Economy as the 'Practical Hand' of 'New Turkish Foreign Policy': A Political Economy Explanation

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Turkish foreign policy activism during the last decade has attracted widespread international attention. Turkey's declared "zero-problems-with-neighbors" policy and rising influence as a "regional power" in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries under the auspices of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, hereinafter, the AK Party) has turned out to be one of the most hotly debated issues among students of Turkish foreign policy. During the AK Party era Turkey has had a more independent and assertive foreign policy strategy in its region. In this new era, Turkey has fixed its problems with Syria, Iran and Iraq. It has become more active in mediating in the Israel-Syria talks, in bringing Balkan leaders together, and in dealing with newly emerging powers like China and Russia. (1) Accordingly, the underlying dynamics of new Turkish foreign policy activism and the sustainability of the existing multi-dimensional pro-active foreign policy have come to the fore in this discussion. Mainly due to the strained relations with the Israel-US nexus (2) and "low profile" negotiation process with the EU in the last couple of years, some commentators have labeled Turkey a country "drifting away from the West." (3) According to these views, Turkey has aligned itself with its Eastern neighbors and has turned its back on its traditional Western allies mainly for ideological reasons. If one puts the "axis shift" discussions aside, which is found as a crude categorization by many experts, there are two main conceptual approaches to understand the fundamentals of new Turkish foreign policy. (4)

The first approach regarding the Turkish foreign policy activism can be labeled as "security-based explanations." According to this approach, the emergence of a multi-polar world after the decline of Soviet Union and the subsequent changes in the Middle East and Balkans over the last two decades has led to a power vacuum and a power shift in Turkey's neighboring regions. (5) As a result, Ankara has formulated a pro-active, multi-dimensional and constructive foreign policy to adapt itself to the changing security conjuncture of the new era, which is characterized by a power shift "as the inevitable outcome of the end of the Cold War and a fact of the new millennium." (6) Although these explanations do not exclude the changing balances in the world economy, particularly in the aftermath of global financial crisis, they nevertheless do not put enough emphasis on the ways in which economic interactions affect the new activism in Turkish foreign policy. (7)

The second approach mainly concentrates on "identity-based explanations." Accordingly, it is argued that the Islamist roots of the ruling AK Party government have encouraged it to formulate an identity-based foreign policy toward Muslim countries. Thanks to the 'Muslim identity' of AK Party, the Muslim Arab nations welcomed this approach, as a result of which relations between Turkey and Middle Eastern countries have reached unprecedented levels in history. The identity-based explanations mainly emphasize the assertive role of Ankara in the region in which Turkey has historical claims with 'imperial ambitions.' This understanding, also named as 'neo-Ottomanism,' inherently prioritizes 'Islamic solidarity.' In a softer version of identity-based explanations, Turkey is regarded as a country which is now less obsessed in preserving its Western identity in articulating its relations with the rest of the world. (8 ) While not being entirely wrong, this approach falls short of explaining Turkey's recent foreign policy dynamism in non-Muslim countries such as Russia, Greece and Armenia. (9)

The approaches presented above have explanatory power to understand, to a significant extent, the basic dynamics and fundamentals of the new Turkish foreign policy. The multiple faces of Turkish foreign policy obviously deserve multicausal explanations and these explanations are by no means mutually exclusive. …