Turkey in 2018 faces multiple external challenges, some of its own making, with allies, partners and neighbors. Its intervention in Syria has no easy exit and further complicates the Kurdish question. Russia is squeezing Turkey in the Black Sea and elsewhere; relations with the United States, Israel and the European Union are unsettled or poor. Greece is far from the center of Turkish foreign and security policy, but Aegean disputes retain the possibility of spiraling out of control if leaders misplay their hand. Whereas Turkish tactics – muscular, even intimidating and coercive diplomacy – are often evident, it is more difficult to discern a coherent strategy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s testy exchanges with Greek leaders in December 2017 elaborated and amplified Turkey’s position about reopening the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. This injected a dangerous new destabilizing element for Turkey’s neighbors as it can be perceived not merely as revisionism, but possible expansionism given its military operations in Syria and Iraq.
When examining Lausanne textually and contextually, its purpose is straightforward: to end centuries of European pushback against the Ottoman Empire; to abolish the capitulations (encroachment into Ottoman internal affairs); to wipe away the Treaty of Sevres that partitioned Turkey itself; and to confirm major territorial adjustments where Turkey renounced its claims (Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Cyprus, the Dodecanese and dependent islets) and other territorial changes from prior treaties and agreements, including the Balkan Wars. Lausanne established and delimited Turkey’s frontiers, providing Turkey with territorial certainty and clarity.
As a derivative function, it consequently set the borders of Turkey’s limitrophe states (i.e. the neighbors). The Turkish position about “ambiguity” about the status of islands, islets and rocky outcrops that are not explicitly named is not supported by the treaty’s negotiating record. Reopening a treaty designed to confirm Turkey’s borders is a risky proposition for Ankara; the neighbors may have their own demands, possibly reopening all borders and minority rights. Though Article 16 enables that “special arrangements” may be concluded in the future on frontier delimitation, its intent is for narrow and specific, not wholesale, adjustments and on friendly, not antagonistic or military grounds. Turkey is pushing well past that, roiling regional stability.
More specifically for the Aegean, reopening Lausanne would not yield answers to the continental shelf (or any hydrocarbon or other mineral assets that may be found there). Putting aside conflicting legal interpretations about the continental shelf, let’s turn to behavioral science to analyze decision-making. The endowment effect postulates that what we have is worth more to us than what we do not. And its corollary: The pain of losing what we have outweighs any possible gain of what we may hope to obtain in an uncertain future. Therefore, whatever the emotional energy on sovereignty and territorial integrity, we see a very rational Greek response to Turkish attempts to change the status quo. Second, the concept of altruistic punishment postulates that one party can reject another party’s assertiveness by sacrificing potential future gains to punish that second party. In this case, Turkey’s tactics – a maximalist approach that uses pressure rather than incentives – has generated friction, resistance and outright opposition, putting it further from its ostensible goal of greater access to Aegean resources.
Greece and Turkey have established a de facto moratorium on Aegean exploration, but at times politicians’ public statements, fishing forays and wreath layings have sparked chest-thumping belligerence by one or both sides, testing leaders’ crisis management skills. Even if a mutually satisfactory line were to be drawn in the Aegean to demarcate the continental shelf, that would not solve all problems. The shelf is a legal and political construct, the resources are tangible assets. Any possible deposits would not lie neatly along man-drawn lines. The sides could find themselves in a race to drill and extract from pools that straddled any line; the physics of hydraulics and fluid mechanics means that pumping from any one location would draw down from the entirety of the pool, thereby generating new controversy. Alternatively, new pools could be discovered which could lead to charges about bad or unfair line drawing. And, of course, the sides would still need to cooperate on any number of maritime issues about transporting extracted oil or gas (tankers, pipeline construction) as well as environmental safety in a seismically active zone that is popular with tourists who boost the economies of both Greece and Turkey.
As Turkey heads to elections, where it is more likely than not that nationalist and populist politics will be in play, prospects dim for diplomatic space to resolve Aegean issues. Turkey’s arms-buying ambitions (Russian S-400s, German submarines, US F-35s), though unlikely to be fulfilled, only add more destabilizing elements as its military intentions and capabilities outpace Greece’s. De-escalating from a crisis is challenging for even the most rational, cool-headed leaders. They are anchored in past episodes and are subject to unconscious biases about motivations and intentions. They do not have 100 percent accurate information 100 percent of the time, nor have it instantaneously. Misinterpretations, miscalculations, errors, mistakes and technical glitches are common in tense situations. Depending on outsiders to defuse tensions is a hope, not a strategy. Cooling the temperature would be a smart Turkish move to rebuild trust with Greece and other NATO allies.
Ironically, as Greece and Turkey dispute Aegean hydrocarbons, they both enjoy a naturally resource that does not need to be shared – solar energy. Once researchers achieve breakthroughs in photovoltaic cells and battery storage, solar power will become more affordable and attractive. For the Aegean littoral, electric vehicles and solar production make sense, transforming both the energy and political dynamic. Both sides would be wise to look at solar energy and not hydrocarbons for economic growth and put Aegean disputes behind them.
Alexander Karagiannis, PhD, is a former US diplomat who served in Greece and Turkey.