Paradigm Shift in Turkey's Foreign Policy

By Koprulu, Kemal | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Paradigm Shift in Turkey's Foreign Policy


Koprulu, Kemal, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The Turkish government has disregarded European values and Western interests in many of its recent foreign policy maneuvers. Often the justification put forth at these junctures is the sensitivities of Turkish society, reflected in opinion polls. The guiding principle of recent years' foreign policy of zero problems with neighbors may in theory sound good but, in practice, this approach has many shortfalls. It does not serve Turkey's overarching aim of European Union integration, nor does it contribute to the spread of democratic values from Turkey to its neighbors. There are indeed many fragile balances in the neighboring regions of Turkey, especially in Eurasia and the Middle East. However, Turkey could both manage its public sensitivities and its pivotal geostrategic position without alienating its allies, raising questions about its motives, confusing its public, and causing long term detriment to the country's strategic interests. Not doing so is either the choice or the mismanagement of the government, and often a mixture of both.

Turkey has enjoyed a decade of legislative reforms driven by the EU integration process that started with the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate country at the EU Helsinki Summit in December 1999. Substantial economic growth for five years following 2002 was made possible due to the post-crisis restructuring of the Turkish economy in 2001. This period coincided with the spreading of the global economic bubble as increasing levels of funds were available for emerging markets. The rights of young people were expanded with the minimum age to run for parliament being lowered from 30 to 25, a new penal code granted women more protection against domestic violence and sexual violation, and Kurds enjoyed official TV broadcasts in Kurdish for the first time. But is this sufficient to conclude that young people, women, and Kurds have advanced opportunities or are more comfortable and free in their daily life? There are serious discrepancies that complicate the picture. Indeed, the glass is half empty.

Because Turkey embodies profound contrasts on many levels and has been changing rapidly, deeply contradictory conclusions are being drawn around the world, and in Turkey itself, about the direction of the country. There is a stark polarization and a general confusion about how to read Turkey's transformation. The objective data taken into account, such as economic figures, legislative reforms, or opinion polls might be the same, but due to the diversity of the country, social, cultural, and political trends taken as fundamental and determinant may differ. Moreover, material can be found to back up opposing judgements.

Since 2005, worrisome trends have been taking place in Turkey, which have often escaped the radar screen of the West. However because of its recent unpredictable moves in foreign policy, more questions have been raised in the international arena about Turkey's direction. To understand the paradigm shift in Turkey's foreign policy, it is imperative to factor in the style of management of the political leadership and understand how this leadership manner affects public opinion.

Culture and PoliticCs - Tthe rise of misrust and pPolarization

In recent years, a number of research polls have been conducted in Turkey to measure cultural/social trends and perceptions. The majority of these polls have shown Turkish society to be highly divided, intolerant, and emotionally reactive. Trust of others is low, leading from heightened vulnerability to conspiracy theories and manipulation by religious and political currents, particularly among the young generation. Social trends of such nature render it unlikely that Turkey can sustain the international roles and responsibilities it has taken upon itself. A highly emotional and polarized society also offers a much more challenging setting in which to solve serious domestic problems, such as the Kurdish problem.

Yilmaz Esmer, a reputable professor at Bahcesehir University, conducted a nationwide survey in Turkey throughout April and May 2009, gauging social perception trends on issues ranging from tolerance, threats, and feelings about foreign countries to current affairs, religosity, trust, and happiness.

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