The foreign policy of Turkey has undergone substantial changes since its establishment due to internal and external factors. This research article is an attempt to analyze Turkish foreign policy from a historical perspective. While doing this, the political culture, decision-making processes in foreign policy issues and the structure of foreign policy determinants will also be taken into consideration.
This article (published on WGI, first) aims to emphasize that the shifts in Turkish foreign policy have been directly related with both internal historical developments and external dynamics. Thus the main purpose of the article is to provide a descriptive framework of the historical roots of Turkish foreign policy and its interaction with the major global developments. Following this purpose, first some conceptual definitions regarding the topic under research will be made. Then, the historical analysis of Turkish foreign policy will be covered. Finally, the AK Party era will be analyzed with a special emphasis on the Syrian war as this war has an important impact on Turkey’s relations with Russia, United States and Turkey’s sphere of influence in the Middle Eastern region.
Concepts cannot be regarded as free of the historical context in which they emerge. In this sense, producing a conceptual framework is significant for monitoring the dominant language of Turkish foreign policy.
In the literature of International Relations, foreign policy is usually deﬁned as “the sum of official external relations conducted by an independent actor (usually a state) in international relations” (Hill, 2003:3). The geopolitical position of Turkey is an important factor in shaping Turkish foreign policy. Turkey stands at the nexus of three critical areas: the Balkans, the Caspian region and the Middle East. This makes Turkish foreign policy valuable for both Europe and United States.
Political culture can be defined as a set of widely shared fundamental beliefs that have political consequences. Actions cannot be interpreted as simply the result of external situations but cultural learning also plays an essential role in shaping what people think and do (Inglehart, 1990). States have their own political cultures. State elites are affected by national ideologies, and beliefs in the way they think about world affairs. Turkey has a strong bureaucratic state tradition inherited from Ottoman Empire this paves the way for a state-centric approach in foreign policy issues.
A shift of axis occurs when a country changes its policy and breaks with existing alliances and joins other alliance systems. (Yeşiltaş and Balcı, 2013:29). In Turkish context, axis shift is defined as Turkey’s strengthening of her bonds with the East by breaking up her bonds with the Western world. This term refers to the general tendency in Turkish foreign policy in the last quarter of the first decade of the 2000s.
-Policy of Zero Problems with the Neighbors
The policy of zero problems with the neighbors is the approach of minimizing existing problems with the neighbors (Aras, 2009:6). This policy has been one of the most important dynamics of Turkish foreign policy in the AK Party era. This policy has got six traits: i) equal security for all, ii) high level of political cooperation, iii) understanding the relationship between security, stability and development, iv) economic integration v) a high-level of regional consciousness, and vi) the coexistence of different cultures in a respectful way (Zentürk, 2010).
Soft power exists when foreign policy is based on culture, economic interdependency, historical ties and diplomacy. Defined as “getting what you want by convincing others”, the concept has been used to denote to Turkey’s foreign policy by “convincing” other states to pursue fair and persuasive policies. According to Ahmet Davutoglu who served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2009 and 2014 soft power had been the main tool in Turkish foreign policy in the time-being. (Kısacık, 2012)
Humanitarian diplomacy means persuading decision-makers to respect human rights in the conduct of foreign policy. Turkey conducted humanitarian diplomacy in Somalia at the height of the famine in 2011. Moreover, Turkish policy makers underlined that humanitarian diplomacy was part of Turkish foreign policy when Turkey started hosting Syrian refugees with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria (Yeşiltaş and Balcı, 2013:22).
A proactive diplomacy is applied for resolving all crises and for developing good relations with other countries.
-Active Foreign Policy
Rather than accommodating to the developments within the international system, this policy calls for direct involvement with these developments. Having an active foreign policy can be seen as a prerequisite for continuing the level of activism in Turkish foreign policy (Yeşiltaş and Balcı, 2013:19).
The architect of the neo-Ottomanist foreign policy approach is Ahmet Davutoglu. The strategy of neo-Ottomanism can be defined in analogy to Britain’s commonwealth with its former colonies, as the establishment of an Ottoman Commonwealth of Nations in the former Ottoman territories in the leadership of Turkey (Quoted in Akça, 2014).
Strategic Depth is mainly based on Davutoglu’s analysis of Turkey’s position in international arena. Davutoglu collected his arguments in his work titled “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position”, firstly published in September 2001. Strategic Depth has been the main reference book addressed to understand the main dynamics of Turkey’s foreign policy vision.
-Alliance of Civilizations
Alliance of civilizations initiative emerged as a reaction to the clash of civilization thesis. The alliance of civilizations initiative was built on the idea that different civilizations can work together. The idea was proposed in the UN in 2005, and was led by both Spain and Turkey. This alliance was existent in the foreign policy agenda between 2004 and 2006, however it has lost its priority in Turkey’s foreign policy. (Balcı, 2009)
Turkish Foreign Policy in the Early Republican Era
In the late Ottoman times, the Western world had been seen as a model for revitalizing statecraft in the Empire through the introduction of reform movements. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey has further embraced this model. The early Republican era refers to the period between 1923 and 1946 – the beginning of multi-party period. – The main parameter of the time-being had been characterized by both Western-oriented foreign policy initiatives and developing good relations with the East. This had been crystal clear in the words of Ataturk “Peace at home, Peace in the world.”
The 1920s witnessed the issues that have not been fully solved by Lausanne Peace Treaty. The first issue to deal with was the Mosul case. Negotiations were restarted in 1926, and an agreement was signed on June 5th, 1926. This agreement prepared the ground for a rapprochement with Britain and other Western powers. Another important issue was the population exchange with Greece. The issue was finally resolved with an agreement with Greece in 1930 (Kısacık, 2012).
In the inter-war period, Italy was the main threat for Turkey. Turkey during these years took steps in order to build alliances and partnerships, namely joining the League of Nations in 1932, the formation of the Balkan Pact in 1934, the signing of Montreux Straits Treaty in 1936, the formation of Saadabad Pact in 1937 and the signing of Tripartite Alignment Treaty with Britain and France in 1939 against the Soviet Union. During Second World War, Turkey remained neutral until almost the end of the war and joined the war finally to become a founding member of the United Nations.
Turkish Foreign Policy during Cold War Years
As known, after the Second World War, the world politics had a bipolar nature characterized by the dominance of United States and Soviet Union. A rivalry period between the two super powers shaped the international system between 1947 and 1991. Turkey joined the Western bloc and its institutional structures (Council of Europe in 1949, NATO in 1952). The application of Turkey to European Economic Community in 1959 and the signing of Association Agreement in 1963 that targets full membership can be seen as the efforts made by Ankara for integrating into every Western institution (Hale, 2000).
In addition to Cold war politics, there are some other critical developments affecting Turkish foreign policy in the Cold war era. One of these developments is Cyprus issue. The Turkish military intervention of 20 July 1974 prevented the Turkish Cypriots from being decimated and the island from being annexed to Greece (Türkmen, 2005: 78). On the other hand, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran and the Iran-Iraq war that started in 1980 and lasted until 1988 all further increased the importance of Turkey in the eyes of United States.
Turkish Foreign Policy in 1990s
The post-Cold war period meant major changes for all actors in the international system and Turkey was of no exception. It should be noted that, Turkey’s main foreign policy perspective continued to be US and NATO-centric in the post-Cold War era. The 1990s had witnessed major transformation in both domestic politics and foreign policy dynamics of Turkey. Similar to Reagan in USA and Thatcher in Britain, Turgut Özal period paved the way for the emergence of neo-liberal policies in Turkey. In terms of foreign policy, Turkey adopted multilateral diplomatic relations during 1990s. Turkey’s relations with Europe were also undergoing important change. In 1987, Turkey had applied for full membership to the European Community. At its 1999 Helsinki summit, the EU decided to accept Turkey as an official candidate for membership.
During Özal era, security-oriented foreign policy turned into economic-oriented one. Economic imperatives took precedence over strategic targets in the formulation of Turkey’s foreign policy especially in the Middle East. However, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 made Turkey adopt a more active foreign policy.
Main Dynamics of Turkish Foreign Policy under AK Party rule (2002-2011)
AK Party under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2002. This has been the first single-party government since the Motherland Party lost its majority in 1991. During the first years of the AK Party rule, foreign policy goals were poorly defined without a clear perspective with the exception of the commitment to full EU membership. During these years, critical developments like the 9/11 terror attacks and the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq shaped foreign policy steps. The central feature of all these developments was Washington’s aim to transform the region and Turkey had a significant role concerning these developments.
The pre-2002 formulation of Turkish foreign policy has been heavily shaped by the Kemalist Westernization project. AK Party elites reformulated it within the context of a liberalized internationalization project (Yeşiltaş, 2018). Turkey adopted a multidimensional approach for the conduct of foreign policy. In fact, the first attempt to define the principles of AK Party foreign policy was made by Ahmet Davutoglu. According to Davutoglu, Turkey needed to develop a new policy in order to integrate foreign policy issues within a single policy formulation framework (Aras, 2009:8). Davutoglu has been the architect of the principle of “Neo-Ottomanism” as an important element of foreign policy formulation during these years.
The important developments between 2002 and 2011 can be analyzed within a dual perspective. The first perspective is about Turkey’s relations with Washington, and the other perspective is about Turkey’s relations with the other countries. An important event at that time was the “Hood Event”. Following Iraqi invasion in 2003, Turkish soldiers in Iraq were captured by the US soldiers and they were led away with hoods on their heads. This event created a major tension between Ankara and Washington.
In terms of relations with Israel, Turkey has begun to adopt a more critical stance toward Israel. The-then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been harshly criticizing the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and in 2006 Turkey has been the first country to host the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal in an unofficial visit. Turkey also played a mediatory role in peace negotiations between Israel and Syria between 2007 and 2008.
On the other hand, Turkey diverged from Western-oriented foreign policy when Iran’s nuclear program began to dominate debates in international politics in 2010. Turkey supported the Iranian thesis that its nuclear program was peaceful and aimed to find a middle ground between Iran and the rest of the world in order to avoid potential conflict close to its borders. Turkey signed the “Nuclear Swap Deal” with Brazil and Iran and this attracted the attention of the international community at the time-being (Kısacık, 2012). It should also be noted that, the 2000s witnessed the deepening of Turkey’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. Visa-free travel has been agreed with, Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. In line with that, free trade agreements have been signed with Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Tunisia.
The Impact of Syrian war in Turkish Foreign Policy Decision-Making (2011-present)
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the instability in the region undermined Turkish political stability and foreign policy preferences. In a similar vein to the Arab upheavals, Syrian civil war which broke out in 2011 has caused a considerable degree of crisis in both international system and Turkey’s foreign policy preferences as a neighboring country. Since 2011 Turkey openly supported the dissidents militarily in Syria. In fact, the pro-Western nature of Turkish foreign policy became especially clear during the Syrian war. The Arab Spring made Turkey change the policy of ‘zero problems’ and become engaged actively in the Middle East region.
The war in Syria has increased Turkey’s concerns about security risks from the Kurds of Syria who have links with the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. There are some key events while analyzing the post-2011 process in Turkish foreign policy. One of them is Operation Olive Branch. On January 20, 2018, Operation Olive Branch was launched in Afrin, northwestern Syria. The primary objective of the operation was to repel the Democratic Union Party (the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization) and its armed wing (YPG) from Turkey’s immediate doorstep (Kasapoğlu and Ülgen, 2018).
The other development is Turkey’s military operation called “Peace Spring”. Operation Peace Spring was launched in October 2019. The main causes of the operation were YPG takeover of Northern Syria and the refugee crisis. This military operation aimed to stabilize a “safe zone” to resettle the refugees in the country.
Another development having a major impact of Turkish foreign policy is S-400 crisis. Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense missile system has raised questions concerning Turkey’s alliance with NATO. Washington has expressed a clearly negative opinion on Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles. Briefly, it can be said that, the Syrian crisis has been a major challenge for Turkish relations with United States and Russia in the region.
This article evaluated the dynamics and change in Turkey’s foreign policy from a historical point of view. The main argument of the article is that Turkey has not abandoned its Western-oriented foreign policy formulation despite being a unique actor in international politics. Turkey is the only country that is simultaneously a member of the NATO, Council of Europe, Islamic Cooperation Organization, OECD and G-20. Recently, Turkey has played the roles of conciliator, mediator, and arbitrator. According to Stephen Kinzer (2010), the world urgently needs countries to fulfill this kind of roles. There are not many countries equipped to play this role like Turkey.
However, there are lots of foreign policy issues that Turkey has to deal with. These include the PYD-PKK issue between Ankara and Washington, S-400s, Turkey-EU relations, Syrian war and the refugees, the PKK in Syria, and so on. Moreoever, Turkey will continue to pursue regional policies that prioritize stability and gradual change in the Middle East to prevent further polarization continued by the Trump administration.
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Ali Balcı, “The Alliance of Civilizations: The Poverty of the Clash/ Alliance Dichotomy?”, Insight Turkey, Vol. 11, No. 3 July- September 2009, pp. 95 – 108
Aras, Bülent , “Davutoğlu Era in Turkish Foreign Policy”, Seta Policy Brief, No. 32 May 2009.
Ardan Zentürk, “Demokrasinin Dış Politika Boyutu” [The Foreign Policy Dimension of Democracy], Star, November 1, 2010
Hale, William. Turkish Foreign Policy: 1774-2000. London: Frank Cass, 2002.
Hill, Christopher, The Changing Politics of Foreign Policy. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2003.
Inglehart, Ronald: Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1990.
I am an Independent Researcher and hold a PhD in Political Science
About: Begum Burak
I hold a Ph.D. degree in Political Science & Int'l Relations (2015). I major in Turkish Politics with a special focus on the post-1950 era. The main areas of my interest also include secularism, civil-military relations, and discourse studies. I have been a freelance blogger, freelance translator and ELT (English Language Teacher). I am also one of the founding members of Ilkmade (Ilkmade is an online platform that moves away from content that degrades the mind to thoughtful, robust discussions that elevate it).