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Quest for Autonomy: History, Geopolitics and Ideology in Turkish Foreign Policy

Quest for Autonomy: History, Geopolitics and Ideology in Turkish Foreign Policy
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

The following article is a modified version of a piece published in Montrose available here

In his remarkable book of autobiographical essays on his hometown, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), Turkey's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk observes that "when the empire fell, the new Republic, while certain of its purpose, was unsure of its identity; the only way forward, its founders thought, was to foster a new concept of Turkishness, and this meant a certain cordon sanitaire to shut it off from the rest of the world. He further notes: "with the drive to Westernize and the concurrent rise of Turkish nationalism, the love-hate relationship with the Western gaze became all the more convoluted". 

The year 2023 marks the centennial of the founding of the Turkish Republic. In June, voters will go to the polls to elect a new President and members of Parliament. The results will likely determine the trajectory of the Republic as it enters its second century, and indicate whether it remains faithful to its founders' project who were inspired by Enlightenment principles, or if it will be reimagined by a religious-authoritarian alternative. The domestic battle for Turkey's identity (its "Kulturkampf" between a religious authoritarian and a secular-democratic vision) is part of the battle to shape the country’s foreign policy orientation and the principles that will guide it. 
The Turkish debate over Westernization has never truly been a winner-takes-it-all contest between supposedly pure Westernizers and retrograde Muslims. The strategic aim of Kemal Atatürk and other founding fathers in 1923 was to be part of the European system of states just as the Ottomans had been. Yet, even among committed Westernizers, there were lines that could not be transgressed, and suspicions that could not be erased. After all, the Republic had been founded following a bitter struggle amid the rubble of the empire against occupying Western armies. Its founding myths had anti-imperialist and anti-Western undertones. This tension puts its mark on the domestic politics of the country and informs its seemingly confusing moves in foreign policy.

The Republic sought to Westernize and be part of the European universe but kept its guard up against Western intrusion. Today, the nationalist reflexes of Atatürk's heirs - secularist republican elites in society and some positions of power - arguably play as large a role in the blossoming anti-Western sentiment as the Islamist political parties and more religious segment of the population do. Interestingly though, younger people who were born and/or grew up under the rule of AKP (Justice and Development Party - a party that has its roots in Turkey's Islamist movement and does have an Islamizing objective) are secular nationalists and pro-European by and large.

Strategic "westernness"

During the recent G20 Summit in Indonesia President Biden called an on-the-spot emergency meeting of the G7 and NATO members' heads of government who were in Bali. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, although present at the Summit, did not join dismissing it as an "unimportant" meeting. His exclusion spoke volumes about Turkey’s relations with its treaty allies and exposed the deep estrangement between Ankara and other Western capitals. At a time when most observers of the world scene point to the "return of geopolitics" (which once more elevates Turkey’s "real estate value"), Ankara's diplomatic moves are consequential for the West's goals. The perceived ambiguity in Turkey's strategic identity is troubling for the Atlantic Alliance. Yet it is a continuity in Turkish foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Since the end of the Cold War, different schools of thought in Turkey pushed for a more expansive view of its strategic interests. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the urge to become an influential regional power in the former Soviet space sprang up. 

At the turn of the century, the general ascending view of Turkey's national interest was membership in the EU. 

This first attempt at a "Eurasianist" foreign policy created a presence for Turkey and its businesspeople in the region, but strategically the results remained modest at best. At the turn of the century, the general ascending view of Turkey's national interest was membership in the EU. That the latter "dropped the ball" on Turkey by first admitting a divided Cyprus as a member and then following the will of the German Chancellor and the French President not to make Turkey a member, significantly contributed to the estrangement of Ankara.

Later, the financial and economic crisis of the EU economically diminished its lure. The Arab spring of 2011 presented a geopolitical opening for the AKP government. Turkey became more assertive regionally. In the beginning, Ankara pursued this through the deployment of its soft power. Then, as the Syrian condition deteriorated and began to present a major national security threat, there was a swift turn to hard power. The dramatic decision by President Obama not to punish the Assad regime in August of 2013 after the use of chemical weapons was confirmation to Turkish security elites that they could not count on Washington. The latter further alienated Ankara as it allied with the Kurdish PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of Turkey’s nemesis PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) in the fight against the Islamic State. 

But arguably, the most critical turning point for Erdoğan, by then in full command of Turkey's politics, was the response of the allies on the night of the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Whatever the full story, the allies' reaction was inadequate and lacking in democratic solidarity. This lack of support at such a critical moment deeply embittered both the Turkish public and the government. The failed coup led to the declaration of a state of emergency, and soon the prosecution of the culprits was used as an opportunity to launch a comprehensive witch hunt. These developments further undermined the rule of law along with democratic institutions and practices in the country. 

Another consequence of the coup, during which President Putin expressed his solidarity and support for the Turkish President, was to direct Turkey to align itself with Russia with which it usually finds itself on opposite sides. This punctuated the beginning of their pas de deux. As Professor Evren Balta of Özyeğin University observed: "Arguably the most important problem in Turkey-Russia relations is the fact that the cooperation between the two countries has never been predicated upon common principles, institutions or even a short-term common vision. These two countries that do not trust one another and have different understandings of their interests and of the threats they face, can only manage to have a partnership if a third actor appears on stage that they both mistrust more than one another".

The purchase of the S-400 defensive air missile system from Russia was arguably a decision that was consistent with this quest for "autonomy". However, their procurement eventually led to Turkey's expulsion from the F-35 production network and cancellation of the delivery of the aircraft Turkey ordered that were to be the mainstay of its strategic doctrine and air defense in the coming era. The backlash to the decision to purchase the S-400s left Turkey vulnerable and isolated within NATO. Moreover, the move brought Ankara fury from the US Congress that forced the hand of President Trump to implement the CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation against Turkey. Currently, Turkey awaits the approval of the US Congress to buy F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits for its existing fleet. 

Despite these mishaps, Turkey managed to safeguard its core interests in its immediate vicinity. It used its Russia relations to balance Western powers in its own "near abroad" (i.e. Syria). At the same time, Ankara did not shy away from using its NATO membership to balance the expanding power of Russia, particularly in the Black Sea. In other words, Turkey has followed a fine line between its allies and its northern neighbor, and that fine line was labeled "strategic autonomy".

Turkey has followed a fine line between its allies and its northern neighbor, and that fine line was labeled "strategic autonomy".

The religiously driven ideological bent of Turkish foreign policy in recent years bears the unmistakable stamp of the ruling party and its leader whose heritage is anti-Western. But there is also an element of continuity in Turkey's foreign policy preferences since the end of the Cold War: the thread is the "quest for autonomy" and the desire to feature in world politics as a regional power. It is this underlying current that helps explain much of what Turkey does on the global stage today that appears contradictory and worrying to outside observers, and leads to the deepening estrangement between Ankara and its allies in the transatlantic community. 

Militarily, Ankara is a nearly impeccable ally and participant in NATO's military exercises and operations, despite the penchant of its President for frequently expressing his desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was founded to contain and counter NATO’s reach. But Turkey is also a frequent gadfly in political matters as its recent obstruction of the strategically critical admission of Sweden and Finland into the organization underscores. Turkey's skillful "balancing act" since the beginning of the war in Ukraine is one of those confusing moments for its allies. Ankara critically blocked Moscow's use of its navy fleet in the Black Sea by calling the invasion a "war." It invoked the Montreux Convention which enables it not to allow the passage of belligerent parties' battleships through Turkish straits. It does not recognize the annexation of Crimea, supports Ukraine's territorial integrity and sustains Kyiv's war effort by supplying it with drones and other military material. At the same time, however, it keeps communication with Russia open, does not close its air space, does not join the sanctions regime, welcomes Russian refugees and oligarchs, and helps broker agreements. President Erdoğan can meet with Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky almost at will and has a "special" relationship with the former whose assistance he needs and gets for domestic and foreign policy matters.    

A lost battle in the Middle East

For a while, the more Islamically-oriented AKP foreign policy and the nationalistic and decidedly anti-Western visions of secular nationalists merged to support policies backing Turkey's interests. A doctrine developed by secular nationalist officers (The Blue Homeland) justified Erdoğans' policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. This opening was also an attempt to break the quasi-encirclement of Turkey by a set of Eastern Mediterranean countries. They joined forces to counter Turkey's assertiveness and hardline policies, and in so doing, trampled upon its legitimate concerns. The rising importance of the Eastern Mediterranean's energy reserves and the competition to explore those added a new dimension to the already tense relations between Turkey and Cyprus, and through it, with Greece. Athens took advantage of Ankara's isolation in the region to forge close-knit relations with Egypt, the Gulf countries and Israel as well as France and the United States. 

For Erdoğan, there was another dimension to his Middle East policy which related to the geopolitical rivalry for the leadership of the Sunni Islamic world.

For Erdoğan, there was another dimension to his Middle East policy which related to the geopolitical rivalry for the leadership of the Sunni Islamic world, with on one side the UAE and Saudi Arabia (and their ally Egypt), and on the other Qatar as Ankara's ally. To that end, the campaign to build mosques throughout the world and the championing of the Muslim cause continues unabated. Unless, of course, that campaign should disrupt economic or geopolitical interests as is the case in the deafening silence over the abysmal treatment of the Uyghur Turks in China. 

In the end though, Turkey failed in its attempt to be a hegemonic power in the Middle East. After years of harshly condemning the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and even Syria, efforts were made to rebuild bridges with these nations.

The "precious loneliness" of Turkey, a term coined by Presidential advisor İbrahim Kalın, turned out to be not so precious after all. The country's economic vulnerabilities, its chronic problem of governance and its self-inflicted solitude in the region made it imperative to mend fences. Reconciliation may work but Turkey will be in a much weaker position than when the bid for hegemony was launched. 

In almost all these issues the Turkish move was a response to a strategic void. The retrenchment of American power and its neglect of Turkish concerns led to the interventions in Syria. In the Eastern Mediterranean, although Turkey’s isolation was of its own doing, Turkey reacted to the moves of an adversarial bloc of countries by defiant military moves and heightened rhetoric but at the same time with an invitation to put all the interrelated matters (East Med. energy, Aegean issues with Greece, Cyprus, Libya) on the table for diplomatic bargaining. Ankara signed a military cooperation agreement with Tripoli that was being attacked by rebel forces (supported by UAE, Egypt, irregular Russian forces and France) and intervened militarily when no other country would come to that government’s help. 

In the Caucasus, it helped Azerbaijan break the gridlock in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict  exposing the lethargy (if not outright complacency) of the Minsk group. On the tug of war with Greece, during the dangerously tense 2020 summer, Ankara believed the EU could not be an honest broker and that it could not control Greece's behavior. In turn, the EU saw Turkey as the aggressor. Germany, was upset when Turkey sent its back to the Mediterranean with a new Navtex after Berlin brokered an agreement and NATO was intervening in the dispute.

Ultimately though, belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding Turkey refrained from a repeat of the summer of 2020 and let the waters calm. 

Ultimately though, belligerent rhetoric notwithstanding Turkey refrained from a repeat of the summer of 2020 and let the waters calm. Even the recent escalation of a war of words with Greece is more likely to be for domestic consumption than a sign of genuine martial intent.

So, which direction to take?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed the global strategic landscape considerably and laid out the contours of an emerging world order that can be defined as asymmetric multipolarity. The European security structure that was predicated on taming Russia by commercially integrating it into European markets collapsed. A major war launched by a powerful authoritarian country against a smaller and weaker neighbor led Europeans to strongly respond with a series of sanctions. The gradual withdrawal of the US from Europe was halted; NATO emerged as the central organization of a soon-to-be rectified Atlantic Alliance and the larger systemic West that includes countries in Asia and Oceania. Russia will emerge considerably weakened and possibly destabilized out of this ordeal and will have to content itself to play second fiddle to a gradually more abrasive China. Caught off-guard by Putin's failure, China had to tread carefully so as to not fall on the wrong side of the Western sanctions regime.

A more striking feature of the post-Ukraine world order is that the West does not command as much authority as it used to. The so-called Global South convinced that we have entered a post-Occidental stage in world history, did not support the sanctions imposed on Russia. Many countries saw this not as a global affair but one that was limited to the EU theater. Collectively the Global South will be more assertive and some regional powers will have the ability to resist Western demands and follow their own proper agenda as most remarkably Saudi Arabia did during this crisis.

Turkey's geopolitical importance, the size of its economy and its institutional affiliations enable it to be a consequential actor in world politics and a force to be reckoned with. It will also benefit from the weakening of Russia, as the Black Sea will become less of an area of geopolitical pressure. The caveat is that these advantages need to be well managed, diplomacy must be consistent (and constructive) and the bellicose language must be dropped. Ankara should consider a model of relations with allies that is not just transactional and "short-termist" and recognize the importance of the collective interests of organizations it is a member of. Most importantly, the rulers of Turkey must recognize that membership in alliances does not preclude strategic autonomy. On the contrary, alliances may buttress sought-after strategic autonomy. In turn, Turkey's allies (particularly the Europeans) will have to fully appreciate its overall importance and make an effort to build a new, more egalitarian and imaginative relationship - not just with Ankara but with Turkish society as well.


Copyright image: Adem ALTAN / AFP

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