No Sick Man of Europe no more

Turkey’s shifting foreign policy strategy in the light of its growing political and economic power.

Turkey’s current political establishment thinks in an offensive realist way. This is not what distinguishes it from former governments though; it’s the newly gained self-awareness, domestic political leeway and most importantly increased economic resources that does. Those changes altered Turkey’s regional foreign policy significantly, as it allowed it to pursue a more active strategy. In the words of a realist (that is, the IR school of realism) this would mean a shift from appeasement and bandwagoning strategies, like during the cold war with the NATO alliance towards balancing or buck-passing. The latter two can be observed in regard to Syria, where Ankara tries to balance Assad, by means of buck-passing towards Syrian rebels (see below).

At the same time the modest beginnings of Turkey’s opening towards its neighbouring countries started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, certain post-cold war developments took place in the wider Middle East that Fred Halliday coined as the Greater West Asian Crisis. Summarized it describes the events after the Soviet Union and the United States (the latter only supposedly) retreated from the region as a consequence of the (again: supposedly) new unipolar global system. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the US led military response to it initiated a series of quarrels that shake the region until today. Or even more so today than in the past 25 years.

Turkey’s role in the whole story is very ambiguous: first of all there is Turkey’s decades old NATO membership, making it the US’s most important and reliable partner in the region. A role that not only since recently is increasingly disputed, going so far that some voices question Turkey’s legitimacy inside the military alliance1. Secondly there is Turkey’s new gained regional consciousness starting with the retrospectively seen dramatic move of then President Turgut Özal to allow allied troops to conduct military operations from Turkish soil during operation Desert Storm in January 1991. A precedent that has not been repeated by the way, not even during the tragically mistaken US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thirdly there is Turkey’s role as growing regional – and in self-perception – global player with its fast growing economy and unprecedented political stability.

While the developments of the last two and a half decades radically re-shaped regional power structures, Turkey increasingly tries to play its role in it. In doing so, it turns away from Atatürk/Inönü style western orientation towards a regional hegemonic positioning. This can be seen from a liberal perspective, as Turkey increasingly economically and otherwise dominates in its immediate neighbourhood and tries to build up functioning relations benefiting its own economy and the sake of the Middle East. But it makes more sense to look at it from a realist perspective as the AKP government increasingly conducts realist strategies and behaves like a great power. This perspective clearly indicates Turkey’s intention in becoming a regional powerhouse and ultimately the regions hegemon. Examples for Turkey’s shifting role are its balancing role toward the Syrian government, by supporting “moderate” Syrian opposition groups, including Ahrar ash-Sham, whose members are accused by the UN and US of having committed atrocities against civilians2 and which has been target of coalition airstrikes during operation Inherent Resolve. Another example is Turkey’s strategy of outmanoeuvring the since 2006 incumbent Shi’i government in Bagdad by signing bi-lateral trade agreements with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil which is broad hint towards both Iraq and Iran, showcasing Turkish power. Furthermore there is Turkey’s rapidly increasing trade with its Neighbours, pointing towards a shift of priorities from stable trade relations with the west towards a stronger role in the region. Although Turkey’s trade with the Middle East suffers from the still very strict international sanctions on Iran, the political quarrels between Ankara and the former al-Maliki government, political instability in North Africa and of course the current civil war in Iraq and Syria3, the significance of the region for Turkish exports and imports increased dramatically over the last decade4.

But Turkey’s hegemonic strategy is facing many obstacles. For one there is the fact, that Turkey is not the only country trying to dominate the region. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are pursuing similar active neighbourhood policies and are adversaries for regional dominance with similar starting positions. Moreover Turkey’s economy, just like most others, was hit by the global downturn since 2009/10, facing its most difficult times since the outbreak of the financial crisis5. Furthermore there are a number of realpolitik constraints, from the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq that both bare uncontrollable dynamics to the fact that Arab Nationalists as well as Islamists reject (secular) Turkish interference. Although realising the latter perfectly well, and adapting a Sunni-religious foreign policy agenda, Turkey’s attempts to pay court to respective organizations with links to the Muslim Brotherhood (e.g. Hamas, Ahrar ash-Sham) or the Muslim Brotherhood itself only led to a renunciation by regional actors which goes so far that Turkey currently has no ambassador in Egypt and Israel; and Syria for that matter. What also restricts the current government’s ambitions is that Turkey is bound by its engagement with the west, especially and increasingly with the EU that not only is expanding in the Eastern Mediterranean and South Balkans itself, but also heavily criticises Turkey’s regional power play as seen currently in Kobanê6. The above mentioned difficulties between Washington and Ankara can also have a heavy impact on Turkey, as Washington wishes it to be a reliable partner and stable force in the region as it is the US’s most important vehicle for offshore balancing in the Middle East. Arguably Turkey’s reliance on US technology and military assistance is at least as significant as (the increasingly questionable) US reliance on Turkey as a regional partner and ally.

But Ankara has developed an already mentioned self-consciousness that will not make it easier for its partners. A radical shift in priorities took place since the late 1980s, most dramatically since 2002, away from European centred pro-western policies towards a more active neighbourhood policy. That shift was accompanied by many mistakes, as described above, and drove Turkey towards a more vulnerable position. But the change had to be made, if not for the sake of the region, but for sure for the sake of Turkey. The country needs to recognize the nature of its admittedly very fragile neighbourhood and engage in regional policies. What the region above all lacks though is an institutionalization that e.g. took place in Europe after the end of the Second World War. As long as that is not being engaged, and I personally see no sign of that happening, regional actors including Turkey will keep pursuing a realist strategy of regional dominance. Arguably that can also be the case within an institutional framework, but therein it is less likely to cause the damage it does under the current circumstances. To find a balance between stable economic and political relations with the west and engagement with the region will be key for Turkey’s further development.

Photograph: Rasit Aydogan/EPA