UK-Turkey relations and Turkey's regional roleWritten evidence from Bill Park, Senior Lecturer, King’s College, London

Executive Summary

Turkish foreign policy has altered much in the wake of the Cold War, and under the AKP government. It has become more regionally based, more active, more mercantile, more swayed by Islamic identity, and more independent. Although these shifts can be regarded as a “normalisation” of Turkish foreign policy, they can also indicate some distancing of Turkey from its western alignments. Furthermore, Turkish foreign policy is over-stretched, and the country remains vulnerable to regional forces over which it has little influence.

Introductory Remarks

1. There is today much comment, conjecture and some concern about the recent direction of Turkish foreign policy. It is argued that it has undergone a ‘paradigm shift’, that there has been ‘a shift in axis’ (from west to east), or that it is characterised by a kind of “Turkish Gaullism”. In the US in particular there is some debate about whether Turkey has been ‘lost’ to the west, and why.

2. This paper will:

(a)trace the origins of this supposed shift in policy;

(b)outline its underlying philosophy, and in particular the thinking of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu; and

(c)consider some of the content of current Turkish foreign policy, d/offer a critique of Turkish foreign policy as it has evolved in recent years, and e/consider the extent to which a UK-Turkish partnership in Turkey’s region is feasible.


3. With the end of the Cold War new foreign policy opportunities were opened up for Turkey in the post-communist world. Turkey was the first state to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence and to open embassies in the Central Asian republics, initiatives that were in part driven by pan Turkic aspirations. Economic and cultural agreements followed, as Turkey sought to exploit a ‘soft power’ approach to the region. Turkey also initiated the formation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) in 1992, as an element in its opening to the Balkan and Caucasus regions. In the Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s, Turkey played an active and constructive role, whilst championing the Bosnian Muslims.

4. Even before the November 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, Turkey had sought to restore relations with Greece. In the Middle East, the 1998 crisis with Syria heralded a remarkable transformation of the hitherto frosty relationships between Ankara and Damascus. This opening reflected the greater diplomatic fluidity and room for manoeuvre that were now replacing the rigidities of the Cold War.

5. There were other developments that influenced the subsequent course of Turkish foreign policy. During the 1990s Turkey suffered economically as a consequence of the embargo on Saddam’s regime, and politically with the emergence of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and its use as a safe haven by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey was uneasy with the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Turks across the political spectrum now pondered the mismatch between Ankara’s interests in the region, and those of the US—and indeed the UK.

6. The 1980s Ozal’s government also laid the economic foundations for the emergence of the mercantile and trading economy that we see today. This has created an imperative for Turkey to align its foreign policy with its economic interests, which are now increasingly focused on the immediate neighbourhoods—although the Arab Spring might yet cause a reconsideration of this. Turkey’s spectacular economic growth has also led to an increase in demand for energy, most of which is obtained from Russia and Iran. This has meant that its relationships with Moscow and Tehran in particular have become imperative for Turkish foreign policy makers.

7. All this preceded the 2002 AKP election victory. In a reactive, incremental, not always fully articulated way, both the context and content of Turkish foreign policy was already undergoing considerable change by the time the AKP gained office.

The AKP’s Foreign Policy Approach

8. The AKP’s November 2002 election victory was seen as a domestic challenge to the secular and Kemalist order in Turkey. The events of 9/11, and the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis with which it sometimes became associated, put AKP-led Turkey under the international spotlight too. In fact, the new AKP government prioritised Turkey’s EU bid, leading to the opening of accession negotiations in October 2005. It showed considerable political courage in its support for a solution to the Cyprus crisis. Trade, tourism, and military and intelligence cooperation with Israel was sustained, and in November 2007 Shimon Peres became the first Israeli president to address the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA).

9. Turkey also tried to soften the confrontational post 9/11 global diplomatic atmosphere. Thus, in 2005 Turkey and Spain jointly initiated the ‘Alliance of Civilisations’ under the auspices of the UN. Its purpose is to help counter the forces that fuel polarisation and extremism, and encourage instead greater dialogue and understanding. Turkish secretary general of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference) Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the first Turkish incumbent of that post, has been instrumental in persuading the organisation to reform and to adopt a programme of action. As Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu noted in his speech at the OIC’s foreign ministers meeting in May 2009, ‘this guiding document embraces shared values and principles that uphold peace, transparent, accountable and democratic good governance, the rule of law, the rights of women, respect for human rights and human dignity’. Indeed, Washington has sought to present Turkey as a ‘model’ to less democratic and less developed Muslim states, first in Central Asia and then in the Middle East.

10. Turkey constructively supported the UN mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan in December 2001, and has been a force contributor ever since. Turkey has twice commanded ISAF and currently has around 1,700 troops in the country. Turkey is also contributing 1,000 Turkish troops to the UN SCR 1710—mandated UNIFIL mission in southern Lebanon. In recent years Ankara has also engaged energetically in mediation between regional adversaries. It has sought to mediate between states (Israel-Syria, Syria-Iraq, Serbia-Croatia-Bosnia, Iran-US, Pakistan-Afghanistan etc) and within states (between factions in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and most recently between the Libyan government and opposition). At least during the early years of the AKP government Turkey’s western allies, including the UK, were generally content with the direction of Turkish foreign policy.

11. However, Ankara is guided by a set of ideas that pose challenges to Turkey’s traditional western alignments. First as foreign policy adviser, then since May 2009 as Foreign Minister, Davutoglu is identified as the driving force behind this “new” Turkish foreign policy, although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul also have significant inputs. Davutoglu’s main tenets are that:

Geopolitically, historically, and increasingly economically, Turkey is a central rather than a peripheral country. Thus, it can forge links with and between regions, and across civilisations. Its own wellbeing depends on multiregional security and stability. It is simultaneously a European, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Balkan, Caucasian, Eurasian, Middle Eastern, Islamic, democratic, and economically emerging (member of G20, 17th largest economy in the world) country, and its foreign policy should reflect that complexity and multidirectionality.

Turkey should strive to achieve “zero problems” with and between neighbours. This requires diplomactic engagement, and mediation, and has obliged Turkey to interact with regimes of all types (in Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan etc). It also requires an emphasis on “soft” power—trade, diplomacy, cultural interaction and societal contact—rather than on “hard” power. This foreign policy approach might eventually have an impact on the size of the Turkish military, to add to challenge to its domestic political status that is currently underway.

Western hegemony is coming to an end. A multipolar, culturally diverse, and globalised international system is emerging. In this new global order, Turkey’s experiences and prospects are similar to those of the emerging powers—the so-called “BRICS” (Brazil-Russia-India-China)—and its foreign policy is likely to exhibit a comparable independence and content.

Turkey is now a mercantile state, and this too should drive its foreign policy and determine its interests. Turkey’s trade with its regional neighbours has soared, and EU trade as a percentage of the Turkish total has declined.

Some Worries about Turkish Foreign Policy

12. Some of Davutoglu’s ideas, and their implementation, have worried the west. They imply that Turkey’s western alignments enjoy lower priority, and that Turkish foreign policy is undergoing a deeper “axis shift”. The slowdown in Ankara’s EU-inspired domestic reform programme reinforces this impression. Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric towards Israel offers another example, although his sentiments broadly reflect those of the Turkish public. The 2006 hosting in Istanbul of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the January 2009 row between Erdogan and Shimon Peres in Davos, the October 2009 cancellation of an air force exercise involving Israel, and above all the May 2010 Gaza humanitarian aid convoy crisis, all further highlight the apparent shift in Turkish policy.

13. Turkey also seems to have gone out if its way to befriend some of the region’s more anti-western regimes, including Iran and Syria. Erdogan congratulated Ahmedinijad on his contested election victory, and Turkey has sought to develop its energy relationship with Iran in the face of US unease. In the summer of 2010, Turkey not only sought with Brazil to secure a nuclear swap deal with Iran, but also voted against a subsequent toughening of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Erdogan has also courted Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, and in November 2010 became the last recipient of Ghaddafi’s International Prize for Human Rights. Indeed, Erdogan’s actions and utterances appear to wreak most of the damage to western perceptions of Turkey, and should be distinguished from Ankara’s generally more palatable foreign policy initiatives and actions.

An Assessment of the “New” Turkish Foreign Policy

14. There is now an Islamic identity to aspects of Turkish foreign policy—for example, in the Balkans where Ankara has made a particular effort to cultivate Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo; and in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Ankara’s cultivation of the Turkic world is a longer term project, and in any case must contend with Russian and increasing Chinese counter-influences—not least with respect to energy politics. Turkey can be seen as a “model” for Islamic states, although the preferred term in Ankara is “source of inspiration”. Turkey’s support for better governance, human rights, democracy, freedom, and economic development in the Islamic world is clear, but it also thinks countries should find their own path. There is evidence that one current of the Arab Spring has been a degree of admiration for Turkey’s achievements.

15. However, Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish ethnic minority tarnishes its image somewhat, and its Kurdish problem looks set to worsen. Furthermore, Turkey’s process of democratisation has pursued a unique path, not least as a consequence of the role that its military have traditionally played in the country’s political evolution. This trajectory cannot be readily replicated elsewhere. Nor is Turkish democracy yet consolidated, and a shadow is cast over the AKP’s credentials in this respect. The country is not ready for EU membership, and at least for the moment seems disinclined to prioritise this foreign policy goal. Its treatment of its religious minorities has been less good than that of, say, Syria. In other words, Turkey is not a ‘model’ in all respects, and in any case some of the forces behind the Arab Spring might not even seek to emulate the Turkish example.

16. Turkey’s closer links with Islamic countries have been paralleled by the development of healthier relationships with non-Muslim countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. Ankara has also sought to normalise its relations with Armenia. Some have detected a neo-Ottoman strain (although Davutoglu dislikes this term) to Turkish foreign policy given that its regional focus overlaps with former Ottoman territories. However this fails to capture the totality of Turkish policy. Ankara is cultivating Turkic states and, further afield, Pakistan, South Korea, China, and sub-saharan Africa, none of which are former Ottoman territories. Rather, Ankara is bidding to be economically and diplomatically more globally engaged, within and beyond both the Islamic world and Turkey’s immediate geographical region(s).

17. In any case, Ankara’s pursuit of improved relationships with neighbours who also often happen to be former colonies can be regarded as a ‘normalisation’ of foreign policy. After all, most countries seek to engage with their neighbourhood, and most former imperial states maintain contact with their former colonies. What is clear is that Ankara now pursues policies that are informed more by its assessments of its own interests than by any automatic instinct to align with its western friends, and that it is prepared to stand in opposition to US and EU preferences where it deems it appropriate. In other words, there does appear to be a strain of Turkish ‘Gaullism’ at work in its foreign policy, of a more independent spirit.

18. Turkey also prefers that regional issues be addressed regionally, and isn’t happy with external intervention. This has been apparent in Turkey’s initially cool reaction to the western involvement in the challenge to Ghaddafi in Libya, and its reluctance to fully align itself with the west’s stance against the recent Syrian crackdown. In other words, Ankara is frequently at odds with the west where regional issues are concerned. This inclination inhibits closer Turkey-EU diplomatic alignment with respect to regional issues.

Some Question Marks

19. There are some deeper question marks against Turkey’s diplomatic approach, many of which are relevant to the UK’s approach to Turkey. One is that to regard Turkey as central to many regions, and as part of a less west-centric global order, is to inevitably relegate the significance of Europe in Turkish foreign policy. There might not be a drift eastwards as such, but there is surely a drift away from the west, for all Ankara’s continued rhetorical commitment to EU accession.

20. In any case one might query the “centrality” Davutoglu attributes to Turkey. The Balkan states aspire to join the EU, and will probably achieve this aim before Turkey does. The Arab world has internal preoccupations, which could well increase as a consequence of the Arab Spring. Russia remains the major power in much of the former Soviet space. Iran is hardly more trusted by the Arab world than it is by the west. Is Turkey in fact rather peripheral to all the regions that it neighbours? Will Turkey’s new diplomatic approach serve to loosen its western friendships without creating alternatives? Furthermore, Turkish power and potential do not match that of China or India. Indeed, Turkey’s diplomacy is over-dependent on Davutoglu’s ambition and energy. Turkey’s foreign ministry is small, its list of foreign policy issues long and complex, and it is overcommitted to a range of mediation and other foreign policy initiatives. Its behaviour can easily appear as self-aggrandizement, and as over-stretched.

21. In aligning itself with the Islamic or Turkic side in so many of the world’s contests, Turkish foreign policy can serve to reinforce some of those very barriers to interaction that it claims it is committed to lowering. Thus, its sympathy with the Palestinian cause has undermined its relationship with Israel. Its support for Azerbaijan obstructs the normalisation of its relationship with Armenia. Its commitment to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) bedevils its relationships with Nicosia, Athens and of course the EU. Its sympathy with the Turkic and Muslim Uighurs of China blots the relationship with Beijing.

22. In any case, it is difficult for Ankara to avoid being compromised given the plethora of nearby regional conflicts—between Israelis and Palestinians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Russians, Iranians and the US, Iranians and conservative Arab states, and so on. In short, a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ approach is not easy in a region that is characterised by so many rivalries. With the Arab Spring, Turkey has also now found itself delicately poised between its friendships with many of the region’s regimes on the one hand, and its support for democratisation, economic development, and the people’s will on the other. This is proving awkward for Turkish diplomacy, and might in due course return Turkey to a more western foreign policy orientation. Its political and economic prospects in the Middle East region are clearly vulnerable and delicate.

23. In addition, a degree of hypocrisy has crept into Turkey’s foreign policy postures. Thus, Erdogan has criticised Israel’s excesses, but has also embraced Ahmedinijad’s disputed election victory and the Sudanese leadership—despite international condemnation of its human rights abuses. Turkey’s treatment of its own Kurds and its approach to the Armenian “genocide” issue, combined with its failure to sign up to the International Criminal Court, also sit uncomfortably with the norm-based international system Davutoglu advocates. Perhaps in more actively embracing a complex and fractious world, Turkish foreign policy is increasingly mirroring the inconsistencies and contradictions of that world.

Turkey and the UK

24. Thus, although the UK should be relaxed about Turkey’s quite natural endeavours to ingratiate itself with its more immediate region(s), it should also be aware that this will not invariably lead to policies that London will find comfortable. There is an element of “third worldism” in Turkey’s diplomatic stances that could lead Ankara to adopt policies that are as likely to align with those of Russia, China and Iran as with those of the west. Furthermore, Turkey’s professed aspiration to join the EU is both weaker than it once was, and is not currently backed by a sufficient commitment to domestic political reform. Turkey is an increasingly important and crucial country and for that reason should be cultivated and given space. However it is as yet nowhere near as powerful and influential as Turkish foreign policy sometimes appears to assume or believe, and it remains highly vulnerable to external events and forces over which it has little control.

24 August 2011

Prepared 2nd April 2012