The recent flotilla incident involving Turkey and Israel marked the culmination of a significant shift in Turkish foreign policy, one in which Turkey emerged as an assertive regional actor. The incident also underlined the shifts in the balance of power in the Middle East of the past decade.

Sinan Ülgen, Carnegie Europe’s new visiting scholar, analyzes the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy priorities and raises important concerns as to the sustainability of Turkey’s new regional stance. At a time when the objective of EU membership seems ever more elusive, Turkey is increasingly demonstrating both its willingness and its ability to go it alone. However, faced with the possibility of alienating traditional western allies, sharp domestic debates, and looming elections, the future of Turkey’s new stance remains uncertain. Ülgen explains that while Turkey will undoubtedly remain heavily involved in the Middle East, “a crucial question is, if power changes hands, what will remain of Turkey’s current foreign policy.”

How has Turkey’s foreign policy been transformed?

In geopolitical terms, both the end of the Cold War, during which Turkey’s membership in NATO made it a staunch ally of the West, and the most recent American intervention in Iraq, changed regional dynamics in ways that have favored the transformation of Turkey’s foreign policy. The Iraq war was of particular importance in this regard, in that it gave rise both to an increase in anti-Americanism, and, crucially, to the loss of American legitimacy in the region. Prior to the war in Iraq, America was already an unpopular actor in the region, but it was at least seen as a legitimate actor. This legitimacy was very much undermined by the intervention in Iraq which led to a political vacuum in the region into which Turkey was able to project itself.

A second major geopolitical driver for change has been the European Union. Turkey’s bid for EU membership and the convergence agenda that this has entailed, has enhanced both its democratic standards and economic governance. Turkey has achieved sustained economic growth, allowing the country to avail of a number of very effective foreign policy tools.

Turkey’s level of trade within its immediate neighborhood grew by more than twentyfold between 1991 and 2008. With a larger national budget and more commercial interests abroad, the country’s diplomatic network extended considerably, with new embassies in many parts of Africa and Latin America. The Turkish development agency, TIKA, channeled almost U.S. $800 million to 98 countries in 2008, many of them within its neighborhood. More active cultural diplomacy, underpinned by the increasing popularity of Turkish TV programming in the Middle East and North Africa, was initiated with the establishment of a new network of Turkish cultural centers in the Balkans, Central Asia, and North Africa. On the civil society front, Turkish business associations, like TUSAID, have also been very active promoters of Turkish interests abroad.

Of a more political nature has been the conceptual change brought about by the current Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. His goal has been to transform Turkey from a peripheral into a central actor in the Middle East. Turkey has become far more active in regional diplomacy, and is increasingly involved in issues from which it previously remained aloof, as illustrated by its active mediation in the Israel-Syrian peace negotiations.

How permanent is the change in Turkish foreign policy?

Had Turkey limited itself simply to a reorientation based on a greater focus on the Middle East this would have been sustainable. However, recent tensions with Israel and the rapprochement with Iran are signs of an overreach. On both of these counts, Turkish foreign policy does not appear sound or sustainable.

Internal factors will also affect the sustainability of Turkey’s current foreign policy. There is a divisive debate in Turkey on the perceived shift in foreign policy. Next year’s elections will be the first in a long time where foreign policy will be high on the agenda. A crucial question is, if power changes hands, what will remain of Turkey’s current foreign policy.

If power changes hands, some areas of foreign policy will change, others will not. Turkey’s active involvement in the Middle East will remain, but there will be a reassessment of the heavy focus on this region and at least some realignment towards traditional Western partners. A new government will reevaluate the aura of overconfidence that marks current Turkish foreign policy. This does not mean that Turkey will suddenly become a follower of Washington or Brussels, but there will be an understanding that a more concerted effort will need to be put in place to dialogue with Turkey’s traditional, well-established partners in the West. This will likely be particularly visible through the adoption of a more balanced approach towards Iran and Israel.

How has this foreign policy manifested itself in the Middle East?

In the past, Turkey’s relationship with the Middle East was somewhat exceptional, in that it had only very limited economic and political ties with this large region in its southern neighborhood. This stemmed largely from Turkey’s republican legacy. The founders of the Turkish republic were intent on establishing a mental barrier between Turkey and the Middle East to reinforce Turkey’s Western identity. This barrier stayed in place for many years, and was reinforced by the suspicions that Arab regimes harbored towards Turkey, in particular because of its secular nature.

Turkey has now become a central actor in the Middle East. In addition to Davutoglu’s efforts, economic factors have also played a key role and are of particular importance in shifting Turkish foreign policy’s emphasis toward the Middle East. Turkey has a very open economy, with a high volume of trade and an outward oriented business community. Europe is a well known and saturated market and Turkey’s economic constituency is pushing the Turkish government to open new markets, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

The shift of emphasis towards the Middle East has been further advanced by the AKP government, which took office in 2002. The party’s association with political Islam gives the government the kind of religious credibility of which its predecessors were largely bereft, facilitating access to the Middle East and Arab world.

The evolution of Turkish foreign policy has, in a certain sense therefore, been a return to normalcy in that it has allowed Turkey, many years after the Ottoman legacy, become a valued actor in the Middle East. Its ability to bring Israel and Syria together around the negotiating table was one concrete demonstration of that role.

What is Turkey’s approach to Iran?

Turkey’s positioning of itself as a partner of Iran is a very risky one and one that places a great deal of faith on the Iranian leadership’s willingness to work constructively towards a solution of the nuclear issue. If Iran delivers on this promise, Turkey will gain prestige. However, if the Iranian regime fails to deliver, Turkey will be in a very difficult position. Some of the risks associated with this policy are already apparent in the fact that Turkey decided to vote no on a new round of sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council, causing a real upset in Turkey’s relations with the West, particularly the United States.

Where is Turkey’s relationship with Israel headed?

Israel’s behavior during the flotilla incident was unlawful and inhumane. However, moving beyond this incident, it is important to emphasize that this is the first time in its modern history that a Turkish government has politicized to such an extent the tragedy of the Palestinians, and in particular the fate of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Previous Turkish governments were occasionally critical of Israel on this issue, but this government has transformed it into a highly charged political issue, domestically as well as internationally. This government has gone as far as declaring Gaza a national objective of Turkish foreign policy, which goes well beyond the bounds of Turkish foreign policy.

Turkey is running the very serious risk of squandering its unique position in the Middle East and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Before this very acrimonious state of affairs, Turkey had established itself in the position of a neutral arbitrator, a moderator who could engage equally with all parties to the dispute—Israelis, the Palestinians, and Syrians. This was the unique value that Turkey could bring to the table and that position has now been squandered.

Turkey has sidelined itself from the Middle East peace process and is becoming an element of the deep regional polarization instead of being a positive force for overcoming it.

How will Ankara’s relations with Washington be affected in the long term?

The United States has to understand how to deal with this new, emergent, Turkey. Washington must focus on the new drivers of Turkish foreign policy to understand what is influencing Turkey’s foreign policy choices. These drivers are evolving rapidly, and the Turkey of today is not the Turkey of even 2005.

This reassessment, or the emergence of a new understanding, is bound to be riddled with problems. For example, the serious deterioration in Turkey’s relations with Israel could lead to tensions in relations with the United States. In years past Turkey has relied heavily on the support of the Jewish lobby in Washington for certain key issues, such as the Armenian question, and obviously that support will be lost. This could make longer-term policies in the area of military assistance more politically sensitive in Washington.        

In the end, however, both sides will likely arrive at a better understanding. Turkish and U.S. strategic interests are aligned in many ways and Turkey is part of the democratic club of nations. Therefore the Turkey-U.S. relationship is unlikely to deteriorate for long.

What will Turkey’s new foreign policy mean for its relations with the European Union?

The situation with regard to Europe is far more complicated than the one with the United States. Since 1963, Turkey’s relationship has been defined in terms of the objective of eventual membership in the EU. However, recent developments, not only in Turkey, but more particularly in Europe, with the economic crisis, enlargement fatigue, and a real lack of true political leadership at the EU level, mean that it will be increasingly difficult to sustain this objective in political terms.

From a Turkish perspective, the EU has adopted a seemingly discriminatory approach towards Turkey’s membership bid and the standard formula for integration has not been applied in the same way as for other potential members. Stringent requirements, such as a permanent reduction of Turkish immigration to the EU, impediments to structural funds, and exceptions to agricultural funds, have been made. These belie the path to full membership and help build a different interpretation of the likely outcome of negotiations, more in tune with what we have heard from the leaders of France and Germany, in which instead of membership Turkey might have to settle for a privileged partnership with the EU.

Turkey and the EU will therefore need to develop a new framework for relations that is mutually satisfactory. It cannot be a framework that is imposed on Turkey by the EU, which is what the privileged partnership framework was about. This would drive Turkey away from the EU. The challenge will therefore be to create a new framework that does not replace the membership process, but supplements it.

Politically, a new framework can only be developed if the option of full membership for Turkey is retained. The only other option would be for the EU to reject Turkish membership, which the EU is unlikely to do. However, if they rely solely on the membership process, then Turkey and the EU will drift apart because in the short and medium term there is no foreseeable positive outcome. That is why a new framework, to be superimposed over the membership process, must be developed—to take the political pressure off the membership process, move away from the acrimony that the difficulties surrounding the negotiations process have generated, and allow the two sides to find new areas of cooperation and collaboration, which can then positively influence the membership process.

If such a framework is to be developed, discussion will need to start very soon. Now that a new negotiation chapter has been opened, there are only three remaining chapters that can practically be opened—unless there is movement on the question of Cyprus, which seems increasingly unlikely. Therefore, the matter will come to a head during the next EU presidency or soon thereafter given that it doesn’t make sense to pretend that negotiations are ongoing if none of the negotiation chapters can actually be opened. This is the immediate challenge facing Turkish and EU leaders alike.