Turkey’s new, more assertive foreign policy has diverged from the agenda of Turkey’s traditional Western allies.Sinan Ülgen explains that while the United States and Europe are no longer the only concern for Turkey’s diplomacy, Ankara’s strategic priorities still complement Western interests. The West must find ways to accommodate Ankara’s growing global ambitions at the same time it urges Turkey to take a more constructive and visible role in the challenges of global governance, including nonproliferation, climate change, and financial regulation.
- What are Turkey's foreign policy priorities?
- As the country's economy continues to grow, how are Turkey's global priorities changing?
- How do Turkey's domestic politics shape its foreign policy and international interests?
- Is Turkey a rising power?
- How powerful is Turkey across the region and around the world?
- How is Turkey's influence changing in the Middle East?
- Is Turkey turning east and away from the West?
- How is Turkey's relationship with Europe evolving?
- What should Europe do to improve its relationship with Turkey?
- What is the status of relations between Turkey and the United States?
- How does Washington view Turkey?
- How important is the United States for Turkish interests?
- How does Turkey want to pursue relations with Iran?
- How does Turkey view Iran's nuclear ambitions?
Turkey’s priority for its foreign policy is to transform the country into a pivotal state with a growing regional foot print, which over time will also help Turkey to establish better relations with its partners in the West. This shift in Turkish strategic thinking also has to do with the fact that its relationship with Europe went sour.
The priority in Turkish foreign policy for a number of years had been to transform Turkey and achieve EU membership. But we have seen, especially during this decade, a number of structural problems—like the intractability of the problem of Cyprus and the nasty politicization of the Turkish membership issue in a number of European countries—have combined to drastically alter the perception Turks have about the relationship.
So today there are very few Turks that actually believe that Turkish membership will happen, and therefore there has been a shift of direction and attention toward other relationships that Turkey may entertain. We are now seeing a refocusing of Turkish foreign policy towards relationships with its southern neighbors, with the Middle East and beyond. But all in all, the objective is to transform Turkey into a pivotal state, which in due time might also help Turkey’s aspirations to become a full EU member.
Turkey’s economic performance influences the conduct of its foreign policy in many ways and is actually one of the main drivers of the transformation of Turkish foreign policy. For a very long time, foreign policy in Turkey was construed as an element to ensure the territorial integrity and hardcore security of the country. So essentially security concerns shaped the foreign policy agenda.
Now, since the early part of this decade, an economic transformation has taken place—and it’s quite radical, quite a sharp economic transformation. We have seen per capita incomes jumping from 3,000 dollars per capita to 9,000 dollar per capita, a three fold increase within not even a decade. Foreign direct investment flows jumped from about 1 billion a year to 20 billion a year, and a growing trade flow which has now surpassed the 200 billion mark—that has totally changed the foreign policy outlook as well.
So now one of the objectives of Turkish foreign policy is to ensure that Turkish exporters get new export markets and that the country receives more foreign direct investment. And therefore these economic aspirations very much shape Turkish foreign policy, especially with regard to its surrounding neighborhood. So this is definitely one of the components of Turkish foreign policy toward its own neighborhood and particularly towards the Middle East, which is sees as a new untapped market for its economic actors.
Turkish domestic politics actually have a big bearing on how its foreign policy evolves. As in many democratic countries, foreign policy is an issue during elections. So there is quite a lively debate in Turkey about where its foreign policy is going and what the options are.
But perhaps the more important issue is that domestically Turkey has become very polarized between the pro-government and anti-government camps. And this is reflected in the debate over its foreign policy and its implementation. So when the government wants to implement a new course of action, it is hotly debated in the country and sometimes foreign policy objectives have been sacrificed to the domestic debate.
There is a difference between the pro-government side and the anti-government in many policy areas, including foreign policy. This polarization makes establishing a consensus around the objective much more difficult and jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of these foreign policy actions and objectives.
Turkey’s power is on the rise and there are a number of reasons for that. One is that essentially the economic transformation of the country allows Turkey to project its influence through a number of different means. That can be through international aide, through mediation efforts, a number of education initiatives and so on. So there is an economic component.
The second component is essentially a product of the geo-political transformation of the region, where after the U.S. intervention in Iraq, we have seen growing Turkish influence in the region.
The third factor is the policy environment. Compared to the previous years when the Turkish government’s priority was to have a good relationship with the West and imbed Turkey firmly in the Western institutions and, in particular, to make Turkey a full member of the European Union, current priorities are somewhat different. The AKP government attaches importance to retaining good relationships with the West, but this objective is only now one element in Turkey’s overall foreign policy. And the final objective in this framework is to transform Turkey into a pivotal state that has influence over most of the region or most benign hegemon. So there is also a change in its policy objective from the past which explains the growth of Turkish influence.
Turkey’s influence as foreign policy actor has definitely increased, most particularly in its own region and in the Middle East. We see that through a number of different initiatives. First, relations with Turkey’s southern neighbors—the way Turkey is playing a constructive role in mainstreaming Syria, for instance. Turkish authorities like to claim that they have been influential in helping Syria to engage constructively on a number of areas; the Middle East peace process, negotiations with Israel, and helping Syrian leadership to engage with EU leaders and also the United States. Turkey has been quite influential in Lebanon as well, where it helped in the creation of a new government.
So Turkey has developed a number of links through out the region, the latest example—which has been criticized, including in Washington—was Turkey’s ability, along with Brazil, to convince Iran to sign a series of commitments with regard to its nuclear program.
So on the bilateral side, there has been quite a remarkable influence, a growth of Turkish influence within the region, which is also reflected on the multilateral side. Turkey is employing a much more active multilateral diplomacy. For the first time in 47 years, Turkey has been elected to the UN Security Council, with a very high number of votes—about a 150 votes out of 190 countries—which shows the type of influence Turkey has been able to project around the world with its bilateral relations.
Turkey has also been involved in a number of mediation efforts in the region: between Syria and Israel, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between the different factions in Lebanon, and also in the Balkans. Turkey has been instrumental in getting a process of rapprochement going between the governments of Bosnia and the Serbian government.
And finally Turkey has become a much more visible actor in humanitarian aid. Today the official aid budget for Turkey is around 1.5 billion dollars and it gives aid to about 98 different countries around the world. So in many ways there is a new assertiveness, a new visibility, and a growing regional footprint in Turkish diplomacy.
In terms of Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, there are essentially three developments. One, especially after the American intervention in Iraq, there is a growing anti-Americanism in the Middle East which has led to the loss of legitimacy in U.S. power in the Middle East. And in a way, Turkey is stepping in to fill that political vacuum. The second dimension there is not only has Turkey, but also Iran, has stepped in and there is now a competition between Turkey and Iran about spheres of influence in the Middle East. And Turkish authorities like to argue that the spread of Turkish influence is essentially there to prevent the further spread of Iranian influence.
The third element is that of course these are positive trends for Turkish policy makers. But the negative trend we are seeing in the Middle East is in Turkey’s relations with Israel—which since the 1990s has been quite good and it was almost a strategic partnership where Turkey and Israel had a strong collaboration in the areas of military and intelligence cooperation.
Now, after the Israeli intervention in Gaza, the Turkish government adopted a very strident anti-Israel rhetoric—which of course culminated after the flotilla incident where eight Turkish national lost their lives in an Israeli attack. So now Turkey-Israeli relations are in a dismal state and that means essentially that Turkey has been sidelined from the Middle East peace process—where, up until the past few years, it has played and has wanted to play a constructive role because it could actually talk constructively both with the Israeli side, but also with the Palestinian side. But now Turkey has lost that ability.
It is too simplistic to argue that Turkey is shifting away from the West. In previous years, Turkey’s relationship with the West was of utmost priority. What is happening today is that the relationship with the West has lost its exclusive positioning in the spectrum of Turkish foreign policy. So yes it is still important, and there are many structural elements which bind Turkey to the West. Turkey is still a part of almost all European institutions and the Turkish economy is very interdependent with European economies—50 percent of Turkish exports go to the European market and 80 percent of foreign direct investment comes from Europe or the United States.
There is a large constituency in Turkey that views the Western lifestyle as the main paradigm for the present and future of the country. So there are a number of very important structural elements that militate Turkey’s anchor in the West.
But what is happening is that there is a shift in the importance that the Western dimension used to have. Now that dimension is only part of the whole picture. The Turkish government today is putting more emphasis on developing a similar web of relationship with the countries around Turkey and therefore the priority that is attached to having relations with the West, compared to the previous decades, has been relatively minimized.
And therefore the way I would frame this evolution is not to say that Turkey is shifting away from the West but that there is a reassessment of Turkey’s overall relationship and the Western relationship is loosing its prevalence, its exclusivity. And therefore what we are seeing are the repercussions of this reassessment.
Turkey’s relationship with Europe is, unfortunately, going through a very difficult period. And it really is, I think, the fault of the European governments at this particular point in time because Turkey has been one of the longest members of the European family to have had an official relationship with the EU—since 1963—and it was only in 2004 that Turkey and the EU decided to open the negotiations for membership. And after that, a number of structural barriers—like the problems of Cyrus, the fact that the French president Sarkozy has adopted an openly anti-Turkey discourse—have combined to stall the negotiations.
So, today, for instance, the two sides are to negotiate 33 chapters and 18 of them are suspended because of political reasons, either because of Cyprus, because of France, or a number of other issues, and there are only 3 chapters now that can be opened. So that paints a rather pessimistic backdrop regarding Turkey’s accession prospects. And that has reflected on how Turkish public opinion perceives the EU.
In 2004 when this decision was taken, 74 percent of the Turkish public supported Turkey’s EU membership. Today, that support has dropped to the low 30 percent range and there are very few people today in Turkey that believe that accession will proceed and this certainly impacts the way that the government reacts. It has led to a loss of momentum in the reform process, but it has also led to a sort of alienation with Europe which has had implications for Turkish foreign policy. And in a way, this has led to the diversification of Turkish foreign policy, as well.
Today the difficulties that we are witnessing in Turkey’s relationship with Europe have to do, to a large extent, with the fact that Europe is uncertain about how it wants to deal with Turkey.
Compared to past candidacies, where there were a number of enlargements, the difference with regard to Turkey is really the lack of political willingness on the EU side. Were there a political willingness, things would be very different in Turkey and reforms would proceed at a faster pace.
But the belief is now that no matter what happens in Turkey, the EU’s answer will be the same, which will be to procrastinate. Therefore, it’s really the lack of political willingness and the inability of the EU leaders to tell to Turkey—unambiguously—that if and when Turkey fulfills the conditions for membership, then EU membership will happen.
As long as Turkey does not hear that message, it will be difficult to rejuvenate this process. So I think it’s really up to the EU leaders and EU member states to reassess the situation and also to engage with their publics to tell them once more why the relationship with Turkey is important, and why it will be good both for Turkey and for Europe to have negotiations proceed and to one day see Turkey as a full member of the EU. Unless they do that, and I think here the responsibility lies essentially with the EU leaders, it is going to be difficult to expect that the relationship will suddenly improve.
Turkey’s relationship with the United States is actually a very dynamic and important relationship. But in the recent past, on a number of critical areas—which started with the U.S. intervention in Iraq—the two sides have visibly disagreed. And the disagreement over Iraq generated anti-American sentiment in Turkey. But obviously the relationship is much broader than that, and today, there are many other areas where the two cooperate, particularly in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. Now that the U.S. troops are getting ready to withdrawal completely, Turkey has adopted a much more constructive attitude toward the Iraqi leadership and in a way to ensure stability to the country after U.S. troops leave.
Having said that, however, what we’re also witnessing with the new assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy is that, compared to the years of the Cold War and certainly the years thereafter, the fact that the interests may not overlap—and this is something that we should get used to. Turkey’s policies in the Middle East in some cases—and of course Iran comes to mind and the policy towards Israel comes to mind—may not be in parallel with U.S. policy. On both sides, we should get used to this new state of affairs. Turkey wants to have a larger role and the United States should be in a position to accommodate Turkey.
In return, however, the United States can ask Turkey to upgrade its stance on normative policies. Turkey should adopt a more normative approach to foreign policy and in particular, become a more responsible and constructive player in areas related to global challenges of global governance like climate change, nonproliferation, trade facilitation, financial regulation, and so on. This is where a balance must be struck.
The United States should be ready to allow Turkey to have its own space in foreign policy; even though that means that some of Turkey’s policy actions may not particularly please Washington. But in return, the United States should demand Turkey to become a more visible, responsible, constructive actor in areas related to global challenges.
The way Washington views Turkey is changing. The image of Turkey, as a docile, Western country in a way, has radically changed in Washington. The Washington establishment is trying to interpret what this new Turkey is all about and what the transformation of Turkish foreign policy will mean in the future for U.S. foreign policy. And I think this debate within Washington has not ended.
And that is also because the debate has not ended in Turkey. We’re also trying to interpret what the implications of the transformation of Turkey and Turkish foreign policy will mean for Turkey’s relations with Washington, for Turkey’s relations with the EU, and for Turkey’s relations with the countries in our neighborhood. So, in that sense, the only thing that can be said for certain is that there is a reassessment and that reassessment has not been concluded yet.
When talking to Turkish policymakers, the United States is the main strategic actor in many areas where Turkey wants to have a growing regional footprint. In that sense, even though the EU might have more impact in terms of the domestic developments—regarding the democratization agenda, for instance—on the foreign policy side, it is really the United States that has a much more visible impact on the evolution of Turkish foreign policies. The United States is the global power, and it is essentially the Turkish interests that may overlap or may collide with U.S. interests in the area, particularly in the Middle East where Turkey wants to become more active.
Turkey has been very active with regard to Iran and that led to a deal that has been heavily criticized, particularly by the United States. What I think Turkey wants to do on Iran is first of all, it wants the international community to recognize if they want to find a solution to the Iranian problem, that Turkey should be one of the parties that will contribute to that solution. So, in essence that is what Turkey wants to show to the rest of the world, and the deal that Turkey along with Brazil signed with Iran on the nuclear issue has been quite important by showing that Turks actually could bring the Iranians to the negotiations table.
So going forward, two things will happen. One, the United States and the countries that are leading the negotiations with Iran will offer a more welcoming attitude to Turkey, and would want to use the facilities that Turkey has to offer to establish channels of communication with the Iranian leadership.
But on the Turkish side, Turkish policymakers will also realize that the role that Turkey can play is essentially of facilitator, and not the mediator—the difference being that if Turkey remains as a facilitator, the relationship with the Western partners will be much easier to construct and develop, whereas as a mediator, Turkey takes on a number of additional risks.
And I think Turkish policymakers now have realized this and going forward both sides have drawn their conclusions from the criticized nuclear deal in May. Therefore this new distribution of Turkey’s, not as a mediator but as a facilitator in the Iran conflict, will essentially be their role in the months and years to come.
Turkey does not want a nuclear Iran—that is clear. Turkey’s course of action does not differ in terms of a different strategic objective. The strategic objective with Turkey’s Western partners, especially the United States, is one and the same. The two countries don’t want to see a nuclear Iran.
But Turkey decided to adopt a path of negotiations and dialogue with the Iranian authorities, believing that this will allow the Iranian regime to change its course of action on the nuclear issue and to become more transparent with regard to the nuclear program. And as proof Turkish policy makers show the nuclear fuel swap deal that they had concluded in May of this year with the Iranian leadership.
In terms of the tactics, there are differences about how to implement the short-term and long-term goals. In essence, Turkey does not want a nuclear Iran; given that Turkey would be the country that would fall under the threats of Iranian missiles, but moreover, the risk that Turkish policymakers see is regional instability and escalation of threats in the region.
They do not see it so much as a risk toward Turkey because Turkish policy makers don’t think that Iran will threaten Turkey. Turkey is a country that benefits from the NATO nuclear umbrella, but the risk is there will be regional instability because other countries will try to outmaneuver Iran, or of Iran becoming more aggressive in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives. That is definitely something that Turkish policymakers want to prevent because they see it as a threat to regional stability.