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  • Writer's pictureŞafak Göktürk


Updated: Oct 10, 2023

A country’s foreign policy is the combined derivative of its constant and dynamic assets as well as its normative make-up. As such, it is intrinsically linked with the country’s domestic life. Any realistic and effective formulation of policies on either the domestic or the foreign front thus depends on their proper alignment.

This does not however mean that policies a government pursues at home can serve as a stencil for its foreign pursuits, or vice a versa -for two reasons: First, not unlike the concept in mathematics, this derivative differs, both quantitatively and qualitatively, from the individual assets and values it is derived from. Second, the intersection domain of a country’s foreign policy is other countries’ foreign policies. Foreign policy is the interface for testing or aligning one nation’s interests with any other.

Admittedly, the dilemma of having to say something to the electorate on the not readily tangible products of the mostly quiet world of foreign affairs particularly on matters which cause public concern or outcry is a perennial one. The temptation for governments to come out with more forceful language than a coherent longer-term policy would allow is always close to their skin. Fortunately, this human condition is universally acknowledged, and many of the vitriolic utterances in this vein are played down as domestic constituency necessity stuff.

But there are limits this largesse can tolerate. They are crossed once domestic dynamics are selectively forced into the equation of foreign relations. This breaks the mold of the foreign relations context. Its consequences can be devastating because it short-circuits the wider, more essential foreign policy objectives.

There are several reasons why some governments commit themselves to this unreasonable course. Ideological bias and domestic dividendsare among the more common ones. And these motives gain strength when the ruling power is in need of reproducing legitimacy for itself at home.

Politicians are known for their penchant to stick to their elected positions. But, maintaining a governing mandate is never seen as an existential matter for any party or its leader in democratic life. For, there is no question about their legitimacy whether they are in power or in the opposition. Existential concern emerges when the incumbent sees his office as an irreversible, exclusive entitlement because of what he represents. The very elections which brought him to power are now reformatted to perpetuate this self-assumed entitlement. The free and fair character of the elections is compromised by restrictions brought on the competitive space and on the information flow to the public, accompanied by a set of administrative and legal measures, all designed to narrow the outcome. The regular sequence of elections also falls victim to the same effort, with election dates determined according to the politically tailored timelines. If the elections havestill not delivered the desired results, they are either renewed or manyelected members of the opposition are removed under trumped up charges.

The society, meanwhile, is kept in an atmosphere of constant polarization designed to maintain and consolidate the electoral basewhich provided the ruling majority. The impact of the blastingnarrative about this constituency’s previous victimization and the vilification of the others however has its limits. It becomes repetitive and loses at least some of its allure since the government they identify with has already been in power for some time.

This is where and when foreign policy becomes the dependent variable of the domestic agenda. Just like the way it makes arbitrarypolicy choices in the country’s management favoring those groups which are seen as the government’s social and economic power base, the ruling power has no scruples in drawing on the foreign agenda, no matter how damaging that may turn out to be for the country in the longer term. Its overriding concern remains the same -keeping popular support sufficiently intact.

Leaders and governments in this frame around the world have had varying foreign agenda options to draw from in support of their domestic standing. These options may be readily available in the form of an already existing border or regional dispute, or a conflict of interest with another power. Otherwise, an unstable neighborhood canalways provide abundant material. The only critical condition in its selection is whether it carries the potential to immerse people into a sense of collective destiny. Rallying for a seemingly burning national issue does not only have the power to unite people. It builds a siege mentality beyond the party lines, blurring the ruler’s actual base of support. And, this siege mentality coincides with the ruler’s own predicament of governing in increasingly more challenging circumstances. Unity of fate, however temporary, between the ruling power and an undetermined section of the population is thus established. And the sense of security, though false, this unity’s aura has produced injects a much-needed doze of confidence on the ruler.

But, alas. The problem with tempering with the foreign relations web is that its consequences cannot be addressed domestically. Damageabroad is assured. One particular outcome may be the erosion of the nation’s geopolitical interests as the ruler desperately searches fortentative arrangements with unlikely partners to limit the immediate risks of his miscalculations. And this damage progressively deepens the political and economic crisis at home. Even for the authoritarian ruler, struggle to consolidate support turns into a Pyrrhic victory at best.

This summary on the instrumentalization of foreign affairs for domestic agenda is applicable, with minor alterations, to all authoritarian conversions from initially democratic processes around the globe. The abuse of foreign policy is not optional for them. It is an inevitable component of any authoritarian drift. The hybrid state -autocracy with a semblance of democratic legitimization- of his grip on power compels the ruler to pick any available tool to compensate for the gaping hole in his legitimacy.

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