Monday, 07 December 2009

Not Yet Lost: Turkish Foreign Policy and the West

Published in Articles

By Hüseyin Bağcı (vol. 2, no. 22 of the Turkey Analyst) 

Turkey’s recent international initiatives and not least its “openings” to neighbors with whom relations have traditionally been less than friendly, signal a qualitative as well as quantitative change of what was once a defensive and cautious foreign policy. Turkish as well as international observers are experiencing difficulties as they try to make sense of what is perceived as Turkey’s “new orientation”. Although it may be tempting to conclude that Turkey is being “lost” for the West, the country does in fact remain a principally Western power, albeit one that enjoys a much greater room for maneuver in the international arena than ever before.

BACKGROUND: It is an undeniable fact that Turkey is displaying far more self-confidence than earlier and is beginning to perceive itself as a regional and potentially even as a global player. The new foreign policy, guided by the well-known formula “zero problems with neighbors”, once coined by Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, is beginning to reap its first fruits – as for example in its booming relationship with Syria – but it is also creating doubts in Western quarters about whether Turkey is moving away from the West. However, Turkey’s “Ostpolitik”, what may be termed its eastern orientation, is in keeping with the "zeitgeist" of current global politics and it is a natural consequence of regional and global developments. Indeed, Turkey is now enjoying a larger freedom of maneuver, and is able to assert its influence. In fact, no other Turkish prime minister has had such an auspicious foreign policy environment as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  Turkey nevertheless remains anchored in the West in political and economic terms; yet, the way Turkey defines itself in relation to the West has indeed changed.

In the past, Turkey sought the approval of Europe, and pleaded for the affirmation of Europeans that it indeed was European. President Abdullah Gül recently displayed Turkey’s new self-confidence, and the country’s more relaxed attitude to matters European, when he declared that being a member of the European Union is not the only measure of being part of Europe. Norway, declared Gül, is as European as anyone else, although it’s not an EU member. Turkey will continue its efforts to live up to European standards regardless of the discouraging attitudes of countries such as France and Germany, was the message of President Gül.

Meanwhile, the "political chemistry" between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Erdoğan is evidently good, with both leaders being interested in further developing the relationship. Russia has used the Turkish policy for a stable energy security policy and for its interests in the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The signing of a deal on the Nabucco pipeline does not mean that Turkey is desisting from extension of Russia’s Blue Stream pipeline. When he visited Ankara in August, Russian Prime Minister Putin signed 20 agreements with Turkey; Russia is Turkey’s largest trading partner and Russia’s second-largest gas purchaser after Germany. Russia supports the Turkish opening toward Armenia and when the Armenian and Turkish Foreign Ministers signed the protocols on August 31,  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in attendance. 

IMPLICATIONS: Once Turkey’s archenemy, Russia is today viewed favorably as never before by Turkish public opinion. Yet for Turkey, Russia is still not a political alternative to its western orientation, but mainly a business partner. That makes Russia a very important country for Turkish foreign policy, and Turkey will take Russian interests into account. But it is unlikely to align itself with Moscow.

The Turkish policy in the Balkans is also experiencing a renaissance with the emergence of the Black Sea region. Never since the end of the Cold war has Turkey been so influential in this region. Nevertheless, the speech of Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu in Sarajevo in October 2009 also arose fears of "neo-Ottomanism” as he claimed that the Balkans had never been as "happy and rich" as during Ottoman rule.  Obviously, the Balkan countries are prone to experience certain unease when confronted with such displays of “Ottomanism”. Although Turkey has built itself a reputation as a "soft power" in the Balkans, such exaggerated statements clearly risk undoing part of what has been achieved in the region. Indeed, Turkey runs the risk of overplaying its hand if it assumes that its historical, imperial legacy bestows prominence to it in its dealings with the countries that make up its supposed “strategic depth”.

The Balkans and the Black Sea region are closely connected, and the EU is an increasingly important force there, through accession talks with the Balkan states and the Eastern Partnership with the Eastern neighbors, most of which are in the Black Sea region. Turkey is a part of this new architecture. In this area from the Balkans to the eastern neighborhood, the U.S., the EU and Russia are the main power centers together with Turkey. They now appear to act more cautiously toward each other, and Turkey faces the task of regulating its relations with these three power centers and to define its interests there – but as a soft power, not a country acting unilaterally.

Indeed, the position of the U.S. as Turkey’s key partner beyond comparison in the foreign and security policy areas remains unquestioned. The Government’s Kurdish or democratic opening of as well as its opening with Armenia is strongly supported by the United States.
However, as Turkey develops its relations with Syria, Iran as well as Iraq, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan plays to the "Arab street" with his criticisms of Israel, it is tempting to conclude that Turkey is being “lost to the West”. Yet the administration of President Barack Obama is not necessarily unhappy with the Turkish criticism of Israel, as the U.S. is pursuing a reconciliation policy with the Islamic world. As a Western ally that is critical of Israel, Turkey may fulfill an essential role in the context of this American strategy.

Turkey is set to continue to develop its close relationship with Iran despite the criticism of many Western countries, since Iran is above all valued as an economic partner. However, Turkey also wants to continue to act as an honest broker between the U.S. and Iran, and it will therefore need to strike a balance between the conflicting aspirations – economic and geopolitical – that pull its Iranian policy in different directions. Nevertheless, the contracts with Syria, Iraq and Iran are principally economically oriented and are in this sense expression of the strength of Turkey as a "soft power" in the region and of its pragmatism, not of any supposed ideological reorientation away from the Western world.

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey is far from being “lost for the West”. Indeed, it may be argued that Turkey in some ways has never been a better representative in its region of the values of the liberal West than it is today. Although the internal and foreign policies of the AKP government are hampered by inconsistencies that do raise justified doubts about its sustained adherence to liberal values and to the Western alliance, Turkey has nevertheless under the rule of the AKP become a more “open” country where the government is willing to engage in dialogue with former, oppressed internal “others” – Kurds, Alevis – and former, external foes – Armenians, Syrians – alike. Ultimately, it is the success or failure of Turkey’s internal, democratic “openings” that will decide whether or not the country is lost or won for the West.

Hüseyin Bağcı is Professor of International Relations at Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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