Erdogan was different at the UN this time

Over the years, Turkey's President has had the world’s attention on his autumnal visits to New York

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, speaking during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on September 20. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

In the spring of 2006, for one of my first jobs in journalism, I worked as a reporting intern for a wire service at the UN headquarters in New York. Two days a week I marched into the sleek Secretariat building looming over the East River, eager to cover the day’s most urgent issues – the Darfur crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global hunger and more.

I soon discovered that diplomats were much better at their jobs than I had imagined. They would look me dead in the eye and respond to my questions with intelligence and apparent insight. Yet, once I had typed up the interview and dropped it into my article, I would realise they had simply used different words to express sentiments that had been said a hundred times before.

Reporting at the UN was like panning for gold: high hopes inevitably crumbled as the sifting turned up only sand. Amid the flurry of flashbulbs, it turned out, very little of substance occurred. By the time I left, I viewed the UN as little more than the world’s pre-eminent public relations platform.

This might explain why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has over the years shown a knack for grabbing the world’s attention on his autumnal visits to Turtle Bay. In his first UN General Assembly speech in 2005, he declared terrorism “the enemy of humankind” and launched the Alliance of Civilisations initiative with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain’s then prime minister, to unite international counter-extremism efforts.

In 2014, Mr Erdogan invoked, for the first time on the global stage, the phrase that has since become his refrain on the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. “I should emphasise that the world is bigger than five,” he said.

In 2016, he denounced Europe’s “degrading treatment” of a wave of newly arrived, mostly Arab refugees and, just weeks after a failed coup had shaken Turkey, urged the world to take measures against his government’s main suspect, the Gulen movement.

In 2019, he proposed a controversial safe zone in northern Syria and defended the rights of Palestinians. “Where are the borders of the state of Israel?” he wondered, denouncing Israeli annexations as illegitimate.

Absent was the fire of earlier UN speeches. He called for peace in Syria but refrained from criticising the EU and US

Last year, Mr Erdogan handed out copies of his new book, urging reform at the UN and other international bodies, and inaugurated the $300 million Turkish House. He described Turkey’s new consulate and permanent UN mission – 17 metres taller than Secretariat, just across the street – as an expression of his nation’s growing influence.

This year, in contrast, Mr Erdogan seemed more subdued, seeking to highlight his country’s positive role in world affairs. Citing the need for food security in the Horn of Africa and peace talks in Ukraine, he said Turkey had endeavoured “to be part of the solution” around the world.

He’s half right, as we’re in the midst of another Tale-of-Two-Cities moment for Mr Erdogan. At home he may be less well liked than he’s been since his last days as Istanbul mayor, a quarter-century ago. And tensions with Greece, Turkey’s Aegean neighbour, have spiked in recent weeks as the two have traded insults and accusations.

But farther abroad, despite lingering tensions with the US and EU, Turkey has made real diplomatic gains, including renewed ties with Gulf powers, Israel and Egypt. In New York, Mr Erdogan held a meeting with Israeli Prime Minster Yair Lapid, marking the first time since the George W Bush presidency that an Israeli prime minister met a Turkish president.

However troubling Mr Erdogan’s threats to “open the gates” of migration have been, it’s Turkey – not Greece, as top EU officials have asserted – that has served as Europe’s refugee shield, hosting 4-5 million foreigners for nearly a decade and keeping them out of the EU.

Also, even as Turkey has strengthened ties with Azerbaijan, potentially providing Europe with a much-needed alternative to Russian natural gas, Ankara has inched toward normalisation with historic rival Armenia and the opening of their long-closed border.

Last but not least is Ukraine. Ankara’s western and Nato allies have been largely unable to criticise its continued friendly relations with Moscow because of how it has leveraged them. With more than 40 countries at risk of famine in late summer, Turkey played a crucial role in bringing Ukraine and Russia to agree on a plan to release millions of tonnes of grain from Ukrainian ports.

Since March, Ankara has spearheaded efforts to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. “There will be no losers in a fair peace process,” Mr Erdogan told the UN General Assembly, calling for support of Turkey’s diplomacy.

Absent was the fire of earlier UN speeches. He called for peace in Syria but refrained from criticising the EU and US for their unwillingness to help solve the refugee issue. He also stayed his hand on Moscow’s military mobilisation, even as reports emerged that four of five military summons in Russian-occupied Crimea have gone to Crimean Tatars – a persecuted Turkic-Muslim minority Mr Erdogan regularly defends.

His most notable activity in New York was an afternoon stroll in Central Park. He met a local rabbi, sat for photos with parents and their children, and from one passerby, received a hearty "thank you" on Ukraine, for the drones, the grain deal and “helping to make Nato stronger”.

The President’s communications team released a seven-minute video of the park visit, which some critics said had been staged. This is understandable; in Turkey, Mr Erdogan does not stroll through parks or chat with everyday citizens. But it all seemed real enough.

Turkey’s lira hit yet another record low last week, at 18.42 to the dollar, and the governing AKP has been trailing in polls for months. With elections looming next year, the Central Park video was probably an attempt to humanise Mr Erdogan, to present a warmer leader who is also comfortable in the world.

Maybe after years of relishing his moment in the spotlight, Mr Erdogan has come to share my view that the UN is mostly sound and fury. Perhaps he decided to take a break and enjoy his time in the Big Apple, walk in the park, revel in recent successes, speak in the third person.

A Turkish reporter at the UN asked if he hoped to meet US President Joe Biden and he shook his head. “He is Biden,” Turkey’s leader responded with a grin. “I’m Erdogan.”

Published: September 26, 2022, 2:00 PM