Turkish Foreign Policy is Waking Up from the Liberal Dream


If you follow Iranian foreign policy wonks on Twitter you’ll have come across plenty of photos of Qasim Suleymani. The wiry silver-haired general is often surrounded by a cadre of Shia militants in Iraq, Hezbollah fighters in Syria or Iranian commandos back from special missions. He often has a knowing smile on his lips.

That’s what international relations theorists call “power projection.” Iran is very good at it. In 1979, the Islamic Republic was born of a revolt against the most powerful country in the world, and one year later thrust into a decade-long war with Iraq, its neighbor. Iranian leaders like Suleymani and current president Hassan Rouhani served in that war. They don’t bother to give grandiose speeches about their strength in the region because they never really stopped fighting. We know that their troops are on the ground in Iraq and Syria, their boats are patrolling the Straits of Hormuz and their spooks are active everywhere from Ankara to Washington D.C., from Gaza to Sao Paulo.

It’s a useful contrast to Turkey, which has an altogether different strategic character. Turkey’s armed forces seldom conduct operations beyond the country’s borders. You won’t find photos of famous Turkish generals on secret assignments with rag-tag groups of Sunni moderates in the Caucasus, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. There aren’t many stories of Turkish spies staging missions abroad, like the botched Israeli assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, or Iranian spies’ decades-long quest to steal nuclear technology. The only unilateral foreign military operation in Turkey’s Republican history was the 1974 intervention in Cyprus, when the island’s Turkish community was in serious danger. In contrast, the Turkish military is most active within the country’s borders, where it fights the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It has at times, since the 1990s, crossed the border into Iraq in pursuit of its targets, but those instances were spillovers of Turkey’s own conflict, rather than an outreach into foreign countries. The Syrian conflict might be changing that. To understand how, it is worthwhile to delve into Turkey’s recent history.

The Balkan Wars, which started in 1912 and merged into World War I, defined Turkey’s modern character. As they lost that war, the last generation of Ottomans saw their entire empire slip through their fingers. They barely scraped together an army and — against all odds — managed to hold on to Anatolia. The republic they founded there in 1923 consciously shed all trappings of empire. The early years of the republic saw some aggressive diplomacy for the acquisition of Hatay province and an unsuccessful bid for Mosul, but once the borders of the new nation were set, Turkey withdrew into itself. Decades of war had instilled in the Turkish leadership a deep phobia against wars of any kind, as well as a distrust towards their neighbors. Historians would later call this the “Sevres Syndrome,” after the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 that would have broken up the Turkish state had Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the hero-general who led the war of independence, not intervened.

But Atatürk set a new pace for Turkey’s strategic future. He was appalled, for example, when presented with a painting of a victorious Turkish rifleman bayonetting a Greek soldier. “What a revolting scene!” he said, and ordered it removed. That sort of thing was done with. “Peace at home, peace in the world” was his abiding motto, never mind that it sounded more like a wish than a defense strategy. The state that once banged on the gates of Vienna would now concentrate on things like agricultural policy and sartorial reform.

So strong was Turkey’s closure that it did not join Allies in World War II until February of 1945, two months before Hitler committed suicide. And it might not even have done that if it wasn’t for the perennial Russian bear clawing at the door, pressuring Turkey on the Bosphorus Straits and its eastern border to the Southern Caucasus. Neutrality was unsustainable, and protection came in the form of the Truman Doctrine, which gave aid to Turkey and made clear that it belonged to the American sphere of influence. Turkey later sent troops to the Korean War, and became a member of NATO in 1952.

From then on, defense policy was on NATO autopilot. If Moscow had business with Turkey, it would have to negotiate with Washington. When Khrushchev and Kennedy faced off over missiles in Cuba, for example, Kennedy agreed to remove nuclear warheads secretly stationed in Turkey in exchange for those in Cuba. The only time Turkey stepped out of bounds was on the question of Cyprus. In 1964, when Turkey wanted to intervene in the island to protect the Turkish community there, it received a harshly worded letter in which President Lyndon Johnson all but forbade Ankara to act. This drew out the issue for ten years, until Turkey finally intervened on behalf of Turkish Cypriots in 1974. But the infamous Johnson letter stood as testament that Turkey’s security policy was not exactly its own to decide, and that Turkish interests were subservient to a larger struggle.

Post-Cold War

After the Cold War ended, NATO switched from a defensive stance to a more interventionist one. Turkey pulled its weight by sending troops to Somalia and the Balkans as well as observer missions to Georgia, Gaza and East Timor. However, Turkish troops were almost never in combat, and seldom in leadership positions.

Turkey’s political character was also changing, most notably with the ascent of political Islam. Necmettin Erbakan, a central figure of Turkey’s Islamist movement, had no love for the transatlantic alliance. In an interview late in his life he argued that as the Soviet Union had dissolved, NATO had chosen Islam as its new enemy:

NATO’s enemy colors were turned from red to green, and in the [war game] maneuvers in America, the NATO cities remained as they were but the names of enemy cities were changed for Islamic cities. This happened in 1990. Thus, the 20th crusade was launched.

That partly explains why many Turks were anxious when the AK Party, founded by Erbakan’s erstwhile protégés Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül, was voted into government in 2002. It was fashionable within a few years of AK Party rule to speak of a creeping “shift of Axis” away from the West. The change never materialized in the stark way implied, but the anti-Western undercurrent was palpable. A group of people referred to as “İrancılar,” roughly meaning “Partisans of Iran,” were a part of this discussion. The term is used today in a sectarian context, but in the 2000s it referred to a loose policy community in Ankara who wanted Turkey to adopt a more independent approach to foreign policy. It wasn’t right, they said, to be “stooges of the imperialist West” when it was plundering Palestine and waging war on Muslims. Turkey had to unhitch its wagon from what they saw as Christian civilization in order to fulfill its leadership potential in the Muslim world.

But the AK Party leadership stayed the course set in the early days of the Republic. Part of the reason for this was that the military brass, where allegiance to NATO runs marrow-deep, would almost certainly have staged a coup if the government had even hinted at distancing itself from the alliance. But there is no evidence to suggest that the AK Party wanted to. Its leaders found that the discomfort with NATO among their constituents was too muted to make a difference in their electoral calculus. They weren’t going to try and reform defense when their time could be better spent on industrial policy, healthcare, or transportation, all of which garnered votes.

Although the AK Party inherited the Kemalist national defense policy, it began to make a number of changes in foreign policy. The party’s leaders believed that Turkey made a mistake by cutting itself off from the Middle East after World War I, and wanted to mend natural ties with fellow Muslims. Abdullah Gül, who served as prime minister and foreign minister in the first cabinet, envisioned this as something that would strengthen Turkey’s footing in Europe. The AK Party’s role in the Middle East would be something akin to that of the Christian Democrats in post-war Europe: a moderate force that would facilitate the development of commerce and the rule of law.

Gül recruited Ahmet Davutoglu, a star academic and a champion of Turkey’s “soft power.” Davutoglu quickly rose from being Gül’s and then Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor to foreign minister, jet-setting around the region and speaking eloquently on Turkey’s historical ties with various peoples living in former Ottoman territories. In the following years, the AK Party beefed up institutions such as TIKA, Turkey’s overseas development agency, or created new ones such as the Yunus Emre Institute, which promotes Turkish culture across the world. They opened up new embassies in many countries, lifted visa restrictions wherever they could, and developed trade ties. Under his much-vaunted “zero problems” policy, Davutoglu began softening once-fraught relations with Greece, Iran and even Armenia. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and (to a lesser extent) Egypt came to be seen as natural allies.

As far as problems with neighbors go, Syria was an egregious case. Turkey had threatened war on the country in 1998 for harboring members of the PKK, including Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the organization. Hafez Assad eventually gave in and Öcalan was caught while looking for a new safe haven. Animosity between Damascus and Ankara continued until Erdogan and Davutoglu sparked up a new relationship with Bashar Assad, Hafez’s son. Soon, visa restrictions were lifted, trade was booming and the two countries held joint military exercises in 2009. Erdogan and his wife even vacationed with Assad and his wife.

Ironically, it took a socially conservative government to highlight the liberal side of Turkish foreign policy. One the one hand, the country is fiercely nationalistic, maintains a large army and has long had serious disputes with smaller neighbors such as Northern Cyprus, Armenia, Greece, Syria and Iraq. That can make it appear a bully. In reality however, Turkey’s foreign policy has habitually followed international norms and eschewed the use of force unless absolutely necessary. It is profoundly liberal, not in the American sense that implies democracy-promotion, but in a European one that is skeptical of power politics and couches its actions in international institutions. The result has been that Turkey’s security apparatus largely remained confined to its borders. This was one legacy of the Kemalist past that the AK Party eagerly held on to.

For Davutoglu and many AK officials, the term “güvenlikci politika,” roughly translated as “security-focused policy” is derisory, often used in reference to Ankara’s harsh crackdown on the Kurdish southeast in the 1990s. In his famous 2010 article titled Zero Problems with Neighbors, Davutoglu extended that usage to apply to international events. “The United States began attempting to establish an international order based on a security discourse,” he wrote, “thus replacing the liberty discourse that emerged after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.” The implication was that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had tilted the scales too much in favor of security at the expense of liberty. The AK Party’s work of the past decade was part of the swing back towards liberty.

The Arab Spring for a time vindicated the notion that Turkey had broken the spell of realist calculation cast upon the Middle East by Western imperialism. The people of the region were finally overthrowing the post-colonial military dictatorships that ensured order at the expense of liberty. They were Muslim masses in the quest for representative government, which to ears attuned to Turkish politics, is synonymous with Islamist rule. Sure enough, the Muslim Brotherhood was victorious in Egypt and Tunisia, and AK Party advisors racked up miles traveling to both capitals. During a panel with Rafik Abdessalem, Davutoglu said,

Colonialism and the Cold War are over. Now, the natural flow of history will resume. In this natural flow, we are not going to question how Turkey influences the Middle East, or how the Middle East influences Turkey. We will say that we share the same fate, and continue to influence each other.

Davutoglu was claiming some of the credit behind the Arab uprisings, and he wasn’t wrong. Things like visa-free travel to Istanbul and the steady diet of glossy Istanbul soap operas showed Arabs across the region what a Muslim-majority country could accomplish. Turkey was developing an alternative model of modernity to the West, and it was heartening for the AK Party to see that great masses of people wanted to join in. With this belief, however, came an incurable optimism that a new and much improved future was about to reveal itself for the region. The lesson of the Arab Spring, it seemed, was that if you reached deeply into your “true” identity and used that as a basis to connect with people, things would fall into place. You could transcend power politics.

It was at this, the deepest point of Turkey’s liberal dream, that the country was forced to open its eyes to the harsh realities of its region’s politics. As I discuss in my next article here at War on the Rocks, the wakeup call came from Syria, where peaceful protests were quickly turning into bloody civil war.


Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV,) where he focuses on Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and Asia. You can follow him @SelimKoru.


Photo credit: Mueller / MSC