A self-described “career diplomat,” Ambassador Tan is perfectly content with his life’s profession, as a career in diplomacy is precisely what he always envisioned for himself. Turkey is comprised of 81 provinces, and Namik’s father was a Governor, meaning he traveled to different parts of the country during his youth. “My father also made me read a lot, and I was inspired by him about diplomacy and the life of diplomats. I always wanted to be a diplomat,” recounted Tan. He graduated from the School of Law at Ankara University, but never intended to practice law. Instead, immediately after his graduation he applied to the Foreign Ministry and was admitted as a diplomat in 1982. The travels he experienced as a child would prove to be a precursor to the life that awaited him in foreign service.
Tan’s first posting was to the Soviet Union as the Second Secretary. He rose to the position of First Secretary and departed Moscow in 1987 at a time when glasnost and perestroika, the revolutionary reforms that would forever change the Communist nation, were getting started. Having left the cold winters of the U.S.S.R, which Tan noted could get down to -40 degrees Celsius, he was sent to the sub-tropical, arid climate of the United Arab Emirates to serve as First Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Abu Dhabi. After serving there for two years, Ambassador Tan was appointed as the Deputy Director in the Office of the President.
Tan’s next stop would be his first in Washington, DC. According to the Ambassador, the then-President of Turkey, Turgut Ozal, who he described as “an incredibly impressive leader in our republic who did great things for Turkey,” wanted Tan to serve in the United States and actually was inclined to assign him to Turkey’s UN mission in New York City. But Tan recalled respectfully persuading the President to appoint him to a posting in Washington, DC where he could “help our relationship in a more direct way.” From 1991 to 1995 he served in Washington, after which he returned to Ankara where he was appointed as the Chief of Cabinet to the Foreign Minister. Due to a string of changing coalition governments, Tan served three different Foreign Ministers as Chief of Cabinet over two years.
The last Minister that Tan served was Ismail Gem. “He was a person, a politician whom I admired a lot; he told me out of his experience with me as his Chief of Cabinet that he thought I should go back to Washington,” Tan continued. “I was sent back to Washington for the second time and stayed until 2001. It was two weeks before 9/11 that I left the country. I was back in Turkey as the Director for the Americas Department. The first thing I dealt with was 9/11 which was a terrible incident of course; it was really devastating.”
He next moved the Information Department as the Director and soon after became the Spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of Turkey, a position he held for three and a half years. During his time as the Spokesperson, the Foreign Minister was Turkey’s current President, Abdullah Gül. Gül and the government designated Tan as the Turkish Ambassador to Israel, a job which he started in January 2007 and held for a little less than three years. While relations have sharply deteriorated between the two nations since the dispute over the Gaza-bound flotilla that launched from Turkey, Tan offered that “the relationship was at the peak during my time in Israel.” He went on to add historical context noting their long, harmonious relationship in general with the Jews and specifically how “immediately after the establishment of Israel as an independent country, Turkey was next after the United States in recognizing Israel, and Turkey was the only Muslim-majority country who made this decision on its own without any pressure or offers or Camp Davids.”
After a short stint back in Turkey as the Deputy Undersecretary for the Americas, President Gül posted Tan to Washington, DC to serve as Turkey’s Ambassador, a critical position at the core of a relationship critical to both nations—a relationship whose importance Tan labeled “next to none.” Tan describes the U.S. as “still the most powerful country, and I think our most important ally.” While the partnership between the United States and Turkey is largely cemented in their “shoulder-to-shoulder alliance” in NATO for six decades, any reasonable review of each nation’s foreign policy priorities reveals a close resemblance.
Ambassador Tan further explained this overlapping of interests, “If you look at the foreign policy agenda of the United States and consider the most important issues it has to deal with—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Gulf, the Middle East, the Israeli-Arab conflict, North Africa, India, Pakistan, the fight against terrorism, the Balkans—these are very important issues for the United States. These issues are in a very volatile region, and Turkey is right in the middle. So this relationship is indispensable; the coordination and cooperation in addressing all those challenges makes this relationship of the utmost importance.”
Turkey’s role as a regional power is underpinned by the growth of its economy and its political stability. “Turkey has the most powerful, vibrant economy in the region; it’s next to none,” Tan conveyed. “Turkey is next after China when you look at economic growth. Last year, Turkey averaged 8.6 percent growth and this year will continue to grow. Turkey is the 6th largest economy in Europe and the 16th largest economy globally. Last year, Turkey produced 1.5 million jobs, and Europe lost 1.5 million jobs. Imagine if we were in the European Union, we would’ve balanced and compensated that loss.”
In the eyes of many, Turkey’s political stability coupled with its ability as a Muslim-majority country to have sound and lasting relations with or membership in Western institutions, such as NATO, make it a ‘model’ system for other Muslim-majority nations to emulate. Tan ascribes to the notion that Turkey has distinguished itself: “There are 57 Muslim countries all over the world. Turkey is different from them. No one has been able, among the modern nations, to create this synthesis between democracy, modernity, and Islam.” Also differentiating Turkey based on its long-standing parliamentary democracy, its legacy as a secular country and its free market economy, the Ambassador deduced, “When you look at the other predominantly Muslim countries, with all due respect to them all, Turkey defines itself by these very important qualities like none other.”
The descendants of the Ottomans, the Turks’ sphere of influence covers the region as part of their heritage. And with transformation gripping the region, Turkey’s influence is ostensibly swelling as “an inspirational role model” for those countries undergoing change. According to Tan, “In Tunisia, when demands were raised by the people, they were very simple and decent demands, like freedom, democracy, a better life, better education. These were the demands of the people. Turkey had started all this decades ago. This is a process; we created this culture of democracy in our country and the culture of legitimacy, it is very important in our country. Our respect to those values and our strong commitment to those values are the foundation of our country.”
Ambassador Tan also finds those values and others embedded in the U.S. He has particular appreciation for values he asserts all are aspiring for – “trust, transparency, accountability, rule of law, and professionalism.” And it is in the United States that Tan has “always admired the collective conscious of values; those values do not stay as merely on paper, they’re preserved, respected, and implemented. And the people have the culture of holding those values dear. That’s what makes the democracy here really powerful.”
From his time spent in the United States, the Ambassador considers Americans to be “very embracing, inclusive, warm, just, and objective.” His appreciation for America’s openness is evident, “In this country, I think what I admire most is that once you get into this country through the borders, you aren’t treated like you’re a foreigner. Whatever your background is or whatever region you’re from, whatever your political orientation is; whatever religious belief you hold—you are somebody in the States. That is not the case in any other country on the face of the earth, at least, to this extent.”
And while many in Turkey have what Tan terms a “monolithic” view of the West, including every country from “just west of Turkey and extending to the west coast of the United States,” he believes Europe and the United States are quite different, “I think the most important thing is I’ve always considered this country the land of big thinking. People are told to think big. You can have your dreams come true here. You dream about something, put a strategy behind it and you can do it. That’s why people come to this country from other corners of the globe. They’re treated as equals and given the opportunity to put their dreams into a reality. They are supported, appreciated and encouraged here in America.”
One overriding source of frustration with Europe is the obstructive treatment Turkey’s bid to join the European Union (EU) has received. Ambassador Tan stressed that despite the reforms Turkey has made, as well as their close ties to and membership in many Western institutions, Turkey is being subjected to double standards and discrimination. He emphasized, “We have reformed our system and there is continuous reform that goes on unabatedly to improve our system. That’s why we are trying to create the standards that the EU has created in its own region. That’s why we’re negotiating with them to become a full member, but we’re not receiving equal treatment, unfortunately.”
That frustration is augmented by a seeming lack of appreciation in the West for Turkey’s contribution to global and regional security. “During the Cold War years, Turkey was always at the forefront. Turkey was a frontline country, standing in a great sacrifice and at a great cost before the magnificent Soviet bloc armies. We have invested a lot to our defense – and by ‘our’ defense I mean the entire West and our values; we were in the defense of the West. And then the Soviet Union collapsed. When it came time to celebrate the so-called victory over the Soviet system, we were nowhere. And now when it comes to the EU, Turkey is blocked, Turkey’s path is closed.”
While Turkey may feel stymied by the EU, there is little argument that its influence as a regional power is rising. Nowhere has this been more manifest than its leadership in spearheading calls for regime change in Syria. Turkey shares an over 500 mile border with Syria and, in addition to receiving thousands of fleeing Syrian nationals, it hosts a large community and leadership of the Syrian opposition. On April 1st, Turkey held the second summit of the ‘Friends of Syria’ and is working tirelessly to achieve international and domestic legitimacy for the Syrian opposition in support of ending the violence and achieving the democratic demands of the Syrian people.
“We are coordinating in the most effective way on a daily basis with our counterparts here who are involved in this process of responding to the atrocities of the Assad regime,” Ambassador Tan continued. “We will continue to do everything possible in our power to stop this regime from killing its own people. We will not just shy away from using every avenue to stop the regime.”
This sort of collaboration with the United States is emblematic of the relationship that has developed over the years and particularly with the Obama Administration. President Obama visited Turkey in June 2009 and that was reciprocated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trip to the U.S. later that year. “Today, when you try to look at the reaction of the American administration toward Turkey, it is always appreciative and supportive, and I think we are enjoying a wonderful time in our relationship,” observed Tan.
That appreciation extends to Capitol Hill as well. Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY), the co-chair of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkish Relations and Turkish Americans, said, “Not only is Ambassador Tan a friend, he is a great asset for Turkey here in the United States. He is a truly skilled diplomat and his engagement with Congress has been critical as we continue to build on our relationship with Turkey, a key ally in a strategically important region of the world. As our strategic partnership and economic ties continue to deepen, I know Ambassador Tan will continue to be a valued and strong leader for Turkey.”
Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the bond between the United States and Turkey has been strong. Given that it lies at the nexus of several countries and cultures, it is difficult to imagine a future without Turkey retaining an integral role in the geopolitical issues of the region. And as long as he is serving on his third ‘tour of duty’ in the United States, Ambassador Tan will be an instrumental figure in facilitating what is a key relationship for each nation as both strive to work together to resolve the challenges to the region’s security and stability.
Ambassador Tan on the Issues
Tan on the atrocities of the Assad regime
We were strongly against the killings, the shelling, and the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against its own people. How could you imagine a civilized, democratic nation turning a blind-eye to what is happening there. How could you imagine anyone standing still before all those monstrous acts and the humanitarian crisis that is evolving there. The people are suffering only for making the demands of freedom, democracy, fair treatment, and a better life.
Tan on the crisis in Syria
We will not stop, we cannot stop. We will continue to do everything possible in our power to stop this regime from killing its own people. We will not just shy away from using every avenue to stop the regime. What we do today is to create international legitimacy; a united and strong international front using every possible means to pressure the Assad regime to stop the killings and then start a peaceful transformation in the country toward democracy. We are also helping the Syrian opposition which represents the domestic legitimacy. We want this group to involve and include and embrace every single section of the Syrian society. We will definitely stop this regime’s atrocities.
Tan on Turkey’s role in Afghanistan
We have been asked several times to command the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. And we did it. As difficult as it may be, we see it as our responsibility to our Afghan brothers and a part of our dedication to spread stability to our periphery. By our involvement there we do some other things. We’re a Muslim-majority country with the most powerful, most able, most professionally trained army, which gives a lot of legitimacy to the entire NATO mission there. Imagine the absence of the Turkish forces from the NATO presence in Afghanistan; it would be quite different. Our sacrifices are sometimes taken for granted and we’re not happy with this.
Tan on the ‘Turkish model’
There are 57 Muslim majority countries all over the world. Turkey is different from them. The Turkish people made it possible for Islam and modernity to go hand-in-hand in the best possible manner. When you look at the other predominantly Muslim countries, with all due respect to them all, Turkey defines itself by these very important qualities like none other.
Tan on Iran and nuclear weapons
We are against nuclear weapons in our region. I should underline the words ‘in our region’ which includes Iran as well. We don’t want, under any circumstances, any other country having nuclear weapons in our region. This only adds to instability. And we’ve always been in favor of taking the diplomatic course. That’s why we supported the engagement policy of the Obama Administration supported it very strongly. We’re talking to both parties (Iran and P5+1) and trying to bridge the gap and hope they’ll meet again. We are strongly against any military action. That would have disastrous consequences which would complicate the already existing problem.
Tan on the future of Iraq
We are for the territorial integrity of Iraq; it is of the utmost importance. If we have a situation whereby Iraq is divided in parts, in regions then we will face an enormous problem. We have always embraced a very inclusive policy, and we try to reach out to every single group which comprises Iraq; we have good relations with the Kurds of Iraq, we have good relations with the Shias, we have good relations with Sunnis; we have good relations with every single group comprising the Iraqi nation. Iraq is like a small Middle East so I think we should be careful and not be favoring any group over another; we should solidify the Iraqi national identify. We don’t want to see instability; we want a prosperous, stable, peaceful, and integrated Iraq.
Tan on the Israel-Palestinian peace process
We have always been from the very beginning for the two-state solution. We believe Israel should exist in security as an independent state within the internationally recognized borders and there should be a Palestinian state, equally independent. This is the solution; there’s no other solution.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.