Monday, 07 June 2010

Turkish Hubris: Has the AKP Government Overreached in its Foreign Policy?

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell (vol. 3, no. 11 of the Turkey Analyst)

Ostentatiously seeking zero-problems with neighbors, Turkey has ended up taking on an erstwhile strategic partner in the region. Its growing economic clout does indeed legitimate Turkey’s aspiration to have a decisive say in Middle Eastern matters. Ultimately, Turkey’s new, assertive – indeed aggressive – foreign policy is predicated on the notion that the West is on the decline. Yet as they rather carelessly wield their newfound power, the Turks seem curiously oblivious to the risks of overreaching.  

BACKGROUND:  Turkish foreign policy has become increasingly self-assured and activist. Bearing the signature of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s new foreign policy  aims  to deepen the country’s ties to the Muslim Middle East, and to its historic hinterland,  deemed Turkey’s ‘strategic depth’, in general.  The policy of  ‘zero problems with neighbors’ (See Turkey Analyst, 5 June 2009 issue),  has been successful in so far as it has broken Turkey’s regional isolation and removed several contentious issues that had  poisoned its relations with nearly every one of its neighbors. Ankara has turned an antagonistic relationship with Damascus into a strategic partnership; it has turned a policy of isolating northern Iraq into one of engagement with the Kurdish leadership there. Ankara also built close ties with the Islamic republic of Iran; it has cultivated gulf regimes, as well as notably Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan.  Most importantly, the AKP has deepened Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East conflict, first by seeking to mediate between Syria and Israel, but increasingly by overtly taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the clash with Israel over the Gaza flotilla has revealed that Turkey’s new foreign policy has far-reaching strategic implications that up until now had been overlooked in Western quarters.

Ankara has re-oriented its foreign policy while reiterating its commitment to its Western alliance (through its NATO membership and EU candidacy). Yet this policy was always schizophrenic, combining links and ties that did not appear to be easily combined. But several factors allowed Ankara to walk a fine balance for several years. One was the considerable support the AKP had built up in Western capitals, ensuring that the party was given the benefit of the doubt by the great majority of officials and analysts. Indeed, this allowed the AKP to argue that its closer ties to government and regimes in its neighborhood – even those considered rogue by the international community – was in the West’s interests: Turkey could function as an interlocutor between the West and Iran, Syria, or Hamas, and be a positive influence on these forces. Secondly, Washington itself has reached out to Damascus and Tehran, making it difficult to criticize neighboring Turkey for doing the same.

Yet it has grown increasingly difficult to explain the AKP government’s foreign policy trajectory in exclusively benevolent terms. While ties to Syria and Iran are understandable given Turkey’s proximity to these countries – and the necessity, not least, to secure their cooperation in combating Kurdish separatism – that hardly explains the lengths to which Ankara has gone in publicly defending Iran’s nuclear program, as Prime Minister Erdoğan and Turkish diplomats have repeatedly done. Likewise, the tilt toward the Palestinian side is understandable in a country where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong – indeed, it is often overlooked that it was the 1993 Oslo accords that made the Turkish-Israeli alignment possible in the first place, and that the second Intifada greatly complicated Turkey’s ability to further nurture  its ties with Israel. However, none of this explains why the AKP began overtly championing the Hamas movement, while keeping a much colder attitude to the Fatah leadership in the West Bank. Only the AKP’s ideological baggage can explain these choices.

Ankara has followed the example of Western nations in making both business groups and NGOs part of its foreign policy. When Prime Minister Erdoğan or President Abdullah Gül travel to a Middle Eastern capital, they usually bring hordes of Turkish businessmen, chiefly those representing the conservative Muslim business groups that form the core of the AKP’s support base. As Turkey has become the world’s sixteenth largest economy, the influence of Turkish business on foreign policy has become palpable. And by promoting Turkey’s  conservative Muslim business groups-- the so called “Anatolian tigers” -- the AKP is killing two birds with one stone: while building Turkey’s regional role, it is also speeding up the remaking of Turkey’s economy. As the  religious business groups prosper, their share of the Turkish economy grows, gradually challenging the pre-eminence of Istanbul’s traditional, secular business groups.

The use of NGOs as a tool of foreign policy is less well documented; however, the AKP’s use of NGOs to finance pro-government media outlets was elucidated by a German court in the “Deniz Feneri” case, in which high-ranking government officials were implicated in embezzling money from Turkish Islamic charities in Europe, monies that were then diverted to Islamic media outlets. (See Turkey Analyst, 26 September 2008)  The IHH (Insani Yardım Vakfı), which organized the recent flotilla to Gaza, is an example of how NGOs are used in the foreign policy sphere as well. The IHH operates joint projects with the Turkish Agency for International Development, and is reported to have been used by the government in order to shore up Turkey’s position in northern Iraq by distributing aid to populations there. The IHH has its origins in the Orthodox Islamic Milli Görüş movement, from which the AKP organizationally split in 2001. As such, the IHH is known as a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist movement, which has been suspected and investigated repeatedly for alleged involvement in arms shipment to Islamic forces in various conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia. Leading former French counter-terror magistrate Jean-Louis  Bruguière has repeatedly testified that the IHH had ‘clear, long-standing ties to terrorism and Jihad’, including ties to Al Qaeda in the late 1990s.

While IHH is close to the more Orthodox Islamic Saadet (Felicity) Party, ties between individual high-ranking AKP figures and the IHH are known to be close as well. IHH acquired the Mavi Marmara ship from the AKP-run municipality of Istanbul. It is not conceivable that the IHH’s Gaza operation could have been carried out absent high-level government sanction. But unexpectedly, the confrontation with Israel has opened up a rift within the Islamic conservative movement. The influential Fethullah Gülen religious community – for which the AKP depends on for support and cadres – seems unhappy with Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli stance. In a statement that came as a shock to many in Turkey, Gülen overtly criticized the Gaza flotilla for having failed to seek accord with Israel in delivering the aid (as Gülen’s own aid to Gaza does). Gülen may disagree with the AKP on principle, or just view Erdoğan’s reckless policies as a liability to his own vision for Turkey – but the rift appears real nonetheless.

IMPLICATIONS:   Ultimately, Turkey’s new, assertive – indeed aggressive – foreign policy is predicated on the notion that the West is on the decline, with the “rise of the rest” assumed to have irrevocably reshuffled the cards of the international game.   As an emerging economic giant in its region, Turkey has come to perceive itself as not only a regional power, but as an aspiring global player.

 The expansion of the G8 to the G20 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis has been a seminal event in this regard, as it  validates Turkey’s self-perceived prominence in  a new world order.  During the preceding half decade, Turkey’s western moorings  had become increasingly tenuous, and appeared dated in the  post-Cold War reality. The Europeans alienated Turkey from around 2005, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq 2003 underscored how much American and Turkish strategic perceptions had come to diverge since the disappearance of the communist threat. Once a partner of the West, Turkey no longer hesitates to challenge the authority of Washington.  This interpretation is consistent both with the Iranian nuclear deal brokered by  Turkey and Brazil, and with the Turkish handling of the Gaza confrontation. Both Ankara and Brasilia appeared to have as their main objective to prevent the U.S. from succeeding in having the UN Security Council pass a new set of sanctions against Iran. And    Ankara’s public rebuke of the U.S. reaction to the Israeli boarding of the Gaza-bound Turkish ship was truly novel, with Turkey  demanding that Washington follow its line. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu first stated that “We expect full solidarity with us. It should not seem like a choice between Turkey and Israel. It should be a choice between right and wrong, between legal and illegal.” When his wishes did not come true, Davutoğlu expressed his strong dissatisfaction with the U.S. position.

Turkey has threatened drastic measures unless Israel bows to Turkish demands that include not only apologies and an international investigation, but lifting the blockade of Gaza. This leads to the obvious question whether decision-makers in Ankara truly believe that they will be successful in dictating to Israel, or for that matter to the United States, what course of action to take. If that is the case, it would suggest a level of hubris hitherto unseen in Turkish foreign policy. If not, it would suggest ulterior motives – perhaps setting unrealistic demands that, when not met, would be used to justify measures that will make Turkey’s international realignment even more dramatically obvious.

CONCLUSIONS:   Turkey’s growing economic clout does indeed legitimate its aspiration to have a decisive say in Middle Eastern matters. While Turkey enjoys an advantageous position as a consequence of its relatively strong economy, the structural political instability of the country will inevitably hamper its foreign aspirations and make it vulnerable. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic wished for “peace abroad and peace at home”; he advised Turkey to stay clear from foreign adventures, but he created a Kurdish problem. The AKP has the reverse problem: Erdoğan seeks confrontation abroad, challenging Israeli and American interests, while seeking to secure peace with the Kurds at home, so far without success.  A Turkey that has put its own house in order will not need to rely on a militant foreign policy in order to assert itself on the international scene.

The founding generation of the Turkish republic had first-hand experience of the costs of imperial designs and political adventurism, and for decades Turkey mostly stuck to a cautious and balanced foreign policy. The present rulers of Turkey have made it abundantly clear that past restraints do not apply to them. The question is whether or not their assessment of Turkish power is sufficiently well founded. Ostentatiously seeking zero-problems with neighbors, Turkey has ended up taking on an erstwhile strategic partner in the region.

As it rather carelessly wields its newfound power, the AKP government seems curiously oblivious to the risks of overreaching. Davutoğlu’s zero-problem-with-neighbors policy was always predicated on the unrealistic assumption that none of Turkey’s neighbors had any intentions that run counter to Turkish interests. Likewise, the alienation of Israel was based on the equally unrealistic assumption that Turkey will never need the friendship of either Israel or its lobby in Washington.  But mostly, perhaps, these policies have been based on the notion that America and the West need Turkey more than Turkey needs them.  What is clear in the meantime is that the AKP leadership has set in motion a reassessment of assumptions in the West, and particularly the United States, about Turkey’s reliability as an ally and partner.

Svante E. Cornell is Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. 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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