The Ankara Axis Of Turkish Foreign Policy

Paula Sandrin*

Heated debates about the direction of Turkish foreign policy have taken place recently. They began when Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Center at the Washington Institute, published articles in The Wall Street journal and in the Washington Post in early 2009 with provocative titles such as “Is Turkey Still an Western Ally?” and “Turkey’s Turn from the West”. Dr. Cagaptay’s worries and conclusions hit the fan and similar articles and analyses were published in many European and US newspapers, questioning if Turkey’s traditional alliance with the West is in danger. The event which triggered the debate was the Turkish-Israeli spat at Davos, with the now famous “One Minute” episode, in which Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan severely criticized Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

As Turkey’s relations with Israel deteriorated further in the course of 2009, while at the same time the Turkish Prime Minister dismissed Iran’s nuclear program as “gossip” and questioned the charges of crimes against humanity made by the International Criminal Court against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir since “no Muslim could perpetrate genocide”, the analyses seemed to be proven correct.

Turkish authorities, such as President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promptly denied the accusations that Turkey was changing the main axis of its foreign policy, but the suspicions remain. In order to assess whether Turkey’s external relation have indeed changed its direction, it is paramount to analyze a longer period than just the year of 2009.

During the Cold War, Turkey’s traditional security culture, rooted in the Turkish identity constructed as Western, homogenous and secular, was translated into a Western foreign policy orientation, aiming at being fully. Integrated with Western institutions, and a cautious approach to neighboring countries, especially the Muslim Middle East, whose identity was considered the opposite of Turkish identity. Hence, Turkish foreign policy towards the region was characterized by caution and non-interference. And when Turkey interfered, as in the case of the Baghdad Pact, it did so in alignment with Western policies.

During the premiership of Turgut Ozal, in the 1980s, Turkey began to pursue a more active and multidirectional foreign policy. The Prime Minister saw more opportunities than threats emanating from Turkey’s neighborhood, especially economic opportunities. Ozal promoted the idea of establishing economic interdependence between Turkey and surrounding countries as a way to provide markets for Turkish exports and businesses and also as a tool for conflict resolution and peace building (Kirisci 2009).

The Middle East in particular was seen as a promising market for the developing Turkish industry, and Ozal did not refrain from emphasizing a shared Islamic identity between Turkey and the region (Altunisik 2009). Although Turkey was looking in other directions, it was not turning its back to the West, as was attested by Turkey’s participation in the Gulf War of 1991. Therefore, Ozal tried to diversify Turkey’s foreign policy without breaking up with West, and realized that Turkey had to potential to operate in the West and in the East due to its multicivilizational character. The multi-directional foreign policy introduced by Ozal was further developed in the 1990s, when Turkey established ties with the Caucasus and the Turkic Republics, participated in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, and promoted economic relations with Black Sea countries.

“The AKP, which took power in 2002, developed a foreign policy vision which owes much to Turgut Ozal and Ismail Cem’s perspectives.“

However, a darker side of this in foreign policy was also observed in that decade, when Ankara’s ready resort to the threat or the use of military force was particularly visible1. The use of confrontational tools to solve foreign disputes seemed to have contributed to Turkey’s image as a “post-Cold War warrior” (Kirisci 2006), a “coercive regional power” (Onis 2003) or a “regional bully” which insists on “one-dimensionality when it comes to means” (Desai 2005).

The fact that Turkey was conducting a militarist and security-oriented foreign policy after the end of the Cold War did not go unnoticed among government leaders and the business elites and civil society organizations that benefited from the process of economic liberalization from the 1980s onwards. These new actors became increasingly more vocal and began to question the established approaches to issues (Bilgin 2005). Ismail Cem, foreign minister from 1997 to 2002, following the steps of Turgut Ozal, formulated an alternative perspective for the conduction of Turkish foreign policy. He also emphasized Turkey’s multicivilisational character and the need to engage with the neighbourhood more constructively. During his tenure Turkey’s relations with Syria and Greece began to improve through dialogue and economic interdependence. He also began to open up to Iran, initiating institutionalized dialogue through security meetings (Altunisik 2009).

The AKP, which took power in 2002, developed a foreign policy vision which owes much to Turgut Ozal and Ismail Cem’s perspectives. According to the doctrine of “Strategic Depth”, formulated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey, because of the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire, has the possibility and the responsibility to become once again a central country (Davutoglu 2010). During the Cold War, Turkey was relegated to the status of a frontier country, but the end of bipolarity has “defrosted” some of the deep connections between Turkey and its neighbourhood. Because Turkey is located at the centre of Afro-Eurasia, and has historical connections to the regions, Turkey has great responsibilities. Therefore, Turkey should engage with all the regions in its neighbourhood.

Under the framework of “zero-problem policy” Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iran and Iraq (including the Kurdish Regional Government) improved dramatically. The rapprochement with Greece, initiated by Ismail Cem, continued, and Turkey supported reunification plans for the island of Cyprus, reverting a decades old policy of “no solution is the solution”. Turkey also initiated a process of rapprochement with Armenia, signing protocols for the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2009. However, Turkey’s uncritical support for regimes such as Sudan’s and Iran’s have raised international criticism and Turkey’s worsening ties with Israel begs the question of whether the “zero-problem” policy is applied selectively.

It becomes clear that the AKP has a strong foreign policy vision of its own, which most of the time is compatible with Western, in particular EU, foreign policy norms. Indeed, Turkish broad alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy has been continuously attested in yearly Progress Reports2. However, instead of having an exclusively Western orientation, Turkey is trying to establish itself as a regional actor in its own terms, even if at times this will cause friction with traditional allies such as Israel. Therefore, Turkey did not shift its axis from West to East. It shifted its axis to Ankara. “…the AKP has a strong foreign policy vision of its own, which most of the time is compatible with Western, in particular EU, foreign policy norms.” In the words of Foreign Minister Davutoglu (2009): “Being in the West, the North, East, and South. Trying to work hard on all of these fronts without creating an issue of the axis. Where is the axis? The axis is in Ankara”.


* Paula Sandrin is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Westminster.

1 For example, there were regular military incursions in Northern Iraq to crush PKK forces, threats against Syria, with troops amassed at the border in 1998, hard rhetoric during the Russian S-300 missiles crisis planned to be deployed inCyprus and almost a war with Greece over islets in the Aegean (Park 2005).

2 For example, the latest Turkey Progress Report (2009) states that Turkey’s broad alignment with EU CFSP policy continued and that Turkey aligned itself with 99 CFSP declarations out of a total of 128 declarations.


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