What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?

By Cornell, Svante E. | Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?


Cornell, Svante E., Middle East Quarterly


Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkmma Partisi, AKP) was reelected to a third term in June 20 1 1 . 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 Erdogan 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 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 onEU harmonization as a means to join the union. But in its second term (2007-1 1) it departed significantly from this approach. Guided by the concept of "strategic depth" elaborated by Erdogan' s long-term advisor-turned-foreign-minister Ahmet Davutoglu, 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 Davutoglu 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 NagornoKarabakh.

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. …

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