Interview with Dr. Kerem Oktem

By Ozgur Tufekci and Husrev Tabak | July 2012

Kerem Oktem

Another Empire is based on the proceedings of a conference with the title “Turkey’s Foreign Policy in a changing world: Old alignments and new neighbourhoods”, which the editors (Kerem Öktem, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Mehmet Karlı) and Othon Anastasakis, Director of Southeast European Studies at Oxford, convened in May 2010 at St. Antony’s College.

Yet, in the name of making the book more up-to-date, the editors have incorporated papers from other authors, too.

CESRAN: Turkey and its JDP era foreign policy have attracted remarkable international attention. In this scope, Dr Öktem, what did draw you to publish a book specifically on Turkish foreign policy? And what is the gap the book claims to fill?

Kerem Oktem: As you said, Turkish Foreign Policy has become a big issue internationally. Yet much of the publications and opinion pieces you can find on the net and in journals lack grounded research and often also an interdisciplinary perspective. My initial idea was to explore Turkey’s increased global visibility in all its different aspects –from the economy to society, from TV soaps to ideological networks- and its many regions.  Othon Anastasakis, chair of the South East European Studies Programme at Oxford, Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor of International Relations and Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Professor of Politics at Sabanci University, all joined in in this project, as we all agreed that something important was happening in Turkey. Something different. That’s how we embarked first on the conference, which we carried out with the committed help of Mehmet Karli, and then on the book. The fact is that Turkey matters, more than it ever did since the Turkish Republic. Yet, as Turkey becomes more relevant as a regional power, the stakes get higher and the potential challenges grow too. I believe that after ten years of the JDP government in power, it was an opportune time to look back and reflect on the track record, if you so wish. And this is exactly what Another Empire seeks to do.

CESRAN: Since foreign policy analysis is more than historical or journalistic review of political facts could you tell us what the theoretical and empirical contributions of the Another Empire to the study of Turkish foreign policy are?

Kerem Oktem: In terms of theory, I would insist on the added value of interdisciplinary work on the one side and the attempt to explain changing foreign policy attitudes from the perspective of domestic transitions and changing identities on the other. In this respect, Another Empire leans towards a constructivist conceptualisation of Turkey’s International Relations. However, this is a collection of authors with different approaches and positions, so the constructivist perspective is not universally shared.

In terms of empirical insights, the volume is pretty rich, as it provides analyses of the domestic dynamics underlying foreign policy choice. It elucidates the role of new Islamic and civil society networks in foreign policy and explores how Turkey’s neighbours in the East and West try to make sense of Turkey’s newfound, and probably incomplete, self-confidence. We can also say that this is the first book looking back at the decade of JDP rule.

CESRAN: Considering that the title is “Another Empire?”, are you opening a new debate on Turkey’s imperial desires?

Kerem Oktem: Not all the authors of the book would agree, but here is no question in my mind that the current Turkish foreign policy is driven inter alia by a desire to re-establish some of the respectability, which the late Ottoman Empire has ostensibly had in the Muslim world and beyond. The ruling JDP has its ideational foundations in a tradition of political Islam, in which the renaissance of Islam will be realised under Turkish leadership and with a strong reference to the empire and its Islamic heritage. At the same time, the government and FM Davutoğlu have shown a great penchant for pragmatic, interest-driven politics, and it could be argued that they even have taken a rather pro-American turn recently. It is the tension between these ideational frames of reference and the Realpolitik on the ground, which we explore. But none of the authors, I assume, would go as far as to say that Turkish foreign policy actors are pursueing concrete imperial policies. Desires are a different story. They are almost certainly there, but they might be a lot of things to different people: A way of revising national identity, replacing Kemalist constructions of Turkishness, boosting international standing and so on. But desires do not easily translate into politics. InAnother Empire, we also conclude that the risk is not so much the desire, but the danger of punching about one’s weight.

CESRAN: The book’s cover photo is a shot of the Mavi Marmara (Blue Marmara) ferry sailing from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn to commemorate the Gaza Flotilla raid. Would you mind sharing the reason why that photo has been chosen? What is the message you are trying to give to the readers?

another empireKerem Oktem: In many ways, the photo symbolises a lot of the questions, we were interested in: You will have seen that the metaphor of a ‘ship in uncharted waters’ traverses the collection from the introduction to the epilogue. In the photo, too, we see the Mavi Marmara, which seems to be uncertain about its course. We see the mighty panorama of Ottoman Istanbul, we see the victims not only of an Israeli attack but also of a different mode of foreign policy. I really do believe, and also managed to convince my co-editor Prof. Kadıoğlu, who was worried that we might give out the wrong message, that this photo conveys many of the new elements in Turkey’s foreign policy: It reminds us of the role of non-state actors in the conduct of foreign policy, which are definitely something novel for this country. It reminds us of Istanbul’s symbolic value and Turkey’s newfound confidence in the region, but also of the deeply violent nature of politics in the Middle East and in Turkey and the limits to foreign policy options for a regional power. I should also state that the image was generously provided by the IHH/Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the very NGO that had organised the Gaza flotilla.

CESRAN: Is there any specific reason why Turkey’s relationships with Russia, China and Turkic states were left uncovered in the book?

Kerem Oktem: As we explain in the introduction, we do not claim to have exhausted the full theme. Considering that this is an edited volume on foreign policy, you have to work with constraints. And the most important constraint is, of course, time, as the region, probably also the world, is in a process of restructuring. How deep the crisis of the European Union would get, we could only guess when we started. In order to get the book out in a reasonable time, we needed to make concessions to the scope of the book. While we do not have a chapter on Russia, however, we have been able to explore the Caucasus and the conflict with Armenia.

CESRAN: It is an obvious fact that Turkey’s proactive foreign policy has been met with suspicion by Western countries. In this sense, Turkey has even been charged with changing axis. What is your personal opinion on the allegations of Turkey’s “change of axis”? And how has this issue been addressed in the book?

Kerem Oktem: Baskin Oran, in his erudite foreword answers this question quite succinctly. He says questions about change of axis “gain currency every time Turkish governments attempt to diversify their staunchly Euro-Atlanticist position in order to cope with massively changing global conditions, and also in order to secure relative autonomy through regional balances of power”. This is exactly what happened; a diversification, not a change of axis. It has happened before, under Demirel, under Özal. But as we can see now, Turkey is not at all less Atlanticist today than before 2002. If anything, it has become more so, if you think of the missile shield against Iran, the cooling of relations with Iran and of course, with regard to Syria. What has dropped from the agenda is the European Union for now. And with it, the agenda for democratisation and reform. But this has never been an obstacle to membership in Western institutions.

CESRAN: As a last question, do you think that Another Empire is emerging?  What would be your projections with respect to Turkey’s place in the international arena in the coming decade?

Kerem Oktem: It all depends on whether the current government will be able to play its hand well at a time when most of its initiatives have faltered: We don’t speak about ‘zero problems with neighbours’ anymore, in fact, it sounds like a bad joke, which some Armenian commentators have revised to ‘No neighbours, no problems’! On all fronts, Turkish foreign policy, as well as the domestic scene, seem to have returned to thestatus quo ante. After 10 years in government, the JDP seems to have lost much of its enthusiasm and innovativeness, for which it once was famed and has reverted to inflexible, statist positions. Forget about the empire. The question is whether the JDP will be able to hold the country together, in face of the reignited Kurdish problem and without a credible EU anchor. The thinkers of the JDP were genuine in opening the country up especially to its eastern neighbours. But it failed to resolve the key conflict of modern Turkey, the Kurdish conflict. More actively involved in the region, and with such unresolved conflicts, Turkey is more vulnerable than before. I do wish that the dream of empire does not turn into the nightmare of contraction. Yet, if a more sensible Kurdish policy based on recognition and a return to democratic reforms were to be achieved than I indeed do believe that Turkey will be a more respected country in the world and also a more important global economic and political actor.  

CESRAN: Thank you very much for your time and the interview.


Another Empire is a timely and comprehensive exploration of Turkey’s foreign policy and changing place in the world, which has just been published by Istanbul-based Bilgi University Press. For further information click here and here.Kerem Oktem is Research Fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College and an associate of Southeast European Studies at Oxford. He teaches the Politics of the Middle East at the Oriental Institute. He read Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, where he also completed his D. Phil. thesis at the School of Geography in 2006. In the thesis, he explored the destruction of imperial space in the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent construction of an exclusively Turkish national territory. His research interests range from the history of nationalism, ethno-politics and minority rights in Turkey to debates on history, memory and trauma, and to Turkey’s conflicted relations with Armenia and Greece. More recently, he has started a research project on the emergence of Islam as a central discursive category in European public debates. 
Kerem Oktem’s earlier books:

angry nationSince its re-emergence as nation-state in 1923, Turkey has often looked like an odd appendix to the West situated in the borderlands of Europe and the Middle East, economically backward, inward looking, marred by political violence, yet a staunch NATO ally, it has been eyed with suspicion by both ‘East’ and ‘West’. The momentous changes in the regional and world order after 1989 have catapulted the country back to the world stage. Ever since, Turkey has turned into a major power broker and has developed into one the largest economies in the world. In the process, however, the country has failed to solve its ethnic, religious and historical conflicts peacefully. At this historical turning point, Kerem Oktem charts the contemporary history of Turkey, exploring such key issues as the relationship between religion and the state, Kurdish separatism, Turkey’s relationship with Israel and the ongoing controversy over Turkey’s entry into the EU. Readable but comprehensive, this is the definitive book on the country’s erratic transformation from a military dictatorship to a maturing, if still troubled, democracy.


Turkeys-Engagement-with-ModernityTurkey’s Engagement with Modernity. Conflict and Change in the 20th Century (with Celia Kerslake and Philip Robins) Turkey is at the core of many current intellectual and political debates. Questions about the future of secularism, the relationship between Islam and democracy and the future of the Middle East and Europe all touch upon Turkey. These debates can benefit greatly from substantive examinations of the political institutions of the Turkish Republic and the historical evolution of its society and culture in the twentieth century. Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity brings together twenty-four leading scholars of Turkish Studies, who revisit Turkey’s ‘modern century.’ The essays range from high politics and international relations to examinations of the intricate webs of social and religious networks, micro-histories, literature and music. Together they look at the successes and crises which the nationalist project created, and the instances of resistance and opposition it triggered. The book explores how the country was shaped in the image of the Kemalist project of nationalist modernity and how it was transformed, if erratically, into a democratic society where tensions between religion, state and society continue unabated.


mutual misunderstandingsThe media, from newspapers and magazines to television, radio and the internet, have become central sites of contestation over one of the most controversial issues in European public debates: Islam and Muslims in Europe. Mutual Misunderstandings seeks to contribute to this debate by questioning the widespread assumptions that permeate it: That there is a clearly delimited ‘Europe’, that this ‘Europe’ is opposed to a bounded ‘Muslim world’, and that conflict is written into the history and present of all interactions between these two supposedly distinct ‘worlds’. And finally, that the media therefore has to reflect this deep-seated enmity in its coverage. This volume therefore attempts to unpack these highly aggregated, yet ultimately unhelpful categories. It explores the historically and politically contingent ways in which ‘Islam’ has come to be the major frame of reference for debates on Muslims and Europe, and highlights the role of the media in this process. The collection does so by suggesting a novel geographic scope of inquiry. It looks from Europe to the Muslim world, but also from Muslim majority countries to Europe: From France and Germany to Bosnia Herzegovina, Turkey and Egypt. This choice reflects an intention to decentre the conventional focus on the Arab Middle East and Iran, by considering cases from South East Europe such as Turkey and Bosnia, as well as looking at Egypt, rather than at the more specific but over-reported case of Saudi Arabia.  With this focus, Mutual Misunderstandings provides a fascinating exploration into five very distinct cases of media systems dealing with their respective internal and external others.


in the long shadow of europeIn the Long Shadow of Europe (with Othon Anastasakis and Kalypso Nicolaidis) Can the European Union transform Greek-Turkish relations? The contributors to “In the Long Shadow of Europe” examine the ambiguities of Europe’s historical role in its Southeastern corner to shed light on the possible paths lying ahead. From their various an-gles, they highlight the paradoxes of a relationship between intimate adversaries, marred by tormented histories, nationalist narratives and bilateral disputes but strengthened by historical familiarity, geographic vicinity, and the imperative for cooperation. And beyond this face a face, the authors show how, as Greece and Turkey developed into independent nation-states in the shadow of Europe, their intertwined trajectories also contributed to defining this same Europe ‘at the edges’. Beyond the Greek – Turkish relationship, this book illustrates the considerable challenges the European Union faces as a mediating power both within and outside its borders.


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