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 asses 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. 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 visible. 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)
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* Published in the First Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).