Strategic studies central to foreign policy
By Yuksel Soylemez
Turkish Daily News June 8, 2002
Frankly speaking: Ambassador Yuksel Soylemez interviews Ambassador Murat Bilhan, chairman of the Foreign Ministry's Center for Strategic Research
"Strategic studies are a new kind of concept, a new phenomenon in Turkey -- especially in the civilian sector. Strategic studies are central to the foreign policy of any country," said Ambassador Murat Bilhan, chairman of the Foreign Ministry's Center for Strategic Research (SAM).
Retired Ambassador Yuksel Soylemez interviewed Ambassador Bilhan for the Turkish Daily News (TDN) regarding SAM, and its activities and contributions to the formation of Turkish foreign policy.
SOYLEMEZ: What is SAM's area of specialization, or area of particular interest?
BILHAN: Our center, on the one hand, is a specialized institution, in the sense that it undertakes strategic, political, diplomatic and related studies for long-term policy planning. On the other hand, it is not specialized in certain geographical regions, nor is it specialized in any specific field of international relations. Other fields of study, such as economic, technical or scientific developments, may be relevant indirectly for reference in the political focal points under our study. We use these references accordingly, whenever we need them.
You may consider our center as some kind of long-term policy planning department. The main difference between our center and the actual Policy Planning Department of the Ministry is that the latter deals with the day-to-day analysis of present events, and at the same time, tries to find solutions to these problems. The former, on the other hand, goes deeper into history and is involved in research projects for long-term projections and scenarios. SAM differs from the Policy Planning Department as is involved in extra ministerial contacts and refers to more diversified sources for its research, whereas the Policy Planning Department is a directly subordinate unit of the ministry.
SOYLEMEZ: Is there an overlap with other think tanks?
BILHAN: We also utilize the assistance of research staff from universities and experts who are not members of our ministry. We use the services and welcome the contributions of Turkish and foreign experts alike. We differ in that respect with most of the other Turkish think-thank organizations. Some of these organizations are specialized in economic, social and military research and some are specialized in certain geographical regions. Others are academically involved in deeper studies, such as the Armenian Research Institute etc.. So, there is not much overlapping of activities with these institutions, but rather cooperation, and some kind of a division of labor among them exists. However, further synchronization of activities, in my opinion, is necessary.
SOYLEMEZ: How did SAM start? What was the basis and the model upon which SAM was founded?
BILHAN: Strategic studies are a new kind of concept, a new phenomenon in Turkey -- especially in the civilian sector. Strategic studies are central to the foreign policy of any country. The Turkish foreign policy establishment had been trying to fulfill this duty through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Policy Planning Department until 1995, when SAM was founded. But this did not actually correspond exactly to what was needed, as I pointed out earlier. On the other hand, such studies have been continuing since the early days of the Republic in the military establishment, namely, the General Staff. But as it would be expected, the military's strategic requirements focus on military issues and hard security matters. For strictly political strategy analysis, it was felt essential to establish a separate center to be managed under the Foreign Ministry.
SOYLEMEZ: Who leads SAM?
BILHAN: In 1995, a specific regulation to establish SAM was adopted based on the Foreign Ministry Law. The terms of reference and the structure was laid down in these regulations. Thus, a senior ambassador has been assigned as the chairman of SAM, together with a senior diplomat, who acts as the executive secretary. The center has organized many conferences and has supported research in the field of political science and international relations.
SAM was originally planned to be a think-thank organization to serve Turkish foreign policy requirements, mainly addressing foreign public opinion. It is a "sui generis" institution, resembling like-minded organizations only in its aims. It does not, however, resemble those organizations in its fields of specialization, structure, its financial and human resources or in its sources of information, working conditions or methods.
SOYLEMEZ: What activities has SAM been involved in recently?
BILHAN: SAM has three main activities: publishing, organizing meetings and participating in conferences.
Its publications are: The quarterly periodical, "Perceptions," and the occasionally published SAM Papers in English and SAM Notes in Turkish. It is now hoping to launch another activity by publishing the books written by diplomats, including retired ones, in foreign languages. Ambassador Soylemez, I am hoping to see your book on the shelves pretty soon in our new series of publications, which I consider the first of its kind.
As far as other activities are concerned, I may
mention that we have invigorated our brainstorming sessions, which have been
going on since the inception of our center. Moreover, we have begun to hold
brainstorming sessions more frequently and with a greater number of participants.
We have 20-24 experts and prominent personalities participating
in each session. Since the beginning of this year, we have
of them, and the proceedings
of these meetings were later printed. I mean the minutes have been
printed from tape recordings and distributed to interested personalities
and participants. We are continuing enthusiastically with this program of meetings.
SOYLEMEZ: How are your relations with the foreign missions in Ankara?
BILHAN: Another sort of activity we have launched recently, is a series of monthly conferences by resident foreign ambassadors in Turkey. The idea here was to offer an opportunity to the ambassadors to present speeches to a selected group of Turkish diplomats, academics, members of the press, to provide briefings on their countries' foreign policy issues. It also gives the audience the chance to get to know that specific country firsthand, from its highest representative. This will give an insight to the audience, and also an opportunity to ask questions directly to the ambassador and to satisfy the thirst to know these countries better.
Another sort of activity, is our plan to start panel discussions again with foreign diplomats. We will start them soon.
We will also start, shortly, to have gatherings of regional groups of diplomats. At the end of this month, we will prepare such an event, as the first one with the participation of ambassadors from Latin America. This will give us an opportunity to seek new policy approaches to that region. In day-to-day diplomatic activities, certain geographical regions inevitably fall in the periphery of Turkish foreign policy priorities, and others are neglected to a certain extent. We want to fill this gap if we can, and as best as we can.
SOYLEMEZ: How do you cooperate with other think tanks?
BILHAN: We also attend other think-thank organizations' activities, such as conferences, panels, symposia, colloquia etc., both in Turkey as well as abroad. In this respect, I want to underline that we are now opening up our activities to other major centers of thought in Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Eskisehir, Antalya etc.. We are frequently invited to contribute to lectures or conferences taking place at these universities.
We are also establishing links and cooperation with foreign corresponding institutions to reach related counterparts. This is not an easy task. We receive a lot of invitations from various parts of the world to participate in their events. We are, however, restricted by our own shortage of staff. Moreover, selectively and increasingly, we are considering improving our cooperation network abroad.
We are also planning to host some prominent foreign dignitaries, journalists, foreign policy experts, authors and high-level personalities to give conferences. In addition to the personalities to be directly invited by us, we will also try to use the opportunities of visits of such people to Turkey on various occasions. Such activities will be held on the margin of their official programs
SOYLEMEZ: Do you intend to train young people?
BILHAN: We also help in the training and education of our young diplomats and graduate and undergraduate students of international relations, who are attending universities in our intensive summer courses or training programs. Our aim is to show them how the Foreign Ministry operates. The students are selected on the basis of the average of their grades. The high qualifications of the applicants we receive is obviously visible. I can give you some figures: This year 279 students and graduates have applied for these summer courses, and we have agreed to receive 64 of them based on their grades; 63 percent of these applicants were female and among those accepted, the percentage of females was 57 percent. That may be a warning sign for the boys, because these figures show that the interest in becoming involved in Turkish foreign policy is going to be in the hands of female diplomats in the future. These percentages, as yet, do not exactly correspond to the applications made to the ministry, but these tendencies might be reflected in the near future.
SOYLEMEZ: Any other activities you want to mention?
BILHAN: I might touch upon another sort of program, which we introduced for the first time this year for our young diplomats. This is a simulation technique of international multilateral meetings. For instance, we recently simulated two meetings of the Council of Europe, based on a scenario prepared jointly by our center and the relevant department of the ministry. These two sessions were very attractive and desirable for our diplomats. They really liked and appreciated it. They came to our meeting room as if they were going to the Palais de l'Europe in Strasbourg, France -- the heart of the Council of Europe. They represented different countries of the Council of Europe and they simulated the meeting without using the Turkish language. So it looked quite real. We will repeat these programs in the future.
I think I have taken too much time in explaining our activities. You might have other questions?
SOYLEMEZ: What are SAM's future activities and plans"?
BILHAN: In the first place, we are planning to
to increase the number of qualified personnel in our center. This task has,
no doubt, budgetary implications and we are making an effort to obtain more
As for our planned activities, we will give priority to establishing links with like-minded think-tank organizations abroad. In doing so, we shall consider first those organizations which have already expressed interest in establishing contacts with SAM. We already have a long list for consideration.
SOYLEMEZ: How do you select the subjects and authors for your journal, "Perceptions"? What are your requirements for publication?
BILHAN: We have a whole variety of topical subjects. We collect articles from different personalities, mostly foreign, but also from some Turkish academics and experts. There are also prominent personalities, such as incumbent or ex-ministers, high-level foreign dignitaries, and renowned scholars and journalists from whom we collect articles. We are not limiting ourselves only to regional issues or priority topics of Turkey. It could easily be guessed that Turkey's priority topics usually involve our neighbors, Turkish- EU relations, the Balkans and the Caucasus regions, Russia, the Middle East, the energy corridors etc.. We do not want to concentrate only on these in our publications. We want to consider the problems of our distant friends from other continents as well, and we want to serve Turkish Foreign Policy requirements in different directions.
Sometimes, we prepare special issues on specific international developments, such as our most recent issue on Afghanistan. We intend to make this effort for diversified fields. For example, we plan to have a special issue on the very politicized theme of the claim and return of artifacts of cultural heritage to their countries of origin. In the same manner, we want to have a special issue on transboundary water problems. Columns in "Perceptions" are open to any social scientist or international relations expert to express their views.
One important point I would like to make in this respect, would be that we pay an "honorarium" to the writers who contribute to our publications.
SOYLEMEZ: Is there any other statement you would like to add?
BILHAN: In the vast field of strategic studies, the things which can be done have no limits. The sky is the limit in our work. The more you perform, the more you can add to your work. It is satisfying work. This reflects the fact that the more you work, the more staff and resources you need and you can expand your cooperation schemes indefinitely. There is a great depth of learning forever in this field. I personally agree with the English concept, "the enemy of the good is not the bad but the better." I would like to send a message to those who are in the field of strategic studies: I invite them to associate themselves with our work, join hands with us and contribute to our center with their advice, suggestions, contribution, constructive criticism, and show us understanding for our shortcomings which we are trying to overcome.
Here are the contact numbers for those who would like to communicate with us: Telephone: (0312) 446 04 35 Fax : (0312) 445 05 84 e-mail: email@example.com
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