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What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy? I

Changes in Turkey

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) was reelected to a third term in June 2011. This remarkable achievement was mainly the result of the opposition’s weakness and the rapid economic growth that has made Turkey the world’s sixteenth largest economy. But Ankara’s growing international profile also played a role in the continued public support for the conservative, Islamist party. Indeed, in a highly unusual fashion, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his victory speech by saluting “friendly and brotherly nations from Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Cairo, Sarajevo, Baku, and Nicosia.”[1] “The Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans have won as much as Turkey,” he claimed, pledging to take on an even greater role in regional and international affairs. By 2023, the republic’s centennial, the AKP has promised that Turkey will be among the world’s ten leading powers.

At the same time, Turkey’s growing profile has been controversial. As Ankara developed increasingly warm ties with rogue states such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan while curtailing its once cordial relations with Israel and using stronger rhetoric against the United States and Europe, it generated often heated debates on whether it has distanced itself from the West. Turkey continues to function within the European security infrastructure—although more uneasily than before—but has a rupture with the West already taken place, and if so, is it irreversible?

AKP Changes Focus from West to East

The basic tenets that guided Turkey’s foreign policy since the founding of the republic included caution and pragmatism—especially concerning the Middle East. An imperial hangover from the Ottoman era drove home the lesson that Ankara had little to gain and much to lose from interjecting itself into the acrimonious politics of the region. Notwithstanding occasional differences with the Western powers, Ankara concentrated on playing a role within Europe.

The AKP appeared to maintain this course during its first term (2002-07) as seen in its focus on EU harmonization as a means to join the union. But in its second term (2007-11) it departed significantly from this approach. Guided by the concept of “strategic depth” elaborated by Erdoğan’s long-term advisor-turned-foreign-minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Ankara increasingly focused on its neighborhood with the stated goal of becoming a dominant and stabilizing force, one that would function as an honest broker and project its economic clout throughout the region and beyond.[2]

The official slogan, which could be called the Davutoğlu doctrine, was “zero problems with neighbors.” Ankara rapidly developed relations with the Syrian government to the level of a strategic partnership; Turkish officials also began cultivating closer economic and political ties with the Iranian and Russian governments, both large energy providers to the growing Turkish economy. It also reached out to the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq, a previously unthinkable move. In another bold but ultimately failed move, the AKP leadership sought to mend fences with Armenia; its predecessors had never established diplomatic relations with Yerevan due to its occupation since the early 1990s of a sixth of Turkic Azerbaijan’s territory, including the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.

These moves were generally welcomed in the West. Critics in Washington deplored Ankara’s overtures to Tehran and Damascus, but the incoming Obama administration went on to develop rather similar outreach policies of its own. The AKP argued that it could function as an interlocutor with these regimes on Turkey’s border with which Brussels and Washington had only limited ties and that a more active Turkey would also benefit the West. Ankara’s eagerness to mediate in regional conflicts also brought goodwill. The Turkish government offered its good offices in bridging differences between Syria and Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and between the rival Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas. Western leaders generally gave the AKP the benefit of the doubt as it assured them that its outreach could help moderate rogues and bring them within the international system.

An Axis Shift

Yet Ankara’s actual course soon began to deviate substantially from its official narrative. Three issues in particular have generated concern about the AKP’s foreign policy intentions: Iran, Israel, and Sudan—and more recently, renewed belligerence on Cyprus.

Ankara’s policy of engagement with Tehran was welcomed as long as it was influencing the Iranians, rather than the other way around. But Erdoğan and his associates soon began to move away from the stated objective of acting as a mediator between Iran and the West, becoming increasingly outspoken defenders of Tehran’s nuclear program. In November 2008, Erdoğan urged nuclear weapons powers to abolish their own arsenals before meddling with Iran.[3] Soon afterwards he termed Ahmadinejad a “friend”[4] and was among the first to lend legitimacy to the Iranian president by congratulating him upon his fraudulent and bloodstained election in June 2009.[5] Turkish leaders then began to publicly juxtapose the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons with Iran’s covert program,[6]and in November 2009, abstained from a sanctions resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Tehran that both Moscow and Beijing supported.[7] In May 2010, in a display of defiance, Erdoğan and Brazilian president Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva made a well-publicized appearance in Tehran on the eve of a U.N. Security Council vote on a new round of sanctions on Iran, holding hands with Ahmadinejad and announcing their alternative diplomatic proposal to handle the Iranian nuclear issue.[8] In the scope of two years, Ankara had become Tehran’s most valuable international supporter.

The breakdown of Turkey’s alliance with Israel is another cause of concern. The AKP at first sought to mediate between Syria and Israel as well as between the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and the Islamist Hamas.[9] Yet in 2007, following Hamas’s violent takeover in the Gaza Strip, Ankara broke the Western boycott of the movement when it invited Hamas leader Khaled Mesh’al to Ankara.[10] Following Israel’s offensive against Hamas in December 2008-January 2009, Ankara became the chief castigator of Israel in international forums.[11] In January 2009, Erdoğan famously walked out of an event at the Davos World Economic Forum after starting a shouting match with Israeli president Shimon Peres; Turkey subsequently disinvited Israel from planned joint military exercises under the NATO aegis.[12] By the spring of 2010, a nongovernmental organization closely connected to the AKP, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, designed and implemented the notorious Gaza flotilla[13] aimed at putting Israel in an untenable position regarding its blockade of the Hamas-controlled territory. When eight Turkish citizens were killed in fierce clashes with Israeli commandos boarding the ship, Davutoğlu called the event “Turkey’s 9/11,”[14] and a series of Turkish leaders threatened to cut off diplomatic relations with Israel while Erdoğan stated in no uncertain terms that he did not consider Hamas a terrorist organization.[15] Ankara later downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary.

More worrisome is Erdoğan’s military posturing, including threats of confrontation with Israel. In September 2011, he argued that Turkey would have been justified in going to war with Israel following the Gaza flotilla incident.[16] In addition, the Turkish navy was ordered to “ensure freedom of navigation” in the eastern Mediterranean, including supporting the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza—raising the danger of a direct confrontation with the Israeli navy upholding the blockade on Gaza, which a U.N. inquiry commission has deemed to be legal.[17] Moreover, the Turkish air force has begun installing a new identification friend or foe (IFF) system on its F-16s, replacing the built-in system that automatically designated Israeli jets or ships as friendly thereby preventing armed clashes between the Turkish and Israeli forces. The new system produced by the Turkish company Aselsan does not automatically designate Israeli ships or jets as friendly and will supposedly be deployed across the Turkish armed forces.[18]

Ankara has repeatedly referred to Sudan as its main “partner in Africa” though it is far from being Turkey’s largest trade partner on the continent.[19] Ignoring the growing international outrage over crimes against humanity committed by Khartoum-aligned militia groups in Darfur, Erdoğan voiced support for President Omar Bashir during a 2006 visit, stating he saw no signs of a genocide.[20] The Sudanese president was invited twice to Turkey in 2008, and by 2009, Erdoğan publicly argued that Israel’s actions in Gaza were worse than whatever had happened in Darfur[21]—a mind-boggling assertion given that the Gaza fighting claimed about 1,200 lives, an estimated 700 of whom were Hamas terrorists[22] while in Darfur over 300,000 people have perished. The progression of Turkish policies in all three cases suggests a move from an honest broker and regional peacemaker toward siding with one of the parties involved—the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas in the Hamas-Fatah relationship, and Iran and Sudan in their confrontations with the West.

Early in its tenure, the AKP proved willing to agree to far-reaching concessions on the Cyprus dispute—so much so that it provoked the ire of the Turkish general staff. But lately, Erdoğan has reacted harshly to the Cypriot government’s decision to develop natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, threatening to send in the Turkish navy and air force to the area to “monitor developments.”[23] In so doing, Erdoğan seemed oblivious to the implications that a military dispute with an EU member would have on Turkey’s relations with Brussels.

The distancing from the West has led Ankara closer to both Moscow and Beijing—culminating in Turkey’s joint military maneuvers with China in October 2010, the first such with any NATO country—in what has been described by AKP critics as an “axis shift.”

A Center of World Politics?

A number of factors have been cited to explain the shift in Turkish foreign policy. While Ankara has undergone tremendous domestic change in the past decade, an arguably more significant shift is Turkey’s emergence as an economic power. Since 1990, Turkey’s gross domestic product has quadrupled, exports have grown by a factor of five, foreign direct investment by a factor of 25, and the value of traded stocks by a factor of 40. While economists have increasingly begun to issue warning flags regarding Turkey’s current accounts deficit and risks of overheating, such concerns have yet to translate into the political field. It is only natural that Turkey’s newly found economic clout would translate into more self-confidence on the international scene. Ankara’s “rediscovery” of the Middle East is part and parcel of this: Turkish exports are looking for new markets, and hordes of businessmen regularly accompany Turkish leaders on their numerous visits to Middle Eastern states. Given the close ties between politics and business in the region, closer political ties provide Turkish businessmen with preferential treatment. In Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, the dynamic is inverted: The growing presence of Turkish businesses there after 2003 helped open the way for a political rapprochement with the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil.

Secondly, alleged Western mistakes are often viewed as an important factor in this transformation—including the view of former U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates who blamed the EU’s cold shouldering of Turkey for the country’s “drift.”[24] While Ankara sided with Western states in major foreign policy issues in the past, this relationship was based on perceived reciprocity. However, since Turkey began negotiating for EU accession in 2005, opposition to Turkish membership not only grew in Europe but became ever more clearly articulated in terms of Ankara’s cultural identity: Was Turkey in fact European at all? Overt calls by French and German politicians against Turkish accession had a profound impact in Ankara where politicians of all stripes denounced this stance. Most Turks now believe that Ankara will never join the EU, and internal support for membership has dwindled. Europe’s alienation from Turkey has clearly had foreign policy implications.

Meanwhile, ties with Washington suffered primarily as a result of differences over Iraq. Turkey’s involvement was crucial to the 1991 Kuwait war, but Ankara was left dissatisfied by the war’s outcome—chiefly due to the significant damage to Turkey’s economy that Washington did little to soften, and the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. The events since 2003 saw a rapid deterioration of relations as the war in Iraq indirectly led to the resurgence of Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK) terrorism in Turkey. Until 2007, the U.S. administration failed either to exercise sufficient influence on its Kurdish allies in northern Iraq to rein in the PKK or to allow Turkey to raid PKK bases inside Iraq.[25] This generated substantial resentment across Turkey’s political spectrum.

To be sure, some of the differences that have arisen with the West may well be attributed to Ankara’s resurgent self-confidence, or what one observer termed “Turkish Gaullism”—a Turkey that is “more nationalist, self-confident and defiant.”[26] The new self-confidence is explicit: Foreign Minister Davutoğlu often laments the trepidation and lack of self-confidence of previous governments, implying that a Turkey at ease with its identity and history can play a great role in the region and beyond—one that is not locked into the one-dimensional focus on Western alliances but rather appreciates the “strategic depth” that Turkey had in the former Ottoman lands. In a 2009 speech in Sarajevo, Davutoğlu laid out Ankara’s ambition: “We will reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus … together with Turkey as the center of world politics in the future.”[27]

The Role of Ideology

Much as the AKP rejects any definition of itself as “Islamist” because it rejects the term as such,[28] it equally opposes the idea that its foreign policy is ideologically grounded, or that it is distancing itself from the West at all. In a 2010 interview, for example, President Abdullah Gül rejected any notion that Ankara had turned its back on the West. Turkey “was now a big economic power that had embraced democracy, human rights, and the free market.” It had become a “source of inspiration” in the region, he said. “The U.S. and Europe should welcome its growing engagement in the Middle East because it [is] promoting Western values in a region largely governed by authoritarian regimes.”[29] Such assertions notwithstanding, the growing tendency of Turkey’s policies to go from mediating to taking sides—and to consistently side with Islamist causes—underscores the question of whether ideological factors are indeed at play.

The question is particularly relevant given the AKP’s roots in a strongly ideological milieu: the Turkish Islamism of the Milli Görüş school, dominated by the orthodox Naqshbandiya order.[30] The Naqshbandiya has been the hotbed of Islamist reaction to westernizing reforms since the mid-nineteenth century, thus predating the creation of the republic. The Milli Görüş movement was its political vehicle, which mushroomed at first in Germany among expatriate Turks before becoming a force in Turkish politics in the late 1960s. During a brief stint in power from 1996-97, leading figures in the Turkish Islamist movement had called for the introduction of Shari’a and pursued a foreign policy that sought to distance Turkey from the “imperialist” West.[31] The founders of the AKP publicly broke with that movement in 2001 in the aftermath of the military’s shutting down the main Islamist Fazilet party. The “young reformers” led by Gül and Erdoğan openly repudiated Islamism, emphasized their commitment to democracy, cultivated an alliance with the Turkish liberal elite, and sought to have the new party accepted as a mainstream conservative force by performing an 180-degree turn in embracing both the market economy and Turkey’s EU membership aspirations.[32]

This ideological transformation was quite abrupt and top-down but while the AKP largely stayed true to such democratic rhetoric during its first term in office, it is striking to what extent its consolidation of power since 2007 has been followed by a growth of authoritarian tendencies at home and a distancing from the West in foreign policy.

Statements suggestive of reassertion of Islamist ideology are plentiful. Addressing a crowd of 16,000 Turks in the German city of Cologne in 2008, Erdoğan equated the assimilation of Turks, urged by German politicians, to “a crime against humanity.”[33] In reference to Sudanese leader Bashir, he stated in 2009 that “a Muslim cannot commit genocide.”[34] At the same time, the prime minister’s statements on Israel show not only a growing antipathy toward the Jewish state but are strikingly evocative of the anti-Semitic tendencies pervading Islamist movements across the world. Thus, in 2009 he blamed “Jewish-backed media” for allegedly spreading lies about the Gaza war. Similarly, when the Economist endorsed the Turkish opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the June 2011 elections, Erdoğan accused it of working on behalf of Israeli interests, castigated the CHP’s leader for being an Israeli tool, and expressed regret over the fact that the CHP, under Turkey’s second president Ismet Inönü, had recognized the State of Israel,[35] alluding also to a growing perception “equating the star of Zion with the swastika.”[36]

Many of Erdoğan’s most combative statements have occurred during electoral campaigns and could be interpreted as electoral populism. Nevertheless, given his dominance of the Turkish political scene, these stated views should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, the formulation and conduct of Turkish foreign policy has in the past several years been dominated by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, who is widely considered the architect of the AKP’s foreign policy and a major influence on Erdoğan’s views. With a long academic career preceding his ascent to political fame, Davutoğlu has left a substantial trail of published work that provides ample insights into his worldview.

Author: Svante E. Cornell

Middle East Quarterly, Wınter 2012 • Volume XIX: Number 1, pp. 13-24


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