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Transformation of Turkish Foreign Policy

Aijaz Ahmad

Research Scholar

Department of West Asian and North African Studies

 Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh


  Mob- +918533030421



Turkey has undergone an immense social, political and economic transformation since the end of the Cold War. This has also been the case when it comes to their foreign policies. However, Turkey’s truly multidimensional foreign policy came into existence in 2002. Since then Turkey has been actively re-defining its foreign policy preferences in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Turkey’s Asia policy is no longer based on Pakistan as it was a decade ago. ‘New’ Turkey is deeply interested in developing stronger relations with China, India and other rising Asian powers as part of the diversification of its economy and foreign policy. Turkey is one of the few most discussed but little understood country in the world. Religion, culture, fast-track modernization, conservative domestic political culture and western oriented foreign policy outlook have always been the sources of confusion in the west and the east alike. Nevertheless, only recently has the world shown a greater interest in Turkey. Turkey, too, has been only able to develop a clear terminology to explain the new situation both in its domestic and foreign policy fronts. In other words, ‘new’ Turkey articulated itself to the world with a new sense of rhetoric.

What makes Turkey unique is not its geography, religion, modernity or secularism singly, but the interesting mixture of all. Turkey is at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East at the same time. It is because of this character that some historians have even suggested calling Turkey a continent by itself.

A true understanding of Turkey may shed light on several issues: the transformation of political Islam, the role of military in politics in non-western societies, the rise of the influence of middle-sized states in political and discursive arena in global politics. Each of these issues requires in-depth analysis, which is beyond the scope of this brief, though a general outline of the major tenets of the ‘new’ Turkey would help readers grasp the essence of the changing face of Turkey in the 21st century.

Key Words: Turkey, China, India, Secularism, Middle east


Transformation of Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkey has gone through multiple eras of dramatic upheaval, both domestically and externally, over the previous nine decades of its republic history. The influence of one such revolution in Turkey, which occurred simultaneously in the country’s internal and external sectors, is being felt around the world today. Several amazing changes have happened in several elements of the Turkish state and society since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Turkey’s economic prosperity, in particular, had fueled its ambition and assertion for a larger role in international affairs. These changes, especially those affecting Turkey’s external environment, began when the current ruling party, the AKP, took office in 2002 and began reorienting the country’s foreign policy around the notion of “Strategic Depth.”[1] Ahmed Davutoolu, foreign policy advisor to then-PM (2002-2009) and current President Recepe Tayyab Erdgon, envisioned the concept as well as the ‘new’ foreign policy directions.

The concept of “Strategic Depth” has instilled wide-ranging diversification in Turkey’s policy. As part of the ‘strategic dept doctrine’, Turkey has tried to follow a policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ and diversified its foreign relations by reaching out to other regions, not important to the country previously. As envisioned by Davutoolu, the AKP projected Turkey as a ‘central’ country in its foreign policy domain on the basis of the strength deriving from countries geography, history and identity.[2] Turkey was no longer labeled as a “flank country” (of NATO) during the Cold War era or as a “bridge country” between West Asia/Muslim world and the Western world, according to the new foreign policy thinking. Turkey endeavored to follow a policy of ‘zero conflicts with neighbors’ as part of the concept of ‘strategic depth,’ and this policy was quite successful until recently, when it was unsettled by developments mostly in Syria, its southern neighbor. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Turkey’s AKP developed tight ties with practically all of its neighbors, based on this premise.

The doctrine’s emphasis on multidimensionality in foreign policy has been another key element. As a result, the AKP government sought to diversify Turkey’s foreign connections by reaching out to regions that were previously unimportant to the country. Turkey’s policies expanded beyond West Asia to Central Asia, the Caucasus, the southern Mediterranean, and the Balkans.[3] It has also showed a keen interest in creating and developing economic, political, strategic, and cultural ties in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia, particularly South Asia and South-East Asia. Many termed the AKP’s foreign policy activities, notably in the West Asian and Balkan regions, “Neo-Ottomanism,” implying Turkey’s expanding appeal and emphasis on forging tight ties with Muslim countries in former Ottoman territories. Many academics, however, dispute this label for Turkey’s involvement and assertiveness, pointing out that Turkey developed close ties with practically all of its neighbors throughout this time.

Many in the West have questioned Turkey’s Western/European oriented foreign policy approach as a result of the AKP’s multi-faceted agenda, pointing to the country’s “axis shift” or departure from previously pursued foreign policy. Turkey’s growing engagement with West Asia and other non-Western areas, however, does not contradict its historic policy, but rather complements its connections with the West, according to Ankara’s decision makers.[4] It’s worth noting that the AKP’s emphasis on foreign policy diversification was not unique to them; it was highlighted by various previous governments during the post-Cold War period.

Aside from the two principles mentioned above, the AKP’s foreign policy stressed Turkey’s active diplomacy and mediation role in numerous regional and global problems. Turkey took part in a number of similar efforts in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The AKP’s strategic depth concept likewise minimized the importance of physical force and took the lead in de-securitizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The AKP’s foreign policy goal was to display the country’s soft power and emphasis on bilateral and multilateral economic engagements. Turkey has evolved as a regional player, or rather a multi-regional actor, with clout in West Asia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Southern Mediterranean, the Balkans, Asia, Africa, and Latin America as a result of these changes in foreign policy. In addition, Turkey is seeking for a prominent role in conflict settlement in some of these areas. It has aimed to play a significant role in practically all regional and global political and economic issues, and its influence can be seen in many of these areas.

Several developments at the international/regional and internal levels created context for the transformation of Turkey in the twenty-first century in general, and the country’s external arena in particular.[5] By the beginning of the 21st century, Turkey’s regional security environment had remained mostly unchanged since the end of the Cold War a decade before. The aftermath of 9/11 and the accompanying “War on Terrorism,” as well as an increased overemphasis on the “Clash of Civilizations” idea, have exacerbated the worldwide situation. Turkey, as a Muslim-majority country with extensive relations to the West, was well-positioned to counter this argument. As a result, Turkey’s attempts under the AKP to evoke the “Alliance of Civilizations” narrative rather than the “Clash of Civilizations” should be viewed in this perspective.[6] The AKP government used Turkey’s participation in the NATO-led ISAF security mission and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan to highlight the country’s relevance in regional and global affairs. Furthermore, the EU factor became an enabler and primary motivator for a number of internal reforms, particularly in the early years of the first decade, following the post-Helsinki summit (1999) decision.

Several domestic issues might also be identified as contributing to Turkey’s transition in the twenty-first century. First, the AKP’s victory with an overwhelming majority put an end to the decade of political turmoil caused by coalition governments, bringing much-needed political stability to the country. As a result, the AKP administration became a vehicle for political and economic reform. Second, the military’s influence in politics and, for that matter, foreign policy was severely reduced, resulting in the de-securitization of Turkish foreign policy in the twenty-first century.[7] This marked a significant shift from Turkey’s long-standing security-oriented foreign policy. Third, a newly emerging class of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs and businessmen, the so-called “Anatolian Tigers,” who are equally interested in expanding Turkey’s relations with countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and other Western countries have made significant contributions to transforming Turkey into a leading “trading state” in the region and beyond, from a state that was previously oriented towards the West, have made significant contributions to transforming Turkey into a leading “trading state” in Turkey’s economic development has been sustained during the last decade, and its GDP has tripled.[8] The country has the world’s 17th largest economy and is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, earning it the moniker “New Tiger” of the global economy. Fourth, the AKP’s support of “conservative democracy” and its redesigned ideology, backed by maverick leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul, Ahmet Davutoolu, and others, became appealing to the vast majority of Turkish citizens. Turkey has begun on a fast-paced liberalization as a result of political and economic reforms, which has resulted in the country’s massive macroeconomic performance. As a result, various domestic changes implemented during the last decade have served as catalysts for Turkey’s expanding external prominence.

However, it is not argued that Turkey has had an easy time over the years. The occurrences of democratic Arab upheavals, widely known as the Arab Spring, in Turkey’s vicinity and ostensibly growing regions of influence, while originally providing leverage in many aspects, have recently presented the country with significant obstacles.[9] The “Turkish Model,” which attracted West Asian countries during the AKP’s early years in power, appears to have lost its allure in the post-Spring period. The veracity of the AKP’s strategy of “zero conflicts with neighbors” has recently been called into question. The most recent and serious difficulties to Turkey’s foreign policy have arisen from the situation in its neighboring Syria, which has been exacerbated by the ongoing civil war and the creation of the so-called “Islamic State” in sections of Syrian and Iraqi territory. In light of developing regional dynamics, the AKP government has made various changes and adjustments to the country’s foreign policy. According to a Turkish academic, the AKP’s foreign policy stance following the Arab Spring movements is similar to Turkey’s early Cold War international policy, such as the Menderes Era foreign policy.[10]

 The AKP government’s policies, which have been in place since 2003, have a lot in common with Ozal’s. To begin with, the AKP’s decision-makers have Ozal’s background: they are from the Anatolian middle class rather than the Istanbul elite, and they are devout with a critical attitude toward Kemalist reforms, particularly Ataturk’s break with the Ottoman past and inheritance. The AKP decision-makers, like Ozal, inherited a crisis situation: there was governmental instability and, as a result, a lack of long-term policies (including a foreign policy). They, like Ozal, advocated for a break from the established political elite’s policies (or practices). Second, if the AKP’s foreign policy philosophy is not merely a replica of Ozal’s, it has a much in common with his. Both ideas have been dubbed “Neo-Ottomanist” by a variety of Turkish and international analysts.[11]

Turkey’s foreign policy has clearly shifted to a more liberal course under the AKP leadership. At the very least, Turkish diplomacy has shifted to a more liberal discourse and behavior, with a greater emphasis on trade and cooperation, multilateralism and mediation in conflict resolution, and greater inclusion of Turkish non-state actors, such as businessmen and religious networks, in diplomatic processes and negotiations. Is such a shift to a different doctrine even possible? Is it possible under what circumstances? What may the ramifications be, and what type of ramifications would be acceptable? What may the internal and exterior goals be in a perfect world?

[1] Ahmet Davutoglu, “Stratejik Derinlik: Turkiye’nin Uluslararasi Konumu” , Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position, Kure Publications, Istanbul, 2001; Detailed analysis in English in one of the earliest articles can be found in Alexender Murinson, “The strategic depth doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy”, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 6, 2006, p.p. 945-964.

[2] Murat Yepiltap and Balcy Ali, “A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AKP Era: A Conceptual Map”, SAM (Centre for Strategic Research), Paper No. 7, Ankara, May 2013, p. 8.

[3] Suat Kynyklyodlu, “Turkey’s Neighbourhood and Beyond: Tectonic Transformation at Work?”, The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 45, No. 4, 2010, p.p. 93-100.

[4] Mesut Ozcan and Ali Resul Usul, “Understanding the “New” Turkish Foreign Policy: Changes within Continuity Is Turkey Departing from the West?”, Uluslararasi Hukuk ve Politika, Vol. 6, No. 21, 2010, p.p. 109-133.

[5] Muhittin Ataman, “Interdependence and Diversification: A New Framework for Turkish Foreign Policy”, Bilgi, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2009, p.p. 38-57; Ahmet Sozen, “A Paradigm Shift in Tuerkish Foreign Policy: Transition and Challenges”, Turkish Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2010, p.p. 103-123; Ziya Oni, “Multiple Faces of the “New” Turkish Foreign Policy: Underlining Dynamics and a Critique”, Insight Turkey, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011, p.p. 47-65.

[6] A. Balci and N. Mis, “Turkey’s Role in the Alliance of Civilizations: A New Perspective in Turkish Foreign Policy?”, Turkish Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2008, p.p. 387-406.

[7] Gencer Ozcan, “The Changing Role of Turkey’s Military in Foreign Policy Making”, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No.23, May 2010, p.p. 23-46.

[8] Kemal Kirici, “The Transformation of Turkish Foreign Policy: The Rise of the Trading State”, New Perspectives on Turkey, No. 40, 2009, p.p. 29-57. By utilizing the conceptual framework based on Richard Rosecrance’s notion of the “trading state”, we explore the impact of economic considerations on Turkish Foreign Policy.

[9] Bilgin Ayata, “Turkish Foreign Policy in a Changing Arab World: Rise and Fall of a Regional Actor?”, Journal of European Integration, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2015; Bulent Ara, “Davutodlu Era in Turkish Foreign Policy Revisited”, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2014,p.p. 404-418.

[10] Mujib Alam, “The Dynamics of Turkish Foreign Policy under the AKP Rule and their Implications for India-Turkey Relations”, Journal of West Asian Studies, 2019, p. 85.

[11] Omer Taspinar,“Turkey’s Middle East Policies, Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism”, Carnegie, Paper No. 10, 2008; Huge Pope, “Pax Ottoman?The Mixed Success of Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Political, Economic, Intellectual Roots”, 2010, Foreign Affairs, 89 (6).