May 26, 2023

Turkish Foreign Policy in Shifting Political Landscapes

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in fishing boats take part in a rally ahead of the 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections, in Izmir, 29 April 2023.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in fishing boats take part in a rally ahead of the 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections, in Izmir, 29 April 2023.

Following WWII, Türkiye linked its security to the Western defence system, joining NATO in 1952. This connection protected it against Soviet expansionism, helped modernise and expand its armed forces, and integrate them with the community of democracies that it aspired to join. Also, Türkiye’s economy based on import substitution was extended support by its allies in return for the security value that the country offered.

Two developments guided Türkiye to reconsider its place, role, and commitments in the Western security system. The first was the advent of détente, improved relations with the Socialist Bloc, and then the eventual dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR itself, which generated the question of whether NATO should continue as a security organization.

A Shaky Alliance

The second, beginning in 1980, was the shift in Türkiye’s economic policy from import substitution to export-led growth, necessitating a search for new markets that included the USSR (and later the post-Soviet states), as well as the Middle East and Africa. Understandably, this search implied improved overall relations with the target countries. When the initial expectation of joining the EU ended with membership negotiations running aground, building a multiplicity of regional and global relations became even more important.

Despite the changes that were taking place in its environment, Türkiye still valued NATO as a Western system that would ensure its security in future contingencies. However, some problems that were of concern to all European members of NATO arose.

The US, for instance, got into the habit of formulating the alliance’s security policy by itself in return for backing it with its nuclear capabilities. It insisted on continuing to make policy and expect others to accede, although the political conditions under which other members had acknowledged US leadership had been widely altered. This stance resulted in intra-alliance tensions. In Türkiye’s case, after much agonising, the refusal to allow American forces to use its soil to launch an invasion of Iraq constituted a landmark in the deterioration of Turkish-American relations.

Of greater importance to all Europeans were signals from the US that its attention would turn more to the Pacific, expecting Europeans to assume a much greater share of the burden of their own defence. Even when the Cold War – in its initial form – was dominating the agenda, there still were some American suggestions that NATO’s European members should assume a greater portion of the defence burden.

Under the Trump administration, however, this posture nearly developed into a policy of assured American withdrawal. While President Biden has since been trying to restore both America’s commitment to defend Europe and lead the Western security community, the US is no longer perceived as a reliable partner, being subject to reversal not only with the change of presidents but also sways in public opinion.

Trust Issues

Like many European nations, Türkiye finds the American commitment to defend Europe unreliable. Whilst not a member of the EU, the country is excluded from the EU security arrangements. In this way, NATO’s and EU’s defence of Europe cannot be integrated, creating complications in defence planning. In fact, there are even more problems. The US, for example, has stopped observing an unwritten NATO rule to keep a balance between Türkiye’s and Greece’s security capabilities. Although the US has rejected such allegations, Türkiye is concerned that a new line of defence – from which it is excluded – is in the making.

The Americans have also chosen to work with the Kurdish groups – the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – in their war against DAESH, also known as the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq. From the Turkish perspective, the YPG/PYD is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organisation operating out of Syria and Northern Iraq, that challenges Türkiye’s territorial integrity. Americans insist that the PKK is not a terrorist organisation and that their cooperation is temporary. The Turkish government, however, worries that Americans are pursuing the establishment of a Kurdish state that will inevitably end up having territorial conflicts with Türkiye.

Finally, the US has shown notable reluctance to sell new weapons to Türkiye. The latter’s ill-advised purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia has given the Americans justification to refrain from providing it with modern equipment, with the F-35 planes on top of the list.

Turkish Dreams vs Reality

In the meantime, Türkiye has been growing economic relations in its broad neighbourhood, including with countries that have problematical relations with the US and, to a lesser extent, with the EU. Türkiye has been reluctant, for example, to fully comply with American-devised economic embargoes. Similarly, Türkiye is hesitant to welcome aspirations that would render the Black Sea into a NATO-EU lake at the expense of Russia.

Turkish dreams that the Arab Spring would allow it to assume the leadership in the Middle East have failed. Currently, Türkiye has been trying to reconstruct its relations with the post-Arab Spring regimes. It has also been pursuing closer relations with China in order to become a major beneficiary of the Belt and Road project as well as Chinese investments in order to become a manufacturing base for goods intended for the European markets.

There is a general feeling, nationally shared, that we are going through a period of great uncertainties, during which all options should remain open. The suggestion that the Ukrainian war may lead to the revival of the Western alliance, as it operated during the Cold War, is treated with much scepticism. There are also concerns that Türkiye is no longer valued as critically for Western defence as it had been in the past.

There is a dominant feeling that the country would rather integrate with the community of democracies with social market economies, partnering with the EU. Whether this will prove possible will be determined, in large part, by how the US and the EU respond to Türkiye’s aspirations.

In the meantime, there is a constituency – that is not to be neglected – interested in replacing Türkiye’s long-standing Western bond with some sort of Eurasian framework yet to take the final form.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.