Turkey and Neighbourhood

Multiple Faces of the “New” Turkish Foreign Policy: Underlying Dynamics and a Critique

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The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the AKP) government’s foreign policy activism is not a new phenomenon. Yet, the changing nature of the foreign policy activism during the second term of the AKP, especially with Ahmet Davutoğlu assuming direct responsibility as the new foreign minister in May 2009, has attracted widespread attention, has become a topic for vivid public debate both in domestic and international circles and has already generated a large literature. In domestic discussions of the AKP’s recent foreign policy approach, frequent references are made to “a shift of axis”, suggesting a drift away from the predominantly Western orientation which has been the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy throughout the post-World War 2 period, toward a more “eastern-oriented” pattern of foreign policy behavior. This present paper examines the validity of the claim that there has been a striking shift in the main axis of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.

davutogluThroughout the AKP era, there has been a constant emphasis on the use of soft power, an improvement of relations with all neighboring countries, aptly summarized by the motto “zero problems with neighbors,” as well as the vision of a more ambitious role for Turkey as an active regional and global power extending well beyond the realm of favorable bilateral relations (Table 1). In addition to the Europeanization drive, the greater Middle East has also become a focal point of Turkey’s diplomatic efforts in this period. Perhaps the term the “Middle Easternization of Turkish foreign policy” might be somewhat exaggerated given that there has been a very strong impetus throughout this period to develop bilateral relations with, in particular, the Russian Federation, as well as other key countries in the Caucasus and opening up to the African continent and Latin America.7 The Middle East and the Arab world nevertheless have become the focal point of Turkish foreign policy efforts (involving both formal initiatives as well as the informal activities of the NGOs) which is quite extraordinary by the standards of previous Turkish governments.

A closer inspection of the second phase of the AKP government, however, reveals certain ruptures in the style of Turkish foreign policy activism. Arguably, what has distinguished the second phase from the previous phase has been a pronounced weakening of the commitment to EU membership—if not in rhetoric, in reality—and an increasingly assertive and confident foreign policy which reflects a desire to act as an independent regional power (Table 1). To be fair, Turkish foreign policy has continued to be framed and implemented in a spirit of multilateralism in line with established international agreements and institutions. Yet there has been a clear tendency to act independently of the Western alliance, especially in relation to major regional and international conflicts. In retrospect, three key episodes could be identified which adds substance to the claim that there has been a subtle shift in Turkish foreign policy during the recent era, or, at least, a rather different style of foreign policy activism as compared to the previous patterns. 

Turkey’s willingness to pursue a pro-active foreign policy rests on legitimate foundations. During the post-Cold war era, Turkey has been rediscovering its neighbors and trying to capitalize on its geo-political position in three distinct, yet interlocking regions. This process of re-discovery has been proceeding at an increasingly faster pace during the AKP era. Furthermore, there are solid economic reasons for a pro-active foreign policy strategy. Turkey has clearly been responding to the changing global context which involves a diversification of economic relations and the opening of new markets, especially at a time when Europe is faced with deep stagnation and the global economic axis has clearly been shifting in the eastern direction with the global financial crisis. What we currently observe is a process involving the transnationalization of Anatolian capital which has been trying to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Middle East and the North Africa as well as Russia and the broader post-Soviet space. Moving beyond narrow self-interest in economic and security terms, Turkey has the soft power, given its stage of economic and political development, to perform the role of a benign regional power, and to take an active role in global affairs. Turkey has, indeed, been unusually pro-active in recent years in terms of attempting to play a mediating role in regional and international conflicts, contributing to humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations, as well as taking part in discussions relating to the future of the global economic and security order in the context of global fora such as G-20 and the UN Security Council.


*Excerpt from Prof. Ziya Onis (2011), “Multiple Faces of the “New” Turkish Foreign Policy: Underlying Dynamics and a Critique“, Insight Turkey, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 47-65.

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