BACKGROUND: For nearly sixty years, Turkish foreign policy priorities have been dictated by the requirements of the membership in the Western alliance. The alliance with the United States has formed the country’s strategic bedrock. Turkey has seen itself as a Western country, and it has applied significant efforts since the end of the 1990s to become a member of the European Union. And it is from the pool of European countries that Turkey was elected to its temporary seat in the United Nations Security council. Yet the election is symbolic in another respect, as it represents the coronation of policies that have increasingly ventured beyond what has been traditional Turkish foreign policy.
The Turkish accession to the UN Security council is the result of multi-dimensional endeavors and engagements; thus, it serves to underline the change that is under way in Turkey’s foreign policy priorities. In its rhetoric, the Islamic conservative AKP government remains committed to the goal of Turkish EU membership. Indeed, Turkish Islamic conservatives admittedly took a historic step when they broke with their tradition of virulent anti-Westernism. Yet in reality, the AKP has displayed little enthusiasm for the EU since 2005. Its embrace of Europe was a step that was above all prompted by the realization that their way to power would remain blocked if they persisted in appearing hostile in particular to the United States. And by championing EU membership, the Islamic conservatives have been able to occupy the ideological high ground in Turkish politics as agents of modernization and liberalization.
Meanwhile, the AKP government has actively sought to strengthen Turkey’s economic, political and cultural relations with its neighbors, with the country’s so called “strategic depth”. Relations have been cultivated with Iran and Syria. In addition, the twin policies of attracting Arab capital and of nurturing good relations with the world of Islam have enabled Turkey to gain significant prestige among Arab countries. Moreover, the bilateral relations between Turkey and African countries have evolved as never before, with the establishment of new embassies in several African countries.
The AKP had not been focused on the Caucasus and Central Asia until Russia intervened in Georgia. However, after the intervention, Turkey began dealing with the region more intensely. Although relations between the West on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, are strained and marked by strategic and ideological adversity, Turkey has been actively courted by these two countries, and Ankara has notably not shown Tehran and Moscow any cold hand. In particular, the idea of a Caucasus Pact (subsequently changed to the Caucasus Platform) put on the agenda by Turkey during the Russian invasion of Georgia included only Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia – leaving out the U.S. and Europe, a telling sign of the new thinking in Turkish foreign policy. Initiatives are taken in a way that often exclude Turkey’s Western allies. Turkey’s insistence that the question of Iranian nuclear capacity should be resolved by negotiations and in a way that takes Iranian interests into due consideration, and the additional fact that Turkey has come to share the same view as Russia on the question of the presence of NATO ships in the Black Sea are other examples of a foreign policy that seems to evolve away from Western priorities.
IMPLICATIONS: This change in Turkish foreign policy is explained not so much by what the United States and Europe have or have not done with regard to Turkey; it should rather be seen against the backdrop of an accumulated intellectual tradition of anti-Westernism. For decades, Turkish intellectuals on both the right and left have faulted the West, in particular the United States, for Turkey’s troubles. All major political forces today, from the Islamic conservatives in government to the secularists and nationalists in the opposition, are psychologically inclined to take an anti-Western stance.
Admittedly, Turkish-American relations have been severely tested by the Iraq war and its consequences. The failure of the AKP to “deliver”, when the Turkish parliament voted against letting the United States invade Iraq via Turkey, caused great consternation in Washington at the time. Meanwhile, the invasion enabled the Kurdish separatist PKK to establish itself in the safe haven of Kurdish-administered Northern Iraq and mount a new wave of attacks on Turkey. As nationalist Turks see it, the United States is engaged in an effort to undermine the integrity of Turkey, as Americans long prevented Turkey from taking any decisive action itself in northern Iraq and as the United States itself refrained from taking direct action against the PKK.
Meanwhile, Turkish-European relations continue on a less than cordial level. Yet, it would be wrong to explain the shifting priorities of Turkish foreign policy with the effects of the Iraq war or with the cold reception given Turkey in European capitals. The AKP has not become anti-American or anti-European; the AKP has in fact never been pro-American or pro-European in any deeper, ideological sense. The basic fact that the Islamic conservatives cannot afford to be hostile to the United States and that they depend on having Europe’s benediction remain unchanged realities for the AKP, the eastern and southern foreign policy re-orientations notwithstanding.
Still, a deeper strategic estrangement from the West may eventually very well result. With the evolution of closer relations with countries like Russian and Iran, the diversification of Turkish foreign policy is bound to interact with internal dynamics that continue to gather strength. These internal dynamics point towards a growing, cultural estrangement from the West. It is religious conservatism and nationalism, not Western-style liberalism that are on the ascendancy in Turkish society. Turkey is not only becoming a religiously more conservative country; the opposition to this development is increasingly expressed in terms of anti-Western nationalism, as the West is seen as the supporter of Islamic conservatism in Turkey.
CONCLUSIONS: While the governing AKP cultivates relations with the Muslim Middle East in particular, the secularist opposition, deserted by a West that seems to have opted for a “moderately” Islamic Turkey, is tempted by “Eurasian” orientations, in search of new allies that unlike the United States and Europe would not confront the secular and unitary foundations of the Turkish republic. Officially, the Turkish armed forces remain as committed as ever to the strategic alliance with the United States, a fact that was reiterated by the new chief of the General staff, General Ilker Basbug, in his inauguration speech a few months ago.
Yet, it was no coincidence that the new army chief, General Isik Kosaner, struck a very different, pointedly anti-American chord in his inauguration speech. Several retired generals have spoken out in favor of a Eurasian reorientation of Turkish foreign policy strategies, with Russia, China and Iran replacing the United States. There is no doubt that such a current of thought exists in military ranks, a fact to which General Kosaner’s speech testified, although it is obviously difficult, not to say impossible, to assess its current strength.
The seat in the United Nations Security council presents Turkey with a platform and an opportunity to further develop its relations with a wider range of countries. With mutually reinforcing internal and external dynamics, Turkey would seem to be on course to become less Western in its strategic priorities and cultural orientations alike. It remains to be seen whether its behavior in the security council will bear this out.