Turkish foreign policy: Regional leadership instead of ties to the West

Samuel Huntington’s essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” from 1993 has been the subject of controversy over the past 30 years. Whatever one thinks of the thesis that cultural identity determines international politics, however, Turkey was supposed to be proved right by Huntington, who predicted that the pro-Western orientation of Turkey’s secular elite would be ousted by nationalist and Islamic currents in the course of the 20th century as soon as the competition of the 20th century subsided.

Turkey’s relations with the United States and Europe have been turbulent, to say the least, in recent years. Former US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have developed a kind of intimate friendship and have personalized bilateral relations, so to speak – to the detriment of almost all political issues.

Turkey, however, distrusts the United States because they support the Kurdish forces in Syria and refuse to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gülen, who for Ankara was the mastermind behind the failed coup in 2016. Turkey’s relations with Europe are no better, because the European heads of state and government are tired of the increasing illiberalism of Turkey and its military muscle games in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara is now turning to new partners. The government – against the will of its NATO allies – has bought Russian weapons systems and, together with Moscow, has launched major infrastructure projects, including gas pipelines and Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. Together, Turkey and Russia have defined spheres of influence in Libya and Syria. And recently, Turkey has been wooing China by attracting Chinese investment, buying the Covid-19 vaccine from Chinese manufacturer Sinovac, and refusing to criticize Beijing’s crackdown on the Uyghurs.

After almost 20 years of Erdogan, Turkey is no longer interested in being part of the transatlantic club

This is not a temporary change of course. Rather, Turkey is in the process of fundamentally changing its foreign policy orientation. After almost 20 years of Erdogan, Turkey no longer has any great interest in belonging to the transatlantic club or striving for membership in the European Union. Instead, the government wants to reposition the country as a regional hegemon. While the West still nostalgically remembers Ankara’s historical role in the transatlantic alliance, the Turkish leadership deeply distrusts its NATO partners and speaks of strategic autonomy. Once the exemplary model of a secular Muslim republic and a shining example of the transformative power of the liberal order, Turkey today questions the validity of the western rules.

Above all, Turkey longs to be a leading power in its own right. The new foreign policy should not be understood as a drift towards Russia or China. Rather, it is an expression of the endeavor to keep one foot in the door in both camps and to take advantage of the rivalries between the great powers. This change of course was set in motion by Erdogan’s regime, made possible by an international environment that Erdogan allowed. Neither a new government in Ankara nor a newly strengthened Western alliance can reverse this change of course. In the meantime, the security culture of the country is determined by a network of politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and scientists who are blatantly skeptical about rapprochement with the West. There will also be an independent Turkish foreign policy in the future.

In the past few years there has been a break with the status quo of the post-war period. But a look at history shows that there are historical models for Turkey’s balancing act. Both the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and the Turkish Republic in its early decades had tried to isolate the state from foreign influence and to pit more powerful nations against each other. To avert the decline of their empire, the Ottoman rulers embarked on ever changing alliances and temporarily joined forces with Austria-Hungary, Russia and Great Britain, before they made the mistake of allying themselves with Germany in the First World War.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the young Turkish Republic received political and military support from the Bolshevik government in Moscow. Turkey remained neutral during World War II, with the country’s leaders commuting back and forth between Nazi Germany and Great Britain to get military aid, export credits and other financial support from both. Erdogan is pursuing the same goal today: he wants to make pacts with the world powers without choosing either side.

There will also be an independent Turkish foreign policy in the future

To implement this strategy, a certain historical processing was required. The conviction that Turkey is unique among its neighbors and called to a regional leadership role – which was compared elsewhere with the idea of ​​the German “Sonderweg” that arose in the late 19th century – is rooted in the idea of ​​Turkey as a heritage of the Ottoman Empire. The secular tradition established with the founding of the state by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s was based on the fact that the Ottomans were portrayed as backward and inefficient rulers who could not keep up with “modern civilizations”. Erdogan’s Turkey strikes a completely different note.

Today, the Ottoman rulers are not reviled in political speeches and in television films as uneducated conquerors, but as pioneers of a new civilizational order who governed justly and showed more concern for their subjects than their Western contemporaries. The new discourse largely ignores the fact that the nationalist uprisings of these very subjects later contributed to the fall of the empire. Turkey’s revisionist historians portray the Ottoman era as a golden age of serenity and justice that was only disrupted by the advance of the “imperialist” West.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is increasingly relying on the Ottoman legacy to justify its foreign policy. Media close to the government celebrate the expansion of the Turkish military presence in former Ottoman areas such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Caucasus as the rebirth of a sleeping giant. Erdogan, on the other hand, is honored as the “Leader of the Century” – the modern version of Sultan Abdulhamid II, whom he venerated, who opposed calls for constitutional reforms in the late 19th century, defied the West and fought off the decline of the empire. By comparison, the Turkish media applaud Erdogan for playing hard against the great powers. They applaud his negotiations with Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin and his self-confident stance in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ankara’s military strength and Washington’s withdrawal from the Middle East enable Turkey to advance into regional conflict areas. The country’s expanding arms industry supplies the weapons for Turkish troops in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Turkish-made armed drones helped Azerbaijan achieve a decisive victory against Armenia in the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh last fall. The increasing self-sufficiency of the military-industrial complex in Turkey gives its leadership the confidence to make claims to power in the region, and Trump’s lack of interest in the Middle East and his desire for a smooth personal relationship with Erdogan gave them the opportunity to do so.

Turkey expanded its naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean and established bases in Qatar and Somalia without fear of opposition from the US

Turkey expanded its naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean and established bases in Qatar and Somalia without fear of opposition from the US. Rather, it was Russia that Erdogan had to watch out for. The Turkish President developed a close relationship with Putin and carried out every foreign assignment in cooperation with Moscow and with Putin’s consent. But this collaboration had its limits. To Ankara’s great frustration, Russia restricted the Turkish zone of influence in Libya, Syria and the Caucasus.

Erdogan’s real skill is to exploit weaknesses in the international system and find opportunities to pit Russia and the United States against each other. In Syria, for example, Turkey’s military intervention was a threat to the US-backed Kurdish forces, but Washington also knew how to use it as leverage against Russian intervention. Erdogan recognized an open breach in Libya and acted promptly: in 2019, the Libyan militia leader General Khalifa Haftar advanced against the Libyan government with an army supported by Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

In desperation, the government turned from one western capital to the next for help. Most western states were unwilling or did not have the courage to intervene. Turkey is different: its armed forces helped the government repel Haftar’s offensive with minimal military effort. By intervening in such conflicts, Turkey is gaining ground in the age of great power rivalries. As Turkish commentators like to put it, Ankara wants to “secure a seat at the table”.

So far, Erdogan has been able to demonstrate his claim to power in foreign policy. It is astonishing that he succeeds in doing this from a politically weak position. Turkey is in a serious economic crisis with double-digit inflation, a sharp depreciation of the lira and high unemployment, leading to capital leave and impoverishment of the average Turkish population. For the first time in decades, economists fear a balance of payments crisis. This turbulence gnaws at Erdogan’s power base – in April, less than 30 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for the AKP. That is significantly less than the 49 percent who voted for the party in 2015.

For the first time in decades, economists fear a balance of payments crisis

Erdogan’s foreign policy record may not save him either. Just like the members of many other nations, the Turks believe that their country deserves a special role. According to surveys, the idea that Turkey will find its way back to its former size on the world stage is very popular with the population and most voters share Erdogan’s distrust of the West, and especially of the US. But for most – with the exception of the fiercest nationalists – that is not enough. The majority of voters are pragmatic: they do not want Turkey to alienate itself from its Western allies, because this affects their economic prosperity and their quality of life. Support for EU membership is still around 60 percent, not because Turkish citizens feel like Europeans, but because many realize that integration into the EU means a stronger economy and better governance.

While the government is boasting that it is building a military base in Libya and bombing targets of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Iraq, companies in Turkey are going bankrupt, businesses have to close and pensions are falling. Turkey has also not yet managed to procure sufficient Covid-19 vaccination doses from manufacturers abroad; only about ten percent of Turks are vaccinated.

In short: Most citizens do not yet see that Erdogan’s ambitious international agenda is helping Turkey regain its old size. Despite the tireless nationalism of the pro-government media, the population is increasingly feeling that Erdogan is advancing too far on foreign policy. Turkey seems to have lost its compass and upset too many friends – perhaps it is making some of the same strategic mistakes here that robbed the Ottomans of their empire.

Most citizens do not yet see that Erdogan’s ambitious international agenda is helping Turkey regain its old size

Western observers mostly assume that Erdogan will remain in power for an indefinite period of time and that democratic change is no longer possible in Turkey. Most Turks disagree. Restrictions on freedom of expression, the imprisonment of many Kurdish politicians and other state reprisals make political competition difficult, but they do not guarantee Erdogan and the AKP a victory in the next elections, which are due to take place in 2023.

Erdogan’s challenger in this election will certainly promise to pursue a less offensive foreign policy and maintain more stable relations with the world powers. A post-Erdogan government could also take concrete steps to distance itself from its predecessor. It could once again commit itself more decisively to NATO, normalize relations with regional opponents such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates or revive Turkey’s accession talks with the EU – even if these efforts were in vain.

As an old pragmatist, Erdogan himself could try to turn back to the West if he thinks President Joe Biden’s plan to revive the US-led world order is promising enough to join this venture. However, if the power of the US wanes, Turkey will use this as an opportunity to increasingly establish itself as an actor in world politics. And it is difficult to imagine that any leading AKP or opposition politician would oppose the nationalist currents in the country and adopt an unreserved pro-Western stance.

In the long term, Turkey’s independent foreign policy will continue with or without the current president. Ankara is likely to continue to assert its sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean, investing its resources in expanding the defense industry and expanding its influence on regional issues. To integrate yourself as a loyal member of the transatlantic community is no longer as attractive as it used to be and certainly less appealing to Ankara than the idea of ​​pursuing your ambitions for power according to your own ideas. Turkey sees itself in the role of an imperial heir and will continue to go its own way – its special way.

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