Introduction: A Historical Development of Turkish Foreign Policy

The great European powers – France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Austria – dominated the 19th century. These powers were unrivalled in building a hegemonic position across the world. Yet, their own hegemonic position depended on the balance of power among them. Any action from one of the powers would lead to an act of retaliation. Towards 1914, the rivalry and the relationship between the great powers got worse. Besides, this rivalry created the emergence of alliances among the powers and paved the way for World War I in 1914. The cataclysm gave rise to the destruction of the balance-of-power system and the development of a bipolar system. Along with the rise of Nazi Germany the international political system transformed into a quasi-bipolar system, similar to that of 1890–1914 (Hale 2013: 3). A while later the international system was reshaped by another cataclysm, World War II, which cost millions of lives.

While the international system was experiencing such turmoil, Turkey emerged as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s. Despite the Ottoman Empire being divided when it was defeated in World War I, Turkey managed to win its national liberation war and was established on October 29, 1923. The founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and his colleagues struggled to establish a nation-state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire as they learnt from the experiences of the former Sultans and rulers of the Empire. These experiences and ideological prejudices led Atatürk to separate the New Republic from Middle Eastern affairs and focus on European affairs. According to Atatürk, it was compelling to do so because of Turkey’s unique intercontinental geography between East and West. In his mind, while the West represented modernity, the East was identified with backwardness. In this sense, three tenets of the new Republic’s foreign policy can be identified: non-alignment/non-involvement; “peace at home, peace in the world”; and Westernization/modernization.

This understanding continued to be applied to Turkey’s foreign affairs after Atatürk’s death in 1938. A good example of that policy was Turkey’s World War II experience. Although Turkey had signed a tripartite alliance with Britain and France in October 1939, it remained a de facto neutral throughout the war. Turkey’s stance during World War II is held up as an example of how a relatively small and militarily backward country could follow an independent path at a time of global struggle (Hale 2013: 56; Jacoby and Tabak 2015; Tabak 2016). This policy was a natural outcome of Atatürk’s legacy as well as of the leaders of Turkey’s direct experiences of World War I. However, with the end of World War II, Turkey experienced a shift in its foreign policy course as there was no multipolar global system. From now on, the USA and the USSR were the superpowers and Turkey had to choose its side.

The period of the Cold War, between 1945 and the late 1980s, saw a bipolar global system. By and large, the struggle between the USA and the USSR dominated this era. It is safe to say that in this struggle Turkey chose the USA’s side. In this sense, Turkish foreign policy during the Cold War can be identified primarily by its relationship with the USA. The existence of the Soviet threat toward the West put forward Turkey as an indispensable ally for the USA. As Turkey chose a place in the Western world, it had to orient its foreign policy unconditionally to the USA, despite the ups and downs that come with any relationship. However, the dissolution of the USSR badly affected Turkey’s role as an ally for the USA and launched a new era, called the “New World Order.”

The bipolar global system ended with the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Since this time the USA has been the world’s sole superpower. Nonetheless, it was hard to define the new order as simply unipolar. Although economically the USA was still the world’s most powerful state, fast-growing economies in Asia were shifting the main locus of global economic power (Hale 2013: 4). Politically, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and being seen as the sole superpower bolstered American self-confidence and caused the disastrous invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. While these events highlighted the powerhouse image of the USA, at the same time they caused an obvious hatred toward the USA in the third world, especially in some Muslim countries. Although culturally the image of the USA has experienced some similarities with its political image, it is safe to say that it has been robust across the world during the post-Cold War era.

During the post-Cold War era, Turkey’s relations with the states in Central Asia and Middle East were the main determinants of its relations with the USA, the EU, and Russia. Since 1945, Turkey has been one of the reliable and strategic allies of the USA, although the contradictions with the USA appear blatant during this time period. The Soviet Union and the communist threat were the main reasons for this alliance. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it became obvious that Turkey’s role had been terminated. However, the 1990–1991 Gulf War revolutionized the relationship between Turkey and the USA. During the war, Turkey opted to give its full support to the USA. It is widely acknowledged that by this cooperation, Turkey consolidated its partnership with the USA, even if there have been several ups and downs since.

Despite Turkey getting its relations with the USA back on track, the conflicts in the Balkans offered an opportunity for Turkey to prove itself regarding making independent foreign policy. In this sense, Turkey’s stance during the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995) and Kosovo (1998–1999) can be perceived as an important phase. These conflicts were based on ethnicity. Throughout both wars, Turkey put a lot of effort into encouraging the Western world to take necessary measures in order to end the bloodshed. In addition, Turkey played an active role in making the international community aware of what was happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo (Demirtaş-Coşkun 2007). Turkey dealt with the conflicts in the Balkans intimately because of its historical, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic ties with the local community. In fact, Turkey has had the confidence to build strong relations with the kinship states after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emerging five Turkic states in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The late 1980s and the early 1990s deeply changed the power relations of the international system. As a result of this change, Turkic states in Central Asia and the Caucasus came into prominence as an area of interest for Turkey, since it has ethnic, linguistic, and cultural ties with the Turkic states of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has developed a discourse of “The Great Turkish World – from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China.” Through this discourse, the aim was to create a new sphere of influence in Central Asia and establish road, energy, and communications links with the former Soviet Central Asian Republics. Turkey’s initial attempt was to play a big-brother role for the newly independent Turkic states, and this attempt was also supported by the USA to fill the power vacuum with the “Turkish Model” instead of radical Islam. On the other hand, there were two obstacles before Turkey’s aim. The first one was that other regional powers such as Russia and Iran were not keen to see the USA in Central Asia and the Caucasus through Turkey. The second obstacle was that the post-Soviet Turkic states had just begun to explore the multipolarity within the international system and did not want to be dependent upon any single regional power (Walker 2007: 10). Under these conditions, Turkey managed to establish only limited relationships with the Turkic states in the 1990s, and this failure forced Turkey to enhance its relations with the EU. However, this has admittedly been a long-lasting, painful process.

As of 2002, Turkish foreign policy has experienced a major change process. While some scholars have welcomed this process and called it “multi-dimensional foreign policy” (See Sözen 2010; Keyman 2010; Duzgit and Tocci 2009; Aras 2009); others have criticized it and labelled it “neo-Ottomanist foreign policy” – the revival of Turkey’s Ottoman grandeur (See Onar 2009; Taşpınar 2008; Rubin 2004). In this sense, from a Turkish foreign policy perspective, it is safe to claim that the year 2002 is a milestone. Before 2002, Turkey was largely isolated in its neighborhood. It had a historical hostility with Greece and Armenia, and relations with Syria, Iraq, and Iran were mostly strained due to Kurdish and PKK issues. On the other hand, after 2002, Turkey’s foreign policy understanding and implementation have changed with then-Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister and Ambassador at large Professor Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Since that time, Turkey has been keen to mediate conflicts in the neighborhood, as well. What is more, the Turkish foreign policy horizon has been broadened by plans to open fifteen new embassies in Africa, almost doubling its diplomatic presence in the continent, and two in Latin America. It might be said that Turkey has fully realized its potential since 2002. Even though the “zero problems with neighbors” policy has not met with much concrete success in terms of developing good relations with all the neighboring countries, it might be claimed that Turkey has aimed to transform into a state which contributes to stability and peace and takes initiatives to mediate long-standing conflicts in its neighboring area.

However, this new activism in Turkish foreign policy has been met with suspicion in the West. The reason is that in spite of improving its relations with the states which mainly belonged to third world, such as Iran, Syria, Turkic states, etc., the improvement momentum has not been same with the EU and the USA. This has been perceived as Turkey leaving the West and turning its face to the East. In this regard, some of the answers of the question “Which developments have caused the idea that Turkey is leaving the West?” may be as follows: then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Mahmoud Ahmedinejad “a friend” (Barysch 2010: 1) and Turkey voted against the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution implementing a fourth round of sanctions on Iran (Mozgovaya 2010); Turkey once planned to form a free trade zone with Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon and eventually to establish Middle Eastern Union (Walker 2011; Kucukkosum 2010);[1] conducting grand force exercises with China (Kucera 2010); having relations with Sudan’s leader Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (Rubin 2010); and lifting visa requirements with several states such as Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Russia, Albania, and Iran. The last, but not least, development is Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel, mostly a result of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s provocative statements and reactions since the 2006 Lebanon War.[2]

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How to Cite:

TUFEKCI, O. (2017), Turkey: A Pivotal Exemplary State, In H. Tabak, O. Tufekci, and A. Chiriatti (Eds.), Domestic and Regional Uncertainties in The New Turkey (pp. 125-143). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.