We made an interview with Associate Prof. Dr. Serdar Palabıyık, a lecturer of the Department of International Relations. Serdar Palabıyık completed his undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate education at the Department of International Relations, METU. Basically, his works on the History of Ottoman Diplomacy, Turkish Foreign Policy and Critical Geopolitical Theory were published in New Perspectives on Turkey, Bilig, Middle Eastern Studies and Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies as well as similar other periodicals. Associate Prof. Dr. Palabıyık currently works as a lecturer at the Department of International Relations of TOBB ETÜ.

  • Hello Dr. Palabıyık. You are a bright academic, who has attained significant achievements at a fairly young age. We, therefore, would appreciate it if you could tell us about the story of your life in your words. What was the environment, in which you grew up, like? Could you please briefly tell us about your life?

I was born in İnebolu, Kastamonu, and also attended the elementary school there. Then, I won the exam for admittance to the Anatolian High Schools, whereupon my family moved to Ankara. Then, I won the exam for admittance to the Department of International Relations of METU. It was a major, which I wanted very much to study and I enjoyed studying. After graduation, I was an advisor to a member of the parliament for a short while. Then I worked as an expert at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies. Subsequently, a research associate position was opened at METU, and I applied and took the exams, whereupon I started working at METU as a research associate. In the mean time, I got my master's and doctoral degrees. I have been working at th Department of International Relations, TOBB ETÜ since 2010 when I completed by doctoral program studies. In fact, my ambition was to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I chose to study at the Department of International Relations; however, I did internship for a certain period at the Ministry when I was at the 3rd grade, following which I preferred to build a career as an academic and not as a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

  • What were the main reasons for that decision?

Both certain personal reasons and the structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Serving as an ambassador, a career officer is extremely honorable and estimable; however, to be honest, I, being a person of an orderly and regular life, found it challenging to have to spend half of my life in abroad and the other half of it at home on a constant basis. I felt that I would be happier and would feel more fulfilled in an academic career instead of such a life.

  • We all have had to overcome certain challenges throughout our lives. What was the biggest challenge you have had and had to overcome on your way to accomplishing your goals, and how did to overcome such challenge?

I believe the biggest challenged I have encountered was that I was unemployed for a certain period of time following my completion of my undergraduate education, which was a time of uncertainty and a lot of stress for me. I seriously searched for employment at that time. I took exams for admittance to various public entities and institutions. Even though I thought the exams had not passed badly, somehow I was not accepted to any of those positions. In that period, such opportunities as working as an advisor to a member of the parliament and, subsequently, working an expert at the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies appeared before me.  I believe I have taken advantage of them very well. It was very educating for me to see the functioning of the parliament for myself, to meet the parliament members and to see how politics was actually being practiced. I was an advisor to Mr. Onur Öymen, a retired ambassador, who was a fairly experienced diplomat. He was a very knowledgeable person, and I learned a lot from him.  At Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies; I co-worked with valuable people such as the deceased Gündüz Aktan and Ömer Engin Lütem. Those experiences were helpful for me to see what jobs a graduate of the Department of the International Relations could to except for an academic career and to see how I could put my theoretical knowledge to practice.

  • You have conducted studies about the Armenian Deportation and published a book on the subject, which has also been translated to foreign languages. How do you project this question to be evolved in the future? Do you think Turkey can express his argument sufficiently on this matter?

Relatively to the Armenian diaspora, Turkey was extremely late to determine its position as to how the incidents of 1915 should be named. Turkey preferred to think that such a question did not exist. The first noteworthy works on the matter in Turkey except for Tarihte Ermeniler ve Ermeni Meselesi (Armenians and the Armenian Question in History) published by Esat Uras in 1950 started to emerge after the terrorist actions of ASALA in 1980. When ASALA engaged in a series of terrorist actions that led to the assassination of our diplomats; such questions as "What really is the essence of this question, why are our diplomats being assassinated?" started to be asked. Having seen the support of the international public of the time for ASALA or the allegations of Armenian genocide, Turkey also started to author and disseminate publications on the matter. Turkish Historical Society, General Directorate of State Archives and Prof. Dr. Yusuf Sarınay, currently the Dean of our Faculty of Science and Letters, made considerable contributions to this matter. The issue of archive documents and the release of publications on the basis of such documents date to the end of the 80s and the beginning of 90s. Therefore, we were extremely late about taking action on this matter. If we ask about the current position of Turkey, we are still way behind relatively to the Armenian diaspora. A considerable portion of the European Union countries as well as the states in the United States of America have recognized the incidents of 1915 as genocide. On the other hand, those recognitions do not pose any actual legal validity. They are only political resolutions. The Court of First Instance of the European Court of Justice instituted a decision on the matter in 2003. The decision underscores that the recognition of the incidents of 1915 as genocide constitutes a political action, and would not lead to any legal consequences. A similar position is also noted for the decision made by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Perinçek vs. Switzerland. The decision suggests that there is, in fact, not an international consensus on the recognition of the incidents of 1915 as genocide. The decision also underscores that only around twenty five countries recognized such incidents as genocide, and therefore, it could not be concluded that the entire world recognizes the same as such. Therefore, the case of Perinçek is important for emphasizing that the designation or abstention from the designation of the incidents of 1915 as genocide is a political action rather than a legal one.

  • You have also participated in the archive studies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Could you please tell us a bit about your experience there? What did you find the most interesting?

Unfortunately, the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been closed for a long time.  The reason for that is that it could not be classified and adequate funds for such work could not be allocated. In the last few years, a significant budget and human resource have been allocated for such purpose. This archive, which is fairly valuable especially for those, who study in such fields as History and International Relations, has almost entirely been digitalized. Those documents will soon be released to the public for the first time, and a great deal of subjects, about which we currently have limited knowledge, will become clarified instantly. Such release will contribute considerably to our efforts to gain an insight about Turkish Foreign Policy and to comprehend the history of Turkish Foreign Policy. Numerous details about Turkish Foreign Policy will come to light, and many gaps will have been filled. Beside the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I also studied at the Ottoman Archives for a considerable period of time. That also is very educating archive. It has been very well digitalized. A significant portion of that archive has been disclosed to the public recently, and they have been releasing publications, with which I also keep close track. Lastly, I studied at the Historical Archives of the European Union within the organization of European University Institute, located in Florence, Italy. There, I collected the documents related to the first application of Turkey for accession to the European Communities in 1959. An archive study is a fairly educating endeavor. It is somewhat like an archaeological study. It is a very educating experience to actually hold a document that was written in the past in your hand (even though you cannot actually hold them now and only see them on the screen due to digitalization), to see, to feel and actually breathe the air in the room. Also, archives enable many points, which remained so far in the dark, to come to light.

  • Professor; I had learned that a considerable amount of Ottoman archives that concerned Turkey were left in the Balkans. What actions does Turkey take in order for the retrieval of those archive documents? What kind of an interaction is in question?

The original copies of the documents cannot be retrieved, but bilateral agreements are signed with various Balkan countries or various archive institutions. Those agreements are about the exchange of the digital copies of the digitalized documents. For instance; one of the richest Ottoman archives after those held by Turkey are the Bulgarian State Archives, and there is such a cooperation in place with that institution. Cooperations such as that are bilateral interactions, which involve the carriage of the digital copies of the documents held in those archives to Turkey and the carriage of the documents held in Turkey's archives that concern Bulgaria to Bulgaria. Such interaction contributes to the enriching of the archives. There are great deal of documents that concern Turkey not only in the archives of the Balkan countries but also in the archives of Italy, Germany, France and Russia, and they are published in the form of books from time to time. Certainly, those, too, help us majorly with understanding the unknown aspects of both Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish history.

  • I know that you are very fond of reading. Considering that most people do not like reading, could you tell us you have developed that fondness?

For some, it is just a habit made during their childhood. I learned how to read when I was 4-4.5, and I have been reading ever since. I have a great deal of fields of interest, myself. I like reading in any field and not only in the fields of history and international relations. I believe that everything that I read contributes to me, my personality and my knowledge in one way or another. Therefore, I prefer to read in the broadest range of fields possible.

  • Has your family contributed to your developing that habit?

They certainly have contributed a lot. Both my parents are teachers. In fact, my father is a history teacher. Therefore, our house was full of history books, and I would read them all the time. I have always loved reading, and it is never too late to make a habit of it. I mean, certainly, if gained at an early age, the habit of reading contributes to an individual much more relatively, but it is never too late. Also, like I have said, the extent of reading should not be limited only to your own field. Reading in a broad range of fields, you can explore a variety of different worlds, which would enable you to reinforce your comprehension of your main field of specialization. For instance, the subject matter of my doctoral thesis was the travel books of Ottoman travelers. I authored a doctoral thesis in the major of international relations on those literary works. This kind of inter-disciplinary methodology is very important. It is relatively more useful and necessary in such fields as ours. Therefore; if you study international relations, then you should develop a certain level of knowledge in the fields of history, economic, political science and even literature and psychology so that you could establish a rather more holistic analysis. It is, thus, crucial to do comprehensive and regular readings in every field.

  • Professor; every student that starts to study in our department feels under the pressure that s/he needs to speak at least two foreign languages. What is your opinion about this matter?

That is absolutely correct. English has, now, become a somewhat universal lingua franca, and not being able to speak English is a serious problem. It has almost become as if English no longer counts as a foreign language in my opinion. Because, it has become an excessively known language. Of course, the questions how much we really master English and how well we are capable of using it remain open, but being capable of speaking and writing English at, at least, a moderate level is, now, an essential requirement for all of us. For an international relations student, it is crucial to learn the especially language or languages spoken in the region or regions of her/his interest. For instance; if you are interested in Russia, then you should learn Russian, if you are interested in the Middle East, then you should learn at least one of Arabic, Farsi or Hebrew, if you are interested in the Far East, then you should learn Chinese, Japanese and/or Korean, and if you are interested in Europe, you should learn French or German. You do not have to master such second foreign language as much as you master English, and you might not have the time to improve it to such far extent; but it would be extremely useful to be capable of speaking, writing in and understanding it at least at such level that you are able to understand the literature or a television program. Also, this is critically important for your ability to actually keep track with the developments in the world. I find the foreign language education system at our university to be very effective on this matter. On the other hand, you cannot learn a foreign language solely with the efforts of a teacher. You would forget what you learn easily and quickly if you do not make efforts yourself and improve it. The individual herself/himself should also attach the utmost priority and importance to her learning of the second foreign language. Because, the second language is, now, an indispensable requirement. For instance; I know for a fact that, lately, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in serious need for people, who speak French. It is also a fact that people, who speak such other languages as Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic in addition to English are preferred for employment both by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by other entities. Therefore, it is crucial also in the aspect of employment opportunities. 

  • International Relations is a fairly broad discipline. We are supposed to have a considerable amount of knowledge and insight about numerous other fields such as history, diplomacy and economics. What would your recommendations be for the students of our department about this matter?

The students of the department of international relations must read a lot. Reading is the key. And I do not only mean doing readings about international relations but also novels, poetry and other genres of literature. Because, literary works reflect and provide information about the daily life of the society during a certain era For instance; if you are studying Middle East, you must read the works of Amin Maalouf or Zeytindağı by Falih Rıfkı Atay as well as Kahlil Gibran or Naguib Mahfouz so that you can actually comprehend and gain a true insight of that realm. You cannot learn about and comprehend the world only only basis of course books or academic publications. You must also read about it in the novels, and actually breathe that atmosphere. Reading novels, stories and poetry refines your style. It gives you an amazing style in both speaking and writing. And that makes sure that what you write are read more, and what you speak are listened more. Another must for  an international relations student is to keep close track with the current agenda. And s/he should keep track with the current agenda not only through Turkish press but also through the international press. Because, one of the most crucial mistake that international relations students and historians make is that the historians tend to disregard the present while the students of international relations tend to disregard the past. However; there is an awesome continuity between the past and the present. Therefore; a historian's studies can only be brought to perfection if that historian is also well-knowledgeable about the present, and the studies of a student of international relations can only be brought to perfection if s/he is well-knowledgeable about the past. Thus, a student of the international should strictly both keep close track with the current developments and be knowledgeable about the past so that s/he can identify and monitor the continuities and changes between those two periods. One can only understand the events that are spread on a long period of time and develop rather sounder analyses about the future if s/he is thoroughly knowledgeable about the past and the present.

  • Would you like to add anything else, Professor?

I must note that one should not limit her/his perspective to merely the international relations or history. I believe that, irrespectively of what discipline s/he may be studying or working in, each and every individual, who lives in Turkey, should make themselves knowledgeable about at least the basics of Turkish history, Turkish Foreign Policy and the cultural and social order in Turkey and even in the world. My point being, it is no longer right and appropriate in our time to have such thoughts as "I am a physician, and so I am interested only in medicine" or "I am an engineer, and so I am interested only in the field of engineering". It is crucial that each individual should consider that knowledge as a part of general culture, and invest in themselves accordingly. Not only the people, who study and work in disciplines such as ours, but also each and every individual must know about Turkish history, Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish political and social life as well as the developments and events that have been taking place in the world, and must keep track with the current agenda. Therefore, it would be useful for all our students to pay attention to that. In fact, we are, as well, still students, ourselves. Whenever one thinks s/he has done enough and accomplished what s/he needs to accomplish, and s/he no longer needs to learn anything further; s/he would immediately start to turn obsolete. We, therefore, need to refresh and renew ourselves constantly. My point is that your work is not done when you graduate and find employment. As long as you fail to refresh and renew yourself, you will inevitably go obsolete and then fail. Therefore, we should continue refreshing and renewing ourselves also after we graduate from the university.

Interview Credit: Merve Seçgin - Department of International Relations

Photo Credit: Şule Demir – Department of Psychology