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Turkish Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice

In this essay, I analyze contemporary Turkish foreign policy (TFP) according to three major perspectives in international relations theory: realism, liberalism and identity. I focus on TFP after 2002, because 2002 represents a turning point when AKP (Justice and Development Party) came into power and subsequently shaped the contemporary Turkish perspective on international relations. It is obvious that Turkey’s leaders have realized the benefits of abandoning static policies of the Cold War era, and are adapting to the dynamic conditions of the today’s international environment. This changing attitude forces us to redefine the old conceptions and understandings about Turkish Foreign Policy. A submissive ally of the Western World is now making more versatile foreign policy choices. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister of Turkey and the architect of the new Turkish foreign policy, writes that “ there are two types different foreign policy behavior for Turkey in the contemporary world, one of them is the pro-active attitude of saying I am here for solutions, the other is the passive attitude of saying I am not here in crises.”[1] According to Davutoglu, Turkey should adapt to the first foreign policy behavior for the interest of its own and the world. TFP gives alternative solutions from another world view, and the world needs alternative approaches for some international conflicts. In some conflict areas that Turkey is primarily affected, the alternative solutions of Turkish foreign policies should at least be recognized. I think the best example for this situation can be Iranian nuclear crises and the role of Turkey in devising an alternative solution. In addition to this change in foreign policy, Turkey ‘s economic strength is also growing. Turkey is the sixteenth biggest economy now,[2] and according to Jack Goldstone it will be one of the six countries that will shape the world economy in 2050.[3]

Turkey is located between three conflict ridden areas, Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East. In addition, Turkey affects the regions of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf by its foreign policies. Turkey has the longest Black Sea coast line, is an important Levant country, and is very close the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. These sea routes increase the importance of Turkey and TFP. These geographical significances make TFP valuable to analyze.

Turkey’s historical background makes Turkey and Turkish Foreign Policy important not just for the region but also for the world. When we look at Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization theory, we see the future of the world in polarization between cultures and this polarization creates conflicts in the world.[4] The countries like Turkey can change this assumption because they have a heritage of harmony between different cultures. Turkey is located between Western World, Orthodox World and Islamic World; and culturally related to all of them. For example, the center of the Orthodox World is located in Istanbul. On the other hand Turkey is a member of NATO, one of the most important institutions of Western World. Moreover, Turkey is a Muslim nation. Turkey has an Ottoman heritage that convened different cultures under one political entity. This heritage helps Turkey understand different cultures. It can look at the West from the East, and the East from the West; and I think this uniqueness can resolve some of the issues in the world if TFP can successfully project this historical background. One example is the Alliance of Civilizations Initiative initiated by Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. This initiative refutes Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. Mission statement of the initiative defines its aim “to help counter the forces that fuel polarization and extremism”;[5] the mission of the initiative clearly asserts a different future from Huntington’s assertion.

Turkish Foreign Policy from Realist Perspective

I analyze the realist perspective on TFP in three parts. First, from a realist perspective, which defines power as the cornerstone of international relations, Turkey is recognized as a regional power; and some scholars interpret the new Turkish foreign policy as aspiring to become a global power.Second, I analyze the term “anarchy” and how Turkish policymakers conceive the world according to this perspective. And finally I analyze Turkey’s alliances in the contemporary world and explain the realist view would interpret these alliances.

Realists see power one of the most important element in the realm of international relations. When you look at Turkey, it is not too difficult to say that Turkey is a regional power; in addition, the top officials like Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey, says Turkey wants and has ability to become a global power.[6] A quick analysis of the Turkish defense industry in recent years gives some clues about Turkey’s aspiration to become a powerful actor in the international area. For example the engine of the new version of F-135 jets will be produced in Turkey. The defense minister of Turkey, Vecdi Gonul, says this is an indicator that Turkey is going beyond its border and becoming a global player.[7] Moreover, the first nationalist armor plate, laser system that protects from biological and chemical air-attacks, helicopters, jets without humans and etc. are already produced or projected to begin 2010.

Additionally, the worldview of Turkish policymakers carries some realist perspectives such as seeing world order as anarchy. “Anarchy” in international affairs symbolizes that there is not a central power to control or shape the world order in the contemporary world, so every state should provide its own protection because every state has a danger to be succumbed.[8]

Ahmet Davutoglu’s book, Strategic Depth, has some indicators that he supports a realist view. The Foreign Minister of Turkey likens the structure of world to a chess game. He says in this game there are either players or chess pieces; and not all pieces are king; there are also pawns, rooks, nights and bishops. The players of the game have different capacity to affect the result of the game.[9] Accordingly, he mentions that there are four types of states, superpowers, big states, regional powers and small states, and there is a constant struggle between these states.[10] Some countries struggle to change its position; some others struggle to survive within this competition. This view definitely fits the term of anarchy, one of the fundamental terms of realist perspective. Moreover, Davutoglu defines power vi-a-vis economic, military and technologic capacity as realists do. He certainly emphasizes power as a decisive element of international relations.

I should note that even though we can find some clues from the speeches or the books of influential people in Turkey, it is not fair to say that realist view is the most effective view in explaining Turkish foreign policy. Even though the policy makers use the realist terms to define the contemporary situation of the world, they rely on liberal terms like institutions, reciprocity, interdependence, diplomacy and etc. for solutions. I think that Turkish policy makers realize that the international world has been shaped by realist terms. On the other hand, they are uncomfortable with this world order.

Maybe, the most controversial aspect of contemporary Turkish Foreign Policy is Turkey’s alliances. The realists argue that there should not be permanent allies for a country because the alliances are based on benefits and interests; it is obvious that there aren’t permanent benefits or interest between two countries, so the alliances cannot be permanent. Until recently the West was the only ally of the Republic of Turkey. In the bipolar world system, Turkey has a stable position in the international arena, but Turkey sees that the world is changing and the new world system carries some alternative options for the countries like Turkey. In the contemporary world the only ally of Turkey cannot be West. Turkey also has good relations with Middle Eastern countries, Russia and China. For instance, Turkey had been a loyal ally of the United States before the Iraqi War; however, Turkey did not support the United States in the Iraq War. And after Iraqi War Turkey has made its own decisions even if it conflicts with its most important ally, the United States.  The most recent example is Turkey’s vote on Iran nuclear issue at UN in opposition to the United States.

Turkish Foreign Policy from Liberal Perspective

Turkey uses diplomacy and encourages other states to do same in order to resolve the issues. Additionally, Turkey believes in the importance of reciprocity and interdependence to have better relationships. Diplomacy forms an important part of contemporary Turkish foreign policy. I will talk about two obvious examples to understand the importance of diplomacy for contemporary TFP. The first is Turkish-Armenian relations. The relationship between Turkey and Armenia has always been overshadowed by the alleged Armenian genocide of 1915. After the Armenian attack to Azerbaijan in 1993, Turkey closed its borders and transportation lines to Armenia. The incident also damaged the plans to build diplomatic ties.[11] However, the process that started with Abdullah Gul’s visit to Armenia to watch the soccer game between two neighboring countries opened a new line for the relations. Low level diplomatic relations have started and two important protocols, “Establishment of Diplomatic Relations” and “Development of Bilateral Relations”, were signed between the countries on 10 October 2009 in Switzerland.[12] Moreover, a 10th century church that is historically important for Armenians renovated and reopened in Van, a Turkish province, in 2010 to show Turkey’s goodwill. Even though there are some ongoing issues like Nagorno-Karabakh or the alleged genocide issue, the increasing relationship between the states, albeit slowly, are significant to prove the role of diplomacy in contemporary TFP.

Turkey also encourages the others states to use diplomacy. Indeed the policy makers realize the disputes hurt both sides and create an unstable region.  Turkey wants to create a zone of peace, prosperity and stability in the region;[13] and so encourages the other states to contribute to the stability of the region.  A good example is the relations between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey’s contribution to this relationship. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced an exhausting war in the 90s, of which wounds will certainly not heal easily, but Turkey helps to normalize relationship between the two states. First, Turkish, Serbian and Bosnian officials organized multiple meetings. After these meetings, Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, Serbian president, Boris Tadic, and Bosnian president, Haris Slajdzic, came together in Istanbul on April 24, 2010. In this meeting the sides declared their readiness to work towards “peace, prosperity and stability in Balkans”.[14] Then the prime minister of Turkey joined the ceremony of the 15thanniversary of the Srebrenica genocide with the president of Bosnia and Serbia in Srebrenica. The event was very meaningful for both sides. It is obvious that the mediation of Turkey that advocates the importance of stability in the region “contributed to fresh advanced in Serbia’s relations with Bosnia”.[15] And the example also is a good indicator to prove the significance of diplomacy for solution according to Turkish policymakers.

Diplomacy, reciprocity and interdependence underlie the most effective foreign policy doctrine of Turkey, “zero problems with neighbors”[16]. The significance of reciprocity and interdependence is clearly seen in the relationship between Turkey and Syria. Turkey had almost always had sour relations with Syria before the 2000s. The PKK terror issue, the water issue and the border, Hatay, dispute had deteriorated relations between two neighboring countries. They even came close to war in 1998. But, in the 21st century first the diplomacy then interdependence has increased between states. Now the relationship between Syria and Turkey seems to a model relation in the region. For instance with the effects of free trade agreement in 2007 between the states, the trade with Syria increased from 797 million USD in 2006 to 1,2 billion USD in 2007. Turkey and Syria have common projects on culture, tourism, security, customs, transportation and agriculture; additionally the visa requirements were lifted between two states. According to Ozlem Tur, a professor in the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, “Turkish-Syrian relations have reached unprecedented levels in a decade time”.[17] It is apparent that the improvements make the countries interdependent economically and culturally, and Turkey wants to live the advantage of this interdependence in its relationship.

The Turkish government also emphasizes the importance of international organizations like European Union, United Nation, Organization of the Islamic Conference and NATO. The actions of Turkey after the flotilla crisis with Israel indicate Turkey’s willingness to resort to international decision-making mechanisms. Turkey demanded an immediate meeting in the UN after flotilla crisis. The UN meeting organized just one day after the event. Turkey was experiencing an extremely serious issue, and it sees the UN as the place for solution.  

Turkish Foreign Policy from Identity Perspective

Some scholars argue that Islam or Islamism is the fundamental idea behind the new TFP. They assert the ruling party has an Islamist agenda because the influential people of the party embraced Islamism before. Therefore, the agenda did not change; just now it is presented in a different form. This argument derives from the fact that Welfare Party (RP) that is closed due to anti-secular acts after the military intervention of 28 February 1997, and most founding members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) mostly came from RP. For example, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a member of RP and the mayor of Istanbul, and he served 6 months in prison because of a poem he read which included anti-secular sentiments.

Despite the past relations of AKP leaders, I believe that Islam does not play a decisive role in TFP. Turkey is not only strengthening relations with Iran, Syria, and Iraq, but also with its other neighbors like Greece and Armenia. Moreover, as Turkey wants to consolidate its relationship with Organization of the Islamic Conference, it also wants to consolidate its relationship with European Union, or wants to be more influential in the United Nations. Even the number of the formal visits of the Turkish foreign minister gives us some clue to disprove the statement. The foreign minister of Turkey made 93 formal visits abroad in 2009. 47 of these visits were made to European countries, 15 to Asia, 22 to Middle East, and 9 to the United States.[18] I think this example clearly indicator refutes that Islam is a major drive of Turkish Foreign Policy.

Conclusion

In this essay I analyzed contemporary Turkish foreign policy from different perspectives of international relation; realism, liberalism and identity perspectives. In conclusion, Turkish policymakers realize that the contemporary world order is shaped by realist terms, but they use liberal terms to solve the problems of Turkey and the problems in the region they live. In addition, it is not fair to say that Islam is major drive for TFP in the realm of international politics.

Author: FEVZI SARAC (Graduate Student of Political Science at Long Island University, fevzisarac@gmail.com

Presented at the Conference on Turkish & Eurasian Affairs, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, 23 November 2010. )

[1] A. Davutoglu, “StratejikDerinlik, Turkiye’ninUluslararasiKonumu”, Kure Yayinlari, Istanbul 2010, page33

[2] www.imf.org, World Economic Outlook Database, International Money Fund, Data for 2009

[3] 17 August 2010, Zaman Newspaper, page 19

[4] S. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”, Simon & Schuster, New York 1996

[5] http://www.unaoc.org/content/view/39/187/lang,english/

[6] Mark Landler, “At the UN, Turkey Assert Itself in Prominent Ways”, New York Times, 22 September 2010

[7] Arif Bayraktar,” F135’in Motoru “Kale” Gibi Olacak”, Zaman Newspaper, 17 September 2010

[8] Henry R. Nau, “Perspectives on International Relations”, 2nd edition, CQ Press, 2009, Washington DC, page 28-29

[9] Ahmet Davutoglu, “Stratejik Derinlik”, 50. Baski, Kure Yayinlari, June 2010, Istanbul, page 33-34

[10] Davutoglu, page 76

[11] International Crises Group, “Turkey and Armenia: Opening Minds, Opening Borders”, Europe Repot N°199, 14 April 2009, page 2

[12] The website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, www.mfa.gov.tr

[13] Raghida Dergham, “Interview with Foreign Minister of Turkey: Ahmet Davutoglu” , Dar Al Hayat, 28 September 2010

[14] Helsinki Bulletin, ”Turkey: A Factor of Regional Stability”, issue 64/2010, page 1-5

[15] Helsinki Bulletin page 1

[16] The website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, www.mfa.gov.tr

[17] Ozlem Tur, “Turkish-Syrian Realtionships – Where Are We Going?”, UNISCI Discussion Papers, N°23, May 2010

[18] Mesut Ceviklap, “Pro-aktif Turkiye, Arap Dunyasinin Yeni Rol Modeli”, Aksiyon, 01 April 2010

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