Turkish foreign policy is undergoing a significant transformation. Ankara has become a more confident and assertive international player, vastly improving its relations with countries in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and other neighboring regions, and growing its economy to the sixteenth largest in the world. With a balanced web of relations with other countries, the EU and the United States no longer occupy the central place in Turkey’s foreign policy. In addition, some of Turkey’s new foreign policy choices have created friction with its traditional allies, sparking concern among some observers about a gradual drift away from the West.

At an event hosted by Carnegie Europe, Carnegie’s Sinan Ülgen presented his latest paper, A Place in the Sun or 15 Minutes of Fame? Understanding Turkey's New Foreign Policy. He was joined by Ambassador Selim Kuneralp, Turkey’s permanent representative to the EU, and Ria Oomen-Ruijten, MEP and European Parliament Rapporteur on Turkey. Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers moderated.

Evolving World Order

  • Global Evolution: Conversations about Turkey often double as conversations about the role of emerging powers across the world, Carothers pointed out. These emerging powers are engaged in the process of redefining their interests. Carothers argued that Western powers like Europe and the United States need to decide how best to adjust to this new power balance.
  • Global Changes: Kuneralp added that global and regional changes have contributed to Turkey’s evolving role. The rigid alliances that once existed during the Cold War have passed, allowing for new potential international partnerships to emerge. At the same time, a number of regional ethnic conflicts have broken out, giving Turkey an incentive to become a more active regional actor.
  • Turkish Evolution: While the lack of progress in the EU accession negotiations has frustrated many Turks, recent economic and regional successes have resulted in a newfound confidence across the country. This has led to Turkish foreign policy agendas that promote Turkish-specific interests, explained Ülgen. Turkey has therefore been able to be more assertive. With the EU’s loss of leverage, Ankara may become less flexible on its outstanding disputes with Brussels including the Cyprus or the NATO-EU issue.

Drivers of Change in Turkey

  • Reconceptualization: Following the Justice and Development Party’s victory in 2002, there was a reconceptualization of Turkish identity and foreign policy, argued Ülgen. Turkey is a country straddling multiple identities, from Islamic, Asian, Arab, and Western, to Balkan. In the past, the Western identity had been favored by ruling governments. Since this reconceptualization of Turkish identity, there has been an embrace of multiple Turkish identities, Ülgen said, which is particularly apparent in the way Turkey has reached out to more nontraditional regional partners. This reconceptualization also means that the West has lost its privileged position among Turkey’s foreign policy partners.
  • Less Emphasis on Security: In the past, Ankara’s foreign policy was seen as a tool to achieve national security policy goals, Ülgen noted. There is now an evolving idea that foreign policy should do more. For example, a new political constituency has emerged to push the government toward heavier reliance on foreign policy to achieve economic goals, especially in forming partnerships with nontraditional partners in the Middle East.
  • Economic Growth: Turkey has experienced exceptional growth during the past decade, resulting in a present growth rate of 7 percent and a per-capita income that has tripled. Ülgen noted that these successes have attracted international investment, including funds from neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

Turkey’s Relationship with the West

  • Clashing Positions: While in the past Turkey generally aligned itself with the West’s agenda, recently Ankara has been taking positions opposite of those espoused by the West, Ülgen said. One key example of this was Turkey’s vote against the UN Security Council’s sanctions on Iran last year. Ülgen warned that such actions may put security alliances like NATO at risk due to differing threat perceptions among members.
  • Future Relations: Although Turkey’s regional and international roles have evolved, Turkey is not necessarily moving away from the West, argued Ülgen. Rather, it is in the process of rebalancing priorities. This gives the West an opportunity to push Turkey toward becoming a responsible international actor, especially in promoting regional stability and sharing the burden of solving global challenges. Kuneralp stressed that Turkey is still very interested in working with the EU, pointing out that Ankara and Brussels share similar foreign policy positions on a number of issues, such as Iraq. Oomen-Ruijten added that strong bonds exist between the EU and Turkey, given that 80 percent of foreign direct investment in Turkey comes from European countries.

Sustainability of Change

According to Ülgen, Ankara’s evolving foreign policy is sustainable as long as the country’s economy continues to grow. However, he argued there are costs to foreign policy choices, such as endangering international alliances and partnerships. It can be hard to translate costs; and the actual figures are more complex than one can predict. Oomen-Ruijten added that Turkey must address some outstanding domestic issues before it can have a strong and effective foreign policy. The existing domestic political climate is confrontational and polarized, Oomen-Ruijten said, and a number of significant issues—including minorities’ rights, the role of women, development in the southeastern part of the country, and democracy—still need to be addressed.