What Would a Post-Erdoğan Turkish Foreign Policy Look Like?
Both his admirers and detractors agree that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has radically transformed Turkish foreign policy. But, if Erdoğan were to leave power, would Turkey’s approach to the world “normalize” and turn back to its pre-Erdoğan settings? With economic conditions in Turkey worsening, public outrage over the country’s mismanagement mounting, and Erdoğan’s health visibly declining, this question has generated increasing debate.
Under Erdoğan, Turkey has embraced aggressive military initiatives, worked with radical or criminal groups, made friendly overtures to revisionist powers like Russia and China, and distanced itself from Western institutions and values. Yet, it would be misleading to attribute all these changes to Erdoğan or his party.
Beyond any doubt, the absence of a reckless, ambitious, and hot-tempered leader will have a positive impact on decision-making in Ankara. Institutions, particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, might have more influence, bringing greater stability and consistency to Ankara’s foreign relations. Turkey’s NATO and E.U. partners would most likely find Erdoğan’s successors more agreeable and easier to communicate with.
But, if Erdoğan is voted out of office, no one in Washington or Brussels should expect Turkey to suddenly turn into a docile and obedient ally. Structural changes in the international environment, broader bureaucratic and ideological trends in Turkey, and new facts on the ground that Erdoğan has created will all limit the potential for “normalization” in post-Erdoğan Turkey.
Navigating a Changing World
The first factor to consider is the role of changing global dynamics in encouraging Ankara to look for alternatives to its traditional allies and embrace a more independent foreign policy.
In an increasingly multi-polar world, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has improved its relations with countries like Russia, Iran, and China. And, when its interests have diverged from those of its NATO and E.U. allies, Turkey has taken unilateral diplomatic and military initiatives such as joining the Astana mechanism together with Russia and Iran or carrying out its own energy exploration in disputed waters in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For Turkish policymakers, Washington’s handling of the Syrian civil war exemplified the shift toward a more multi-polar world. President Barack Obama’s failure to adhere to his chemical weapons red line in Syria was a major disappointment for Turkey. Tellingly, Ankara initiated negotiations with a Chinese defense company for an FD-2000 missile system in the wake of Obama’s 2013 decision, while Erdoğan also reiterated his desire to join Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
More broadly, NATO’s hesitant stance toward the dangers Turkey has perceived from Syria sharpened Ankara’s sense of loneliness. In 2012, the Syrian military shot down a Turkish military reconnaissance jet, and Syrian rockets hit southern Turkish cities. In 2015, Russian warplanes repeatedly violated Turkish airspace, leading Turkey to shoot down a Russian jet. NATO’s failure to wholeheartedly support Turkey in each of these crises helped push Ankara toward a more independent foreign policy.
This is not to say Turkey has managed these new dynamics well. Instead of safely navigating in a changing global and regional environment, Turkey seems to oscillate between great powers. Many in the U.S. and European capitals now see Turkey as a hostile power rather than as an ally. Yet, despite this, Ankara has still failed to establish a sound and healthy relationship with Russia and China.
Future Turkish governments will wrestle with the same structural factors but may do so more effectively than the current government. If Washington continues shifting attention to the Asia-Pacific while conducting a rudderless or absentee policy in the Middle East, and if the European Union remains incapable of engaging effectively with developments beyond its borders, Turkish policy will respond accordingly. This does not mean a rupture in Turkey’s relations with the United States or the European Union. But it does mean that Ankara will push back if Western audiences don’t share its concerns about terrorism or regional crises, especially in Syria and Iraq. In the meantime, Ankara will still have to cooperate with Russia in order to manage the challenges the Syrian crisis poses. And, in parallel with China’s growing influence in the region, Ankara might get even closer to Beijing. Regional power vacuums and instability may force Turkey to take direct action. In short, compared to the Cold War period, Ankara may choose a more autonomous way between great powers rather than sticking to its Western allies.
Key aspects of Turkey’s current foreign policy also reflect longstanding bureaucratic and ideological trends that cross party lines.
Turkey has never been shy about using its military might, even before Erdoğan. The annexation of Hatay in 1939 was an early example of Ankara’s willingness to back up diplomacy with bribes, guerilla tactics, and the threat of military intervention in order to achieve its expansionist goals. In 1974, Turkey took half of the island of Cyprus and still keeps thousands of its troops there. On-and-off tensions with Greece over maritime issues in the Aegean Sea have escalated into armed confrontations quite often. Turkish intelligence, according to Behlül Özkan, intervened in the Syrian government’s conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s by covertly assisting the latter. In 1998, the Turkish military threatened Syria by piling up military units at the Turkish-Syrian border in order to oust Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), from Damascus. More importantly, the Turkish military has been fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party for almost 40 years and has carried out countless cross-border operations into Iraqi territories. Hence, it is possible to consider Turkey’s recent armed operations as part of this bellicose tradition.
Indeed, Erdoğan’s military expansionism has received vigorous support from the military and civil bureaucracy. The inventors and promoters of the concept of “Blue Homeland,” which was coined to express Turkey’s maritime objectives in the eastern Mediterranean, were retired generals Cihat Yaycı and Cem Gürdeniz. Ryan Gingeras argues that their popularity in the Turkish media revealed “the ascendency of a more aggressive and antagonistic strain of thought within Turkish security circles” — which implies a more enduring strategic view. Even in the absence of Erdoğan, this line of thought may maintain its dominance in Ankara.
Similarly, there was agreement among the high echelons of the bureaucracy about Turkey’s operations in Syria. In a leaked voice recording from 2014, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu, his then-undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, then-Deputy Chief of the General Staff Yasar Güler, and head of intelligence Hakan Fidan were discussing the necessity of intervention, whether be it covertly or militarily. Since then, widespread purges after the 2016 coup attempt have eliminated more restrained views and have homogenized the military bureaucracy. Turkish generals who had defied Erdoğan’s plans to carry out a military intervention between 2011 and 2016 have been imprisoned for more than five years.
The Turkish bureaucracy’s security-oriented mindset draws a boundary for Turkish foreign policy. Given that regional challenges, instabilities, and a power vacuum will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, armed interventions will continue to be an attractive option for an increasingly more confident bureaucratic elite. What’s more, Turkey’s non-combat missions, like the Turkish military base in Qatar, provide a lucrative career track for the military elite — which is another bureaucratic incentive to maintain Turkey’s military expansionism.
There is also an ideological dimension. Anti-Americanism is not a phenomenon limited to Justice and Development Party voters or ultra-nationalists either. Today, the great majority of Turkish society finds the United States unreliable, while trust in Russia is higher. This hostile suspicion of the United States, which is prevalent among the opposition too, will continue to complicate bilateral relations as Erdoğan’s successors will be obliged to demonstrate Turkey’s autonomy from the United States. In this context, many of the disputes between Ankara and Washington, such as Halkbank sanctions and U.S.-Democratic Union Party (PYD) relations, will not be easy to solve.
The Russian S-400 air defense systems, for example, will continue to pose a challenge to U.S.-Turkish relations even after Erdoğan. The attitude that the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has adopted toward the S-400 issue falls short of satisfying NATO partners. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party’s leader, openly supported the purchase on the grounds of Turkey’s urgent need for an air defense system, and he has criticized U.S. sanctions against Turkey’s sovereign acts. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu later began questioning the necessity of the S-400s, his party’s position has not changed dramatically. For example, Ünal Çeviköz, a former career diplomat who serves as Kılıçdaroğlu’s foreign policy advisor, not only supports the S-400 purchase but also demands their immediate activation.
The opposition has also supported many of the government’s military initiatives. From 2012 up until this year, the Republican People’s Party backed bills that mandate the government conduct military operations in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. Kılıçdaroğlu expressed his support for the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield, the 2018 Afrin operation, and the 2019 Peace Spring operation. After all, in its election bulletin, Kılıçdaroğlu’s party promises a withdrawal from Syria after the successful accomplishment of Turkey’s military missions there — a position in line with government’s current policy.
What’s Done Is Done
Turkey’s expansionism in recent years has introduced a new reality in the region — a reality that cannot be undone easily. Ankara has made new commitments, become entangled in webs of interests, and made investments in the areas where Turkish troops and intelligence have set foot. Although these are politically, militarily, and economically expensive initiatives, a retreat might be costlier in terms of the regional power balance and domestic political standing. Thus, even if a new Turkish government wants disengagement, withdrawing Turkish troops or ending military engagements would be quite complicated.
In Libya, for example, withdrawing support from the Government of National Accord would be hard if Turkey wants to keep its maritime deal in the Eastern Mediterranean afloat or protect $20 billion worth of business interests. In Syria, the refugee issue, the existence of the Democratic Union Party, and the activities of radical jihadist groups will complicate any withdrawal plan. Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party may stimulate new military initiatives in northern Iraq. The drones that have been delivered to Ukraine will be an issue in relations with Russia. Likewise, the Turkish military’s (and Turkish drones’) existence in Qatar, the Horn of Africa, and the Caucasus will be potential sources of conflict with the Gulf countries, Egypt, and Iran.
Ankara’s relations with new regional blocs, which have been designed to balance Erdoğan’s government, will be delicate too. Energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s aggressiveness have facilitated a pact between Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel, plus the United Arab Emirates. But a new government in Ankara and renewed diplomatic niceties do not automatically mean that this alliance will break, or that Turkey will enter into it. Greco-Turkish rivalry and maritime borders might continue to generate tensions in the region.
The Syrian diaspora in Turkey could also be an influential factor, particularly in Turkey’s relations with the Assad regime and Israel. There are 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. The Syrian population in the country is most likely much higher if unregistered immigrants and those who have already received their citizenships are accounted for. Even though the Turkish state, the opposition, and Turkish society hope for these Syrian refugees’ re-settlement in Syria, it is likely that the great majority of them will stay permanently in Turkey. When they gain the voting rights that come with Turkish citizenship, this new constituency may have long-lasting effects on Turkey’s Middle East policy.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Erdoğan has time and again proved how assertiveness and expansionism in foreign policy can be useful in domestic politics. They help to mobilize nationalist sentiments among voters and divert attention away from domestic troubles. Furthermore, throughout the last few years, Turkish voters have enjoyed the feelings of grandeur Turkey’s military operations and drones have aroused. The popular demand for mightiness, or the need for diversion from internal problems, could also seduce Erdoğan’s successors, who will command a seasoned military force.
Limits of Change
Post-Erdoğan Turkish foreign policy will be different. The new government will have an opportunity to open a new page in Turkey’s international relations. It will also need to restore Turkey’s international alliances and rebuild the country’s economy. The Republican People’s Party, like other opposition parties, is promising a new foreign policy in which diplomacy, international law, and good neighborly relations will replace adventurism, arrogancy, opportunism, populism, interventionism, and sectarianism.
But transforming the Turkish foreign policy in a shifting international environment will be a dangerous task for whoever succeeds Erdoğan. It will not be easy to differentiate what should change from what should not, as well as what cannot, be changed.
The first step is to be precise in critical assessments of the Erdoğan era. Seeing all Turkey’s troubles in the last two decades as a result of a government’s ideological or religious zealotry and obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood may lead to misleading conclusions. Although it is hard to discuss the Justice and Development Party’s foreign policy without concepts like Neo-Ottomanism, Pan-Islamism, or Pan-Turkism, we should not forget the structural factors at play as well. Thus, a more realistic evaluation that takes global and regional influences into account alongside ideology and mismanagement is vital.
Re-establishing institutions’ role in policymaking will be crucial for any future Turkish government. However, the strategic orientation of the Turkish bureaucracy could also confine the scope for change. Therefore, elected governments should still drive the re-articulation of Turkish foreign policy and should not leave this task entirely to military or civilian technocrats.
Finally, future governments will also have to make foreign policy decisions that will be unpopular within society, with the bureaucracy, or even among their own supporters. This will be easier to the extent that these future governments can free foreign policy debates from the populist and nationalist rhetoric in which they are conducted today.
Erdoğan’s removal from office in the 2023 elections or anytime sooner cannot be taken for granted. The time, manner, and scope of the transition to a post-Erdoğan Turkey could well render much of this analysis moot. But, whatever happens, observers should keep their expectations about post-Erdoğan Turkish foreign policy realistic.
M. Hasim Tekines is a former Turkish diplomat. He writes on Turkey, the Middle East, and Turkey-Gulf relations.