BACKGROUND: The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has during the last years developed multiple international actions to improve the position of Turkey on the international stage, expanding its political, economical and cultural connections to regions previously considered to be of low strategic relevance, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
During the last eight years Turkey has undergone deep changes at the domestic level as well as in the development of its international relations. From the point of view of the economy, Turkey’s past decade has been marked by macro-economic and commercial expansion and remarkable growth rates. Not only its economic rise, but also its democratic evolution has contributed to a positive, international image of the country.
During the management of the AKP, the Turkish foreign policy agenda has been defined by the “strategic depth” doctrine of engagement with neighbors, generating multiple interrelations with in particular the countries of the Middle East, though without abandoning the goal to form part of the European Union. During 2010, two notable events spoke of the new role that Turkey is aspiring to on the international stage: the Tripartite Agreement among Iran, Brazil and Turkey for the Iranian Nuclear Plan, and the Gaza flotilla incident that led to a clash with Israel.
In this frame, Latin America, as well as Africa is of secondary importance within Turkey’s general strategy. The only important international forum which Turkey shares with some countries of the Latin America, besides the United Nations, is the G20. However, one of the reasons why Turkey has shown a disposition to global diplomatic projection has been its growing commercial and political presence in both continents. Turkey’s interest in Latin America is related to the objective of diversifying its international relations; by supporting the multi-polarization of the international system and the centers of global decision-making, Turkey seeks to become less dependent on the West. Its participation in the G20 as well as the Tripartite Agreement of Iran, Brazil, Turkey in 2010, speak of a process, though only on an initial stage so far, of increased self-determination of its international behavior.
During the opening ceremony of the Latin America Research Center at the Ankara University in July 2009, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu underlined that “Africa and Latin America form the axis of the new panoramas formulated in Turkey’s foreign policy. In fact, they have an important role in Turkish foreign policy”. He went on to add that likewise, “Latin America plays a very important role in the conversion of Turkey’s regional effect into a world effect.” Thus, in the international strategy of the AKP, Latin America becomes an indicator of the extension of Turkey’s capacity of global influence.
Yet even though the AKP government has pursued an active policy towards Latin America, the foundations of the new Turkish policy towards the region were in fact laid with the official visit of President Süleyman Demirel to Argentina, Brazil and Chile in 1995 and which was followed by the elaboration of the “Action Plan for Latin America and the Caribbean” which set the guidelines for the development of relations with the countries of the region. Turkey’s Latin American policy was then re-launched with the declaration of the “Year of Latin America and the Caribbean” in 2006. Bilateral and multilateral business meetings, the high level visits of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Mexico, Brazil and Chile and the visits to Turkey in 2009 of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina in 2011 served as impulses for an exponential increase in commerce.
IMPLICATIONS: On May 1, 2011, a Treaty of Free Trade with Chile went into effect; meanwhile, negotiations with Colombia were scheduled to begin in July 2011. In 2010 bilateral commerce between Turkey and Colombia reached US$ 271 million, of which sales from Colombia to Turkey account for US$ 214 million. In global terms, the volume of trade between Latin America and Turkey has increased tenfold in fifteen years, from US$ 600 million in 1995 to 6 billion in 2009, with Brazil, Mexico and Argentina being the main trading partners. The stated objective of Turkey is to increase its trade to US$ 30 billion by 2023.
However, cooperation in defense and arms sales is almost non-existent. Even though Turkey has the second largest military in the NATO, the relations in this field have not been sufficiently developed. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), South America was the region in the world where the military expenditure grew most in 2010, though in absolute terms, it is still one of the regions which allots less money to military matters.
Turkey’s interest in Latin America is part of a wider strategy: As Turkey aims at becoming a global actor it seeks to diversify its political and commercial partners, which in turn will also lend it greater legitimacy in its efforts to wield influence in regions closer to home. Brazil and Mexico are Turkey’s most important block of partners in Latin America, followed by Chile and Argentina. It is with these countries that bilateral relations have developed most, and it is these countries that have exhibited the strongest desire to deepen their political association with Turkey. The reform of the UN system – notably of the UN Security Council – and the reconfiguration of the international economic system are recurrent themes on the multilateral agenda and are areas where the Latin American countries perceive that there is a convergence of interests with Turkey.
There are nonetheless also a series of factors and difficulties that circumscribe the expansion of Turkish interests in Latin America. The political and economic clout of Turkey, although it is a rising power, is still naturally going to be limited; meanwhile, the important Armenian Diaspora in countries such as Argentina or Uruguay is going to be an impediment to the further development of relations.
CONCLUSIONS: Never before have Turkey and Latin America been closer than they are at present. The regular exchange of high level political visits, the increase of commerce and the slow but sustained advance of cultural relations lays the foundations of a political convergence. From a geopolitical standpoint, the most important emerging association is the one between Turkey and Brazil. The two rising powers are well placed to assume the role as the speaker of their respective geo-economic spaces; their relationship stands to be of significant relevance as they promote a multi-polar international order, and it will bestow accrued legitimacy on them at an international level.
Although Turkey has made significant inroads in Latin America during the last decade, the concrete results are nonetheless still far from the wish of the political leaders. The re-elected government of the AKP has a great opportunity to further deepen Turkey’s relations with Latin America, generating opportunities for dialogue and participation on the international stage.
Ariel S. Gonzalez Levaggi is coordinator of the Middle East Program at the Argentine Center of International Studies (CAEI) and South America Representative of Encompassing Crescent.
© 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 (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".