Turkish foreign policy after the elections

This commentary by Nuh YILMAZ and Kılıç Buğra KANAT was originally published in Foreign Policy on June 21, 2011.

Although it is still early to evaluate the ultimate impact which Turkey’s June 12 parliamentary elections — which resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — will have on the direction of its foreign policy, there are several likely outcomes. The electoral victory of the AKP under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demonstrates again that the Turkish electorate is satisfied with the assertive foreign policy that has been a concomitant feature of the party. In fact, part of the explanation for the victory of the AKP was the rise of Turkey’s stature in its region and in world politics over the last nine years. The support for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s electoral campaign by the candidates of opposition parties in his district — and the tendency of opposition parties not to bring Turkish foreign policy on the election agenda — was a further sign of public support for the government’s outlook. From Erdogan’s victory speech on election night, moreover, it’s possible to tease out a number of possible changes (as well as continuities), in the tone, means, and goals of Turkish foreign policy.

In the AKP’s next government term, Turkey will continue to extend and deepen its ties with different political actors and the people of the Middle East, which was indicative in Erdogan’s salutation in his victory speech to the people of Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, the West Bank, Ramallah, Gaza, and Jerusalem. As such, and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Erdogan government will likely aspire to a more integrated Middle East where Turkey occupies a central role more attuned to the political developments of the region. The Prime Minister realizes that only having a good posture, being a favorite leader in the region, or maintaining good ties with the people in the upper echelons of governments is no longer sufficient. To solve this problem, it would not be surprising to see a Turkish diplomatic outreach going forward focused on a “civilian surge” that aims to be more active on the civil society level in the Middle East in order to build the groundwork for deeper ties with the region.

During the previous years, Erdogan’s government has worked with existing global and regional leaders under the maxim of a “zero-problems” foreign policy and thus refrained from pushing hard on democracy or human rights. While this is likely to remain an overriding orientation, Turkey will nonetheless become more overt in its support of people’s movements and also more critical of oppressive regimes in the region.

Turkey will continue to be involved in ongoing regional problems, engage in dialogue with the representatives of different social and political forces, and will not refrain from taking risks where the Turkish government deems necessary. While this translates largely to policy continuity when it comes to Turkish persistence on the Palestine question, for example, it has meant a more forceful application of different means and tools to resolve conflicts, mediate disputes, and integrate different factions regionally — as evidenced by Turkey’s evolving relations with Egypt and Tunisia after their respective revolutions. Yet difficulty remains, especially over the Syria issue, which will force Turkey to make tougher choices. If Turkey follows a harder line on Syria, it is very likely to evince a tense reaction from its good relations with the “resistance front” (including Iran and Hezbollah), something which may push Turkey closer to the Western bloc and the Gulf. If Turkey manages to masterfully survive this expected tension, it will only strengthen the image of Turkey’s independent stature in the foreign policy realm.

In terms of relations with Europe, there is likely to be a revival in EU accession negotiations, after what has been a noted period of paralysis in that integration process. The restructuring of the cabinet by Erdogan just days before the election, which has paved the way for a separate and independent ministry on EU affairs, has signaled an increasing level of commitment to EU membership. This ministry will seek to bring an increasing amount of resources and attention to affairs with the EU, especially in lobbying domestic Turkish public opinion for the membership process, something which has shown a steady decline in interest after the perceived unfulfilled promises of the EU to Turkey — and the inability of the EU to contain economic crises in its member countries. However this begs the question of whether the EU, with its current right-wing leadership orientation (including Merkel and Sarkozy), and which has a negative position on Turkish membership, will be ready to meet a new Turkish policy effort half way.

The EU membership issue aside, recent developments also indicate that in the new AKP term relations between Turkey and EU will become more multi-dimensional, especially when it comes to policies regarding the Arab Spring and humanitarian interventions in the Middle East. In this new agenda, Turkey will try to become a norm-maker instead of being a norm-taker, and will try to shape the agenda and form of interventions regarding conflict in the region. One important result of this might be common Turkey-EU projects and policies on supporting a democratization process in the region as the EU itself fashions a more active neighborhood policy expansion to its south Mediterranean — especially in Egypt and Tunisia. On some security issues, however, Turkey’s increasingly independent and autonomous foreign policy agenda will likely cause some contention between European countries and Turkey and may even bring new alignments in some areas within Europe and NATO, as in the case of the Libyan war.

In terms of relations between Turkey and the U.S., there have been many ups and downs during the nine years of the AKP government. Although in the first months of the Obama administration the relationship witnessed a bit of a revival with the deepening of the concept of a “model partnership”, things have since soured in the aftermath of several disputes, including the Iranian nuclear crisis and last year’s flotilla incident with Israel. Going forward, the partnership will depend on the redefinition and reformulation by both parties. The United States needs to understand the new realities of Turkish politics and consider the demands being placed upon Turkey as a regional power with its own agenda and priorities. In that sense, the U.S. should approach Turkey as an independent partner in solving certain problems, recognize possible conflicts of interest as a natural and inevitable fact, but also find ways to reconcile differences if it wants Turkey on board. If that psychological barrier can be surpassed, there may be more mutual collaboration, especially as it relates to developments associated with the Arab Spring. Yet Turkey must also recognize that it lacks both the resources and experience to deal with some of its regional conflicts unilaterally. U.S. support will be critical to reach its goals, like in the Syrian case. In the end, a model partnership between the two countries will be a horizontal rather than hierarchical relationship, which includes strong ties in some areas and weaker links in others. That will require an earnest need to work together to find mutually acceptable ways to strengthen the existing relationship, even when disagreements arise.

Finally, and admittedly a more vague part of Turkish foreign policy going forward, will be Turkey’s relations with Central Asian states, an area which has often lagged when compared to other regions in terms of Turkey’s ideal, strategic partnerships. Although important bureaucratic structures — such as the Department of External Turks and Relative Societies — have been created within the Turkish state apparatus to improve and consolidate the relations with countries in this region, Turkish policy here has not thus far translated into the diplomatic heft it has acquired in the Middle East and elsewhere. After important openings to these hitherto ignored regions of Turkish foreign policy, the AKP government in its new term may try to be more proactive and energize its social and cultural relationships. While Turkey has previously played a mediator role in the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, and overtly criticized human rights abuses of Uighurs in China, in the new AKP term Turkey should play an even more active role in Central Asia as it seeks to improve interactions between business groups and civil society organizations in the region, while continuing to promote the free flow of goods and services there.

When it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Turkey will continue to pursue its proactive foreign, economic, and political relations, especially as it solidifies its ability to link the region as an energy and transportation corridor. In addition, Turkey will likely strengthen its military relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan through the ISAF and trilateral military exercises, and as there are possible plans of the Taliban opening an office in Ankara, Turkey may become an essential mediator in yet another conflict in the region.

The third consecutive term of an AKP government will be defined by the level of mastery that Erdogan is perceived to have achieved over both the country’s political system and in the successful implementation of its foreign policy goals in a rapidly changing regional environment. This will likely usher in a more active, independent, assertive, and result-oriented approach, especially as it relates to the ongoing developments and long term effects of the Arab Spring. If Erdogan succeeds in his foreign policy agenda, which is closely tied to Turkey’s pressing domestic issues — such as a new constitution, active civilian control over the military, and the Kurdish problem — this dynamic may again transform Turkey as well as its neighborhood.

Nuh Yilmaz is the director of SETA Foundation at Washington DC. Kilic Bugra Kanat is a doctoral candidate in Syracuse University Political Science Department.

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