone during his visit to Türkiye and monitored relief efforts in Kahramanmaraş. A closer look at the various contributions, too, reveals that the above-mentioned countries distinguished themselves from others by providing special assistance. For example, Azerbaijan was the top source of official and unofficial support to the quake zone. Whereas Baku sent the highest number of rescue workers (720) to Türkiye, the Azerbaijani people held fundraisers to deliver more than 1,500 tons of aid to the affected area. Furthermore, Azerbaijan set up a temporary housing center with 750 tents and a field hospital. In the wake of the twin earthquakes, the people of Azerbaijan truly showed that the Turkish people’s pain was their own. In addition to reporting news of the earthquakes and their aftermath for days, some Azerbaijani media outlets joined a telethon, hosted by multiple Turkish channels, for earthquake recovery. Similarly, the State of Qatar sent various kinds of aid to Türkiye. In addition to an active search and rescue team, Sheikh Tamim personally made a significant cash donation. At the same time, the Qatar Red Crescent Society and the Qatar Foundation made separate contributions. Qatar, which pledged to deliver 10,000 container homes to Türkiye, also set up a field hospital for 3,000 people and offered 40 planes to the Turkish government for the delivery of national and international aid to the disaster zone. Along with Azerbaijan and Qatar, Turkic and Muslim nations in Central Asia, the Balkans, and Africa, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, contributed in various ways. It is important to stress that not only government agencies but also private citizens of those countries mobilized for earthquake survivors and raised a significant amount of money. Furthermore, many smaller nations with limited means, such as Mauritania, Palestine, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Lebanon, took steps to alleviate the Turkish people’s suffering. They attempted to assist Türkiye – the land of compassion that has helped countries and peoples worldwide. Indeed, even the Rohingya people in Myanmar, a long-oppressed Muslim community that needs help itself, mobilized to send aid to Türkiye, which has been a friend of impoverished and victimized peoples, to express their solidarity and share the Turkish people’s pain. Hungary, too, was among several states that belong in this category. As the most influential non-Balkan European state, the country already had strong relations with Türkiye. Hungarian search and rescue workers, who rushed to the disaster zone, saw significant achievements there. Hungary, which works closely with Türkiye on many international platforms, including the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), consolidated its friendship with the Turkish people at this difficult time. As a whole, it is important to acknowledge that almost all states and people in the non-Western world responded humanely to the disaster in Türkiye, which has set an example for others with its response to humanitarian crises worldwide and shared the Turkish people’s pain. Many countries and stakeholders from Central America and sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and the Far East expressed solidarity with Türkiye. Moreover, many African nations, which lack the resources to make cash or in-kind contributions, issued statements of sympathy and prayed for Türkiye, whose humanitarian aid operations won the hearts and minds of especially poor people everywhere. Finally, nongovernmental organizations from many countries, starting with Muslim nations, held fundraisers for Türkiye. Countries Trying to Improve Their Relations with Türkiye  Countries like Greece, Israel, and Armenia made significant contributions to Türkiye. They fall within the second category due to their attempts to improve their relations with Ankara by taking advantage of the earthquakes – in addition to responding as fellow human beings. Until recently, the Turkish government had experienced serious issues with all three nations. In the disaster’s aftermath, however, many became optimistic that Türkiye’s relations with them could improve. Among all the countries providing assistance, Greece was arguably the most striking. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government was among the first to contact the Turkish authorities in the earthquake’s wake. Both President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and the Greek prime minister proceeded to call President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to offer their condolences and wish the Turkish people a speedy recovery – as if there were no problems whatsoever between the two nations. In this regard, Mitsotakis’ phone call with Erdoğan was particularly significant since the latter had previously announced, citing the Greek politician’s anti-Turkish remarks at the United States Congress, that he would not speak with Mitsotakis ever again. As such, President Erdoğan’s phone call with the Greek prime minister was significant enough to trigger normalization in bilateral relations. Likewise, Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, immediately spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to offer his condolences and visited the quake site a few days later to monitor the situation. In addition to taking the above-mentioned diplomatic steps, Greece sent a search and rescue team to the affected area as well as made cash and in-kind donations. Armenia was another country that offered support to Türkiye following the devastating earthquakes. The Turkish-Armenian border, which had been closed since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, was opened for the first time in 35 years to deliver aid to the Turkish people. Subsequently, the Alican border gate in Iğdır, which was last used after another earthquake in 1988, opened for trucks carrying supplies to affected communities in Türkiye. Altogether, it was significant for Armenia, which has strained relations with its neighbor, to send rescue workers to Türkiye and issue statements to share the Turkish people’s pain. Israel, which has been normalizing its relations with Türkiye, was among the first states to answer the Turkish government’s call, too. It is important to recall that Turkish-Israeli relations had significantly normalized under Israel’s previous government, yet Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power fueled some uncertainty in that regard. Judging by the Israeli government’s response to the disaster in Türkiye, Tel Aviv remains committed to strengthening its relations with Ankara. Indeed, Israel sent the second largest group of search and rescue workers to the quake zone (after Azerbaijan) and pledged additional support as needed. Finally, Egypt signaled its intention to improve its relations with Türkiye through its response to the earthquakes. In this context, the Egyptian reaction has been nothing short of noteworthy. Specifically, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called President Erdoğan – which means that the two leaders spoke for the first time after meeting in Doha, Qatar at the opening match of the 2022 World Cup. Since normalization between Türkiye and Egypt has been slower than similar processes between Türkiye and other Middle Eastern states, that phone call and Egypt’s contributions had huge political significance. Countries Not Meeting Expectations Despite Their Diplomatic Courtesy  Amid strained ties, Türkiye’s powerful, developed, and wealthy Western allies fall into the third category, meaning that they did not meet expectations in the wake of the earthquakes. In truth, the relevant nations could have treated the disaster as an opportunity to change the political discourse regarding Türkiye – much like the Category II states. Despite sending rescue workers and raising funds for the Turkish people, the general sense is that they could have done more given the resources available to them. Moreover, their responses to the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes were significantly weaker than how they had responded to previous disasters in Türkiye. The United States was the most striking case in point. In comparison with the 1999 earthquake, Washington’s response to the most recent disaster was notably weak. Let us recall that U.S. President Bill Clinton paid an official five-day visit to Türkiye and visited the quake zone in 1999. In contrast, it was Secretary of State Antony Blinken that represented the United States in 2023. Unfortunately, the relevant countries watched and analyzed the earthquakes in Türkiye from a political, as opposed to a humane, perspective. In this context, the mainstream Western media’s coverage focused primarily on the disaster’s potential impact on Turkish politics. Conclusion  The delivery of humanitarian aid to Türkiye, along with the statements of foreign governments, in the wake of the February 2023 earthquakes highlight an unmistakable and significant fact: In the face of a humanitarian crisis, human beings respond humanely. Whereas problems, conflicts, and even wars occur among states for various political, economic, social, and cultural reasons, governments and peoples tend to set aside hostilities and focus on the humanitarian aspect in difficult times. The second point is that international aid campaigns and expressions of solidarity demonstrated that Türkiye’s global humanitarian donations had earned the international community’s sympathy and showcased the power of its humanitarian diplomacy. Türkiye and the Turkish people indeed help other states and peoples without expecting anything in return. Still, the most recent developments proved that the assistance translates into actual power at the right time and place. It would not be wrong to argue that some states offered assistance to Türkiye by keeping in mind Ankara’s strong track record in that area. In other words, some nations helped Türkiye due to the Turkish government’s policy of helping others. At the same time, looking at the expressions of friendship by many states and peoples, it is possible to easily conclude that the Turks do have friends other than the Turks. It remains unclear whether the disaster and the influx of foreign aid in its aftermath will inspire change in foreign policy. At the very least, the earthquakes slightly changed the foreign policy discourse, de-escalating tensions between Türkiye and some other countries. To sustain that de-escalation, however, all sides must make certain political statements. It is necessary to uphold the sense of solidarity, which emerged among states after the earthquakes. Last but not least, one would hope that the humane way of thinking can triumph over the idea of interest and exploitation in international relations. This is a time to focus on moral values and solidarity – not realpolitik.