Turkey's Foreign Policy In The 21st Century
By Jon Kofas
21 December, 2014
Turkey’s Foreign Policy Contradictions
The end of the Cold War and the new US war on “Islamic terror” has influenced the foreign policy of Turkey, almost as much as the power vacuum created by the US military intervention in Iraq. Furthermore, Iran’s isolation by the West since 1979, the Arab Spring movements and their failure to produce democratic institutions during this decade, and Russia’s attempts to become a stronger Eurasian regional power have also played a role in shaping Turkey’s foreign policy along with the enormous growth of the economy currently among the G-20 group.
Within the Western alliance system where it belongs as a NATO member and candidate for EU membership, Turkey has tried to manipulate events to retain preeminent regional influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and among Islamic countries, but often without much success at all. Having presented itself as the “balancing regional power” between East and West, Turkey continues to project itself as such. Even former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is convinced of its role as an intermediary regional force that the West needs.
The question is the degree to which Turkey is domestically stable, democratic and observing human rights, and to what degree is it a catalyst to regional stability or an agent of promoting regional chaos. In my view there are complex answers to the dynamics of Turkey’s foreign policy, and one cannot simply assume that Turkey is either the regional “balancing power” in the East-West power struggle for economic and geopolitical hegemony or that it is a force of instability. Even more important for the future of its people, there are questions about Turkey’s geopolitical role intended to serve broad popular interests or does it only serve the narrow ones of multinational corporations and the politically-entrenched domestic elites surrounding the utterly corrupt Erdogan regime based on a clientist system.
The Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party that has ruled since 2003 have tried to change both domestic policies and foreign policy, reverting to the Ottoman Empire as a model. Is it possible for a 16th century feudal model to have any relevance or a realistic chance of applicability in the 21st century as the Justice and Development Party assume? Can the ruling party rule as though there is a homogeneous popular base behind it when the country is diverse with a rapidly developing Westernized middle class, a large Kurdish minority and a substantial segment of poor devout followers of Islam? Reflecting Western and Middle Eastern influences, Turkish identity ranges from secular and Islamic nationalism, to secular and Islamic liberal and leftist ideological trends concentrated mainly in along the urban areas, especially Istanbul and the western coast.
The clash of the disparate ideological forces, a clash that has been around since the 1920s during secular Western reformist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, combined with entrenched interests in the military, police, and bureaucracy, as well as state-linked business interests often connected to the military, account for some of the incoherent and contradictory aspects of Turkish foreign policy. Of course, the billionaire/spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen and his movement constitute a major force, although he collaborates with other domestic and foreign interests against the Erdogan regime. As we will see below, the power struggle between disparate interest groups trying to exert domestic and foreign policy influence to benefit politically and economically from public contracts at home and abroad play a major role in pulling Turkey’s policy in different directions.
Many analysts argue that the cult of personality that current president and former premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been cultivating among Muslims throughout the Middle East and in the Turkish provinces as a way of breaking the long-standing Kemalist institutional dominance has been the driving force behind Turkey’s foreign policy. Revelations about his opulent lifestyle and web of corruption are out in the open and it is difficult for Erdogan to conceal his greed and hunger for power at just about any cost. Equally difficult for the regime, Ankara cannot pretend to embrace the cause of the Palestinians and Muslim masses, considering Turkish covert support for Jihadist rebels in Syria and Iraq while at the same time collaborating with the US to undermine certain Arab regimes as was the case in Libya and Syria.
Clearly, structural forces within the country, regionally and globally, especially with China playing a major role in Asian developments have determined the direction of Turkish foreign policy that may often seem directionless if not risky or even reckless. Although the Justice and Development Party tried to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire, as Erdogan, and Ahmet Davutolgu, former foreign minister and current prime minister, see it, in 2014 the dreams of Ottoman glory have proved the illusions of the early Erdogan administration fading fast amid Turkey’s regional isolation and incoherent foreign policy.
As far as the Erdogan-Davutoglu Justice and Development Party regime is concerned, Turkish foreign policy is cohesive and the goal remains to revive the glory of Turkey as it once was under Suleiman the Magnificent. After all, despite periodic mass protests confined to Istanbul and major cities, despite outcries about human rights violations and the occasional trouble with the Kurdish minority now involved in a struggle against the ISIS Jihadists, Turkey is more stable and more democratic than the rest of the Middle East that suffers from internal turmoil, absence of electoral system Turkey enjoys, and almost perpetual foreign interference in its internal affairs. Nevertheless, glaring foreign policy contradictions reveal a very troubled and isolated Turkey that has gone as far as to try rebuilding its strained relationship with beleaguered Putin’s Russia caught in a renewed Cold War that the US-EU allies launched in 2014.
The Persistent Illusion of Restoring Ottoman Glory
All political leaders with boundless ambition and a taste of ephemeral power have experienced the trap of grandeur. A man who came from a poor background and rose to riches and power through the political process, Erdogan is hardly an exception and in this respect he has a lot in common with Vladimir Putin. Turkey under Erdogan went from trying to achieve the dream of restoring the greatness once enjoyed under the Sultans in the 16th century (Suleiman I the Magnificent) to the nightmare of regional and international isolation. This has been a consequence not only of illusions turned into nightmares but of a series of policies in the last four years related both to domestic developments, a rapidly changing regional balance of power, and renewed diplomatic and economic confrontation between the West and Russia.
On 14 November 2014, Hurriyet Daily News (English language edition), published an article about the shifting trend in Turkish foreign policy. According to a new study by a Finnish research group, Ankara’s shift from the West to a Eurasian-Middle Eastern orientation has EU and US leaders confused about where Turkey is headed, East West, both, neither, and exactly what is it trying to achieve. Although some argue that Turkey has changed directions because it is merely responding to changing conditions in the Middle East and Asia more broadly, I believe that Turkey has learned hard lessons during the early Cold War about not putting all of its eggs in one basket when it comes under fire from its own allies, and instead carving out a more multidimensional foreign policy until its allies realize how much they need Turkey.
This does not explain its recent contradictory foreign policy that has many analysts wondering what Ankara is trying to achieve. Nevertheless, the contradictory and multidimensional nature of its foreign policy has the West reexamining how far it can push Ankara into conformity. This is especially after a recent meeting between Erdogan and Putin. As Pope Francis was completing his trip to Istanbul at the end of November 2014, Putin was arriving with an entourage of officials to ameliorate relations with Turkey in the commercial front and to discuss regional security issues that range from Syria to Ukraine. It was a highly symbolic move for a NATO member to be pledging neutrality in the new US-EU vs. Russia confrontation. Nevertheless, Turkey had no choice amid an increasingly isolated role in which it finds itself vs. the enormous economic benefits of closer economic ties with Russia. Even if Russia is leverage for Ankara’s negotiations with the EU and US, then the move proved very clever and logical.
Besides abandoning the South Stream gas pipeline that would provide energy for Europe, Putin focused on creating new trade links with Turkey that includes energy once intended for Europe. Primarily for geopolitical reasons, both Turkey and Russia have been experiencing strained relations with the EU and US, but for different reasons. To offset its relative isolation from the West, Turkey as Russia’s second biggest trading partner agreed to raise trade volume to $100 billion by 2020 or triple from the current figure. Perhaps this was all hype, but symbolically it sent the message to the West that Erdogan and Putin wanted. Besides having major benefits from Russian tourism and benefiting from the Russian boycott of EU products, Turkey also benefits from discounted gas prices Moscow provides through the Blue Stream pipeline until such time as Turkey relies more on nuclear energy, a project with which Russia will help by building the first nuclear power plant at an estimated $20 billion cost.
Mired in numerous contradictions that cannot be justified on the basis of a multidimensional foreign policy, Turkey is indeed in search of a coherent path that would further its interests as currently defined by the Erdogan-Davutoglu regime. While I would not characterize Turkish foreign policy directionless, neither would I go as far as arguing that it has a coherent core. This is not something that just surfaced because Turkey was recently overlooked by the UN for a rotating UN Security Council rotating membership. Despite US support, or in reality partly because of it, Turkey did not have the votes, while Venezuela did. This demonstrated that most countries could not place confidence in a country with shifting positions, playing all sides while remaining a NATO member.
The contradictions so evident in foreign policy stem from the rapidly changing balance of power in the Middle East because of US covert and overt military operations, but also from the inexorable link of Turkish foreign policy and domestic affairs, especially under President Erdogan who had ambitions of emulating the style of 16th century Sultans, but has proved nothing more than a corrupt petty tyrant trying to justify his quasi-authoritarian regime by invoking Islam at home and abroad. This does not mean that the Justice and Development Party do not have a solid political power base that includes loyal people in the bureaucracy and military that support Erdogan-Davutogl policies. At the same time, as elections have proved, the ruling party enjoys a popular base, despite the enormous socioeconomic inequality.
According to Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report 2014, Turkey has one of the world’s highest levels of income inequality, ranking 3rd among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 34 countries. The Justice and Development Party has been using foreign policy as a diversion, considering that income inequality has been rising in the last fifteen years. Indicative of a deliberate policy not to address the income inequality issue and instead focus on dreams of reviving Ottoman glory, the Erdogan regime has been very generous with the top income groups and companies operating in Turkey, while deriving more than three-fourths of all revenue from indirect taxes that fall inordinately on consumers. Given that the Erdogan popular base is made up largely of rural and poor people loyal to Islam, he has continued to propagate about his commitment to Islam and foreign policy intended to make Turkey the most powerful regional player.
Edrogan: Would-be Sultan or just another corrupt politician?
Unique in the Middle East, Turkey is a secular society ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk carried out major institutional reforms in the 1920s and 1930s. However, despite the deep Westernized Kemalist roots across society, Islam is powerful in the provinces as we have seen in the last two decades. This essentially reflects a struggle between the modern bourgeois modernization forces in the western parts of the country against the Islamist eastern parts where identity rests with faith rather than secular institutions carrying Kemal’s signature. Partly because of this divide in Turkey that aspires to become a full EU member, the Erdogan-Davotuglu regime has been playing the “mediator” role; and I underscore the term “playing”, because it clearly has lost all credibility with its foreign policy games among its neighbors as well as European and Americans.
Desperate to fill the power gap left by Iraq and Syria, Sunni-dominated Turkey does not want Shiite Iran to be the dominant Islamic regional power. In this respect, Turkey has a lot in common with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but even with the arch-enemy Israel that also wants a weakened Iran. Many Western analysts see this kind of foreign policy as realistic, while others view it opportunistic, populist, directionless, or incoherent, although they see no problem with Washington pursuing equally contradictory policies toward the entire Middle East.
President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu blame the global Gulen movement for the propaganda unleashed against the regime’s domestic and foreign policies. Billionaire living in the US, Sheikh Fethullah Gülen is an imam with far reaching connections among Muslim and non-Muslim religious leaders globally. He considers himself a prophet and his followers are throughout the Turkish police force, military, and other bureaucracies. Because of the immense economic influence of conglomerates under Gulen’s influence and tacit support by the US and Israel, the Erdogan regime feels that it is fighting an enemy from within but with enormous tentacles in the West and the Middle East. This is one reason that Turkey has found itself isolated as far as Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party elites are concerned.
Besides enjoying the support of the Islamic faithful especially in rural areas away from the more Westernized and bourgeois coastal regions, the Erdogan regime has created new elites in the provinces as part of his political and popular power base. This means that Erdogan has broken through the influence of the military hierarchy that enjoyed many privileges from business opportunities and export businesses to securing choice positions under a patronage-nepotism network.
Before Erdogan as well as during his regime, the political class helped to create the economic elites by offering government contracts and various commercial licenses for domestic and international trade. This may indeed sound like a neo-mercantilist system, but it is rooted in 20th century clientist politics in many developing nations throughout the Middle East. Ironically, the Muslim faithful that make up Erdogan’s popular and political base are convinced that he is anti-elitist and that secular Kemalist elites oppose him along with followers of the Gulen Movement and some wealthy Sunnis.
The elites emerging under the Islamic-oriented populist Erdogan regime want a stronger central government that is closer to what existed under the Ottoman Empire than what Kemal tried to create by distancing the nation’s institutions from those linked to Islam. This means that the new conservative elites are skeptical about the West, they prefer a more authoritarian Turkey, or at least a strong executive and weak legislative branch and they want to explore their future prospects with Eurasia because they see that is where global power would be concentrated in the 21st century.
This does not mean that Turkey is anxious to leave NATO or to put EU membership aspirations on the backburner, but it does mean utilizing its foreign policy and foreign trade options as leverage to secure its goal of hegemonic regional power. The problem here is how do the US and EU perceive Turkey’s ambitions colliding with their own regional interests, and to what degree are they willing to contain Turkey by playing the Greece-Cyprus, Israel-Egypt card as a counterweight?
Fading Dreams of Reviving Ottoman Glory
If we take the long view on Anatolia's intermediary role between East and West it is not surprising that there has been much written on the contemporary history and future prospects of Turkey. Some analysts and politicians believe Turkey could become the economic Brazil the Near East later in the 21st century. I would not disagree that Turkey has such prospects, if it were not for its recklessly ambitious foreign policy that has clearly overreached, its chronic problem with the Kurdish minority, its refusal to address basic human rights and democracy-oriented issues put before it by the EU, and above all to lessen the level of corruption that has reached unprecedented levels under Erdogan, modern Turkey’s would be Sultan who lives like a Medieval ruler in a palace of 1000 rooms and has stashed away billions in bribes.
Turkey’s prospects could be realized if it were to address the issues I noted above, largely because the country marked enormous economic progress during the Erdogan regime. After serving as prime minister from 2003 until summer 2014, Erdogan became president and Davutoglu became prime minister. Despite massive public and private sector corruption, it is difficult to argue with the phenomenal rate of GDP growth under Erdogan. Even in 2013 when EU was experiencing about zero GDP growth rate, Turkey enjoyed a 4% increase. Construction demand, tourism, as well as manufacturing fueled economic growth in the last fifteen years, allowing Turkey to pour money into its military and luxuriate in dreams of reviving Ottoman glory.
The phenomenal economic development of Turkey in the first decade of the 21st century appeared as nothing short of a miracle, leading a few to conclude that Turkey is indeed headed for prominence. Domestic and foreign businesses enjoy relatively low tax rates and cheap labor along with a growing domestic market where consumer demand is partly responsible for driving growth. This does not mean that the gap between very rich and poor is closing. On the contrary, 17% of the population lives below poverty, a number that is comparable to many countries in Latin America, but still half that of neighboring Greece enjoying full membership of the EU.
Currently ranking 17th in the world GDP terms, Turkey is a developing economy headed rapidly toward full scale development with its manufacturing sector becoming more significant along with its primary sector of production. Despite uneven geographic development with the western parts experiencing much greater development to the neglect of the eastern, the competitive advantage Turkey has offered for multinational corporations has meant massive capital inflows, given that it is conveniently located between Asia, Africa and Europe, making transport costs attractive. Economic diversification that resembles that of Brazil combined with its pending status as a full EU member make Turkey a candidate for a future much brighter than most of existing EU members in the southern and eastern parts of Europe.
The Justice and Development Party came to power with the prospect of developing the economy and changing the corrupt political system, while at the same time making Turkey into the greatest regional power in the Middle East. In fact, Turkey would try to revive the glory of the Ottoman Empire under Erdogan’s AKP Islamist party, largely by embracing the cause of the Palestinians as well as the Islamists throughout the Middle East, including the Egyptian Brotherhood.
The Erdogan regime is interested in having Turkey play an essential diplomatic role between West (NATO, especially US) and Middle East. It is no secret that Turkey wants to recapture some of its Ottoman glory through diplomacy; it wants a greater geopolitical role that would give it leverage to have a voice in determining the regional balance of power. This makes sense because there is no longer a Communist bloc, the US failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, both EU and US appear helpless in bringing about a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it seems that such a course would solidify Erdogan's domestic political base threatened by secularists inside the military as well as outside. The question of where the regime is headed in the rest of the decade with a rising tide of Jihadists remains a source of concern for Turkey’s Western partners as well as its neighbors.
That it has an open and fairly cordial dialogue with Greece, while it is fairly isolated from most of its neighbors is an astonishing accomplishment because Greece has recently allied with Egypt and Israel over the Cypriot energy resources against Turkey. Another blow to Turkey’s foreign isolation came on 13 November 2014 not because the EU threatened sanctions if it violated Cypriot sovereignty over at sea, but because on the same day the EU voted as EU Military Committee president the chief of the Hellenic Armed Forces.
Unofficial reports claim that Berlin was behind this move, partly to send Ankara a message, but also to support the conservative regime in Athens. Given that the climate in the EU has turned even more against the government in Turkey than it had been in the last three years, Ankara has no choice but to look East to counterbalance the West. This issue surfaced immediately during the G-20 meeting in Australia on 15 November 2014. Davutoglu argued for discussing political and geopolitical matters that impact the world economy and making the group of the 20 richest nations more inclusive of the rest. In short, Turkey identifies itself with non-G-20 and sees that most in the richest countries are not favorably inclined toward Ankara at this juncture. This sense of isolation of a country aspiring to become an important regional power reflects the hasty foreign policy moves that Ankara has been making, with each step further alienating yet another country instead of reaching closer to its goal of Ottoman glory.
Turkey and the Jihadist ISIL
The story of Turkey’s relationship with jihadist Islamic State (ISIL) is one that may never come to light because there have been secret dealings kept out of official channels. We do know that Turkey played all sides on the Jihadist ISIL matter, but in the end fooling no one from the Kurds it betrayed to its NATO allies that were also double-dealing because they wanted Asad’s Syria undermined by Jihadists but did not want the creation of a new anti-Western Islamic state like ISIL.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar were sending money to Turkey to fund the anti-Assad rebels in the last three years or so, all with the approval if not encouragement of the US. Turkey was using part of the money to fund the rebels, and some of the funds to finance Jihadists in Russia, despite its official position that of not meddling in minorities issues in Russia. The diversion of funds was a matter kept secret from the donors, although the Erdogan regime was confident that those sending money for jihadists against Assad would have no problem supporting Muslims against Putin who has been Syria’s biggest supporter along with Iran.
Turkey has suddenly lost its backing from Arabs – including Saudis and Qatar – as well as much of the international community largely because ISIL has become a monumental problem at the regional and international levels. Given that Iraq ranks among the top five most corrupt countries in the world, and considering it is a society in shambles after the US military invasion, ISIL has not had much difficulty securing support, despite its barbaric methods of dealing with opponents. Because of questions about Turkey’s position when it comes to ISIL, the government decides to cause some disturbances in Cyprus by resorting to a demonstration of naval force present. Insisting that the under-sea energy resources currently under exploration must be divided with the Republic of Northern Cyprus, Ankara found no support among any country in the world for its tactics, least of all the EU members.
The public international opposition to the manner that Turkey was handling both the ISIL matter and the energy one over Cyprus caused the Erdogan-Davotuglu regime to reexamine its options with Russia, especially after Iran joined the anti-Ankara chorus. Although Turkey had relatively harmonious relationship with Iran, this too has ended over Iranian support for Assad and Turkey’s backing of rebels against the Syrian regime. Iran is now openly blaming Turkey for strengthening the ISIS jihadists and US-led coalition against Assad that led to the war conditions in neighboring Iraq. Relations between Ankara and Tehran became even more strained when Prime Minister Davutoglu rejected the notion of respecting territorial sovereignty of Syria and Iraq, thus implying that Turkey’s priority is not the defeat of ISIS as is the case for Iran, but Assad’s downfall.
If Assad falls, this would mean Hezbollah is weakened, something that Israel also wants, but Iran regards as a worst case scenario for its influence in Lebanon and Syria. Iran now regards Turkey as the most destabilizing force in the Middle East because of its goal to use the chaos and weakening of all its neighbors so it can realize its dream of reviving the glory of the Ottoman Empire.
Considering the intervention of the history of military’s intervention in the political arena when the political parties reach an impasse on key issues about the economy, Erdogan has managed to maintain civilian rule while keeping the limitary under tight control. This is partly because of a strategy of co-optation, partly because of threats and intimidation, and partly because he has tried to keep the armed forces engaged always under his control and serving his foreign policy goals.
Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a NATO member representing stability in the Middle East, especially after the Iranian Revolution that entailed US losing a loyal ally in the region. While it is true that Turkish foreign policy has been more multidimensional than that of other Middle East countries, especially in the last four decades, the country remains a NATO member and aspires to EU membership at some point. However, Ankara under the Erdogan-Davotulgu regime is hedging its bets by diversifying its diplomatic and economic policy, rather than placing all of its faith in Western integration. One reason is that Israel has been an obstacle to Turkey’s ambitions, as it openly challenges Ankara’s role in the Middle East and working with Cyprus and Greece openly, while also cooperating with Jordan and indirectly with Egypt on significant energy and geopolitical issues, including the endless Palestinian issue.
Turkey’s isolation in the entire Middle East is partly its own creation, as it has tried to play all sides. For example, German sources indicate that Turkey was collaborating with ISIS jihadists, understandably of course, given that there is the endless Kurdish problem Ankara has been confronting. At the same time, Turkey had no choice but to show the world that it opposed the jihadists against whom NATO has declared war in Syria and Iraq. Fearful that nationalism is Islamic countries is gradually withering away because of religious loyalties among the masses, and overwhelmed by enormous middle class popular opposition in addition to that of religious leader/billionaire Gulen, Ankara under Erdogan has been caught in a web of incoherent policies that are bound to backfire.
It is true that before Arab Spring the Erdogan regime seemed on its way to making history in the domains of a vibrant economy as well as foreign affairs. It all began to fall apart largely because Erdogan and Davutoglu actually turned out to be a gang of corrupt politicians that have been engaged in numerous money/business scandals, while at the same time pursuing a foreign policy that alienates just about everyone, even those trying very hard to keep their ties with Ankara. Turkey made a mess of its anti-Assad campaign, secretly helping the jihadists, then making back door deals with them , then making deals with the US to fight them, while at the same time trying to weaken the Kurds that were fighting against the ISIL jihadists.
The end of the Cold War and the beginning of the US-led war on terror, and China's rise as the global economic superpower forced many countries around the world to adjust their foreign policy. As a NATO member and waiting for EU membership, Turkey has been in an especially difficult position because it is a Middle East country that the West has not always viewed favorably. Many Turks legitimaly complain about the prejudice they face by EU that has been dragging its feet on the issue of Turkey's EU membership. At the same time, Turkey has had to co-exist with a much more powerful Iran after the US invasion basically obliterated Iraq now under a very real and scary ISIL threat.
Turkish foreign policy in the early 21st century is a reflection of the turmoil in the Middle East caused in large measure by US-NATO intervention on a sustained basis in order to achieve regime change and determine the regional balance of power as well as benefit by securing markets. However, the domestic clashes of disparate interest groups behind Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party on the one hand, and the secularists representing different ideological positions combined with the Gulen Movement are some of the dynamics at work. Reaching out to Russia to counterpoise the West represents the desperation of a government that struggles with domestic policy contradictions.
If Turkey under Erdogan in the last twelve years had created a more evenly distributed income across all social segments, there would be no need to manipulate the issue of Islam at home and abroad any more than pursuing a foreign policy immersed in contradictions. Trying to replace the Kemalist institutional structure with a corrupt clientist network that would secure the preeminence of the Justice and Development Party has force Erdogan into foreign policy schemes that have backfired and may ultimately bring down his regime by a combination of domestic upheaval, and/or military intervention in the political arena with the support of the US and other governments that see no benefit supporting the current regime.
Jon Kofas is a retired university professor with various publications in international political economy and history of foreign affairs. Currently working on science fiction novels, after publishing the first historical novel entitled: Slaves to Gods and Demons.
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