Bilhan: 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 organized five 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 upgrade the infrastructure  and 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 funding. 

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:

 Ankara - Turkish Daily News

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