On Turkey

Has Turkey’s Quest for “Strategic Autonomy” Run its Course?

July 26, 2021
Galip Dalay
E. Fuat Keyman
9 min read
Photo credit: Imran Khan's Photography / Shutterstock.com 

The quest for strategic autonomy has often been cited to define the overarching framework of contemporary Turkish foreign policy. At face value, this concept means Turkey charting an independent foreign policy. But a deeper look at the concept reveals a different reality. As it is applied at present, this concept effectively represents the government’s quest to reduce Turkey’s dependency on the West in the geostrategic, political, and security realms as well as in terms of its modernization and geopolitical identity—Turkey asserting its autonomy vis-à-vis the West.

Ironically, Turkey is not asserting itself in a similar fashion vis-à-vis Russia and China. On the contrary, as Russia has significantly increased its presence south of Turkey in the Middle East and North Africa and east in the South Caucasus, Ankara’s strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis Moscow has been on the rise, which in turn carries significant long-term consequences for the country’s geopolitical position. Similarly, Turkey has made a special effort not to antagonize China by remaining almost completely silent in the face of Chinese persecution of the Uighur Muslims and in accepting China’s unilateral expansionism to enhance its global influence economically and geostrategically without paying attention to democracy and human rights. At a time when the Turkish public and political spheres are awash with criticism of the West, criticism of China rarely occurs. As these examples illustrate, rather than balancing or maintaining its historical-strategic anchor, Turkey’s desire for “strategic autonomy” has operated as a quest to reduce geopolitical dependency on the West while increasing its dependency on and simultaneously decreasing its leverage on non-Western powers.

Yet Turkey has chosen to adopt a pro-Western narrative recently. The most conspicuous case in point has been President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s narrative prior to, during, and in the aftermath of the NATO summit in June. Irrespective of sincerity or intention, Erdoğan has utilized a staunchly pro-NATO discourse and advocated for a new and cooperative period in Turkish–American relations. To mend ties with the administration of President Joe Biden, Turkey is poised to shoulder the responsibility of providing security at Afghanistan’s Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal, hoping to use this as a means to improve relations with the United States. These recent developments beget the following question: Has Turkey’s quest for “strategic autonomy” run its course?

Strategic and Ideational Drivers

Strategic and ideational factors loom large in informing Turkey’s quest for “strategic autonomy” without a geopolitical anchor.

On the strategic front, the current Turkish governing coalition—whose binding ideological framework is nationalism, for which anti-Westernism has served a useful glue—and its intellectual cadres appear to believe that, because it is no longer as Western-centric, the world has entered a post-Western phase. This unsubstantiated assumption about global reality, and therefore that Turkey should recalibrate its strategy and capacity accordingly, has framed and shaped foreign policy decisions in a considerable way. In fact, Turkey’s quest for “strategic autonomy” goes hand in hand with engaging in a geopolitical balancing act between different centers of power, more precisely between the West, Russia, and China. At the same time, it has been focusing on hard and military power capacities, initiating flexible alliances (mainly with Russia) to enhance its regional influence, and adopting “offensive realism” through unilateral military operations in its wider region. With this guiding assumption about international affairs in the background, what Western capitals perceive as abnormal foreign policy is seen in Turkey as adjusting to a new normality in international affairs.

Several factors shaped Turkey’s conviction about a restructuring of the global political system. On top of the international obsession with the rise of China, the downsizing of U.S. security commitments in Turkey’s neighborhood has contributed to the governing elite’s thinking that the United States in particular and the West in general are experiencing a relative decline in international affairs—in other words, that Western primacy in global politics is waning. Even though President Donald Trump added unpredictability, impulsiveness, and incoherence to the process, the partial U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, had already started under the administration of Barack Obama in which Joe Biden served as vice president. The U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq strengthen the conviction that the United States will continue to decrease its security commitments in the Middle East. Under Biden, there might be a more predictable and more diplomatic U.S. behavior in regional affairs but there will not be a greater U.S. presence.

In the end, Turkey’s reading of the restructuring of international affairs is naturally heavily influenced by the developments and restructuring in its neighborhood where it sees a U.S. withdrawal and a European absence. Having said that, the prospect of the growing convergence between the United States and Europe in relation to Turkey’s neighborhood, and the Biden administration’s manifested desire to revitalize the West and the transatlantic alliance are likely to affect the Turkish government’s previous assumptions about the restructuring of global politics. Furthermore, it must be remembered that almost every president since the end of the Cold War came to power by pledging to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region and ended up doing just the opposite.

Three Understandings of the West

The Erdoğan government has not given up on the West altogether. Instead, it has developed a particular and peculiar—in fact transactional and instrumental—interpretation of the West. Turkey possesses three different understandings of the West: the idea of the West, the geopolitical indispensability of the West (or the Western geopolitical anchor), and the institutionalized West. While the government has given up on the first two, it has not given up on the third as it has a utilitarian value.

First, the West historically and traditionally has served as a reference point for Turkey’s political and economic modernization and transformation. In fact, modernization and westernization have long been used interchangeably and later democratization was also added to this idea. For instance, during the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, Turkey’s reform agenda was almost entirely based on the framework of Europeanization—harmonizing its legal and political framework with the EU’s acquis. Given the authoritarianism and personalization of power in recent years, it seems that the Erdoğan government has given up on the idea of the West, and hence on the transformative aspect of Turkey’s westernization.

Second, the geopolitical balancing act between different centers of power and reducing geopolitical dependency on the West have been in vogue in Turkish foreign policy for a while. This is a major change in Turkey’s traditional foreign policy following the Second World War. Turkey often sought to craft a more autonomous and ambitious foreign policy, even during the Cold War but, broadly speaking, its foreign policy largely remained anchored within the Western framework. At present, despite membership of NATO, Turkey has largely given up on the Western geopolitical anchor or on the idea of the geopolitical indispensability of the West. In this approach, the West is one center of power among others, even though it is still the most important one.

Third, even though, the government has given up on the idea of the West and of the Western geopolitical anchor, it has not given up on Western institutions. From the customs union with the EU to NATO membership, Turkey appreciates the utilitarian value of its place within different Western institutions and jealously guards its membership in these. Moreover, as is evident in Turkey’s desire to upgrade the customs union, Turkey wants to further consolidate its presence within these institutions. Obviously, at a time when the government gives up on the Western geopolitical anchor while simultaneously holding onto its place in Western institutions, this triggers discussions on the gap between membership in the Western institutions and a Western geopolitical identity.

Turkey’s Militarized Foreign Policy

On top of geopolitical and ideational decoupling, another factor that has generated tension with the West has been related to Turkey’s propensity to utilize hard power and military means to attain foreign policy goals. Its military operations in Syria and Iraq, direct military support to Azerbaijan and to the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya, and military posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean are cases in point. Therefore, it is not only Turkey’s foreign policy orientation that has triggered friction in Turkish–Western ties, but its militarization of that policy has also been a major source of friction—and Western governments’ foreign policy choices have similarly infuriated Ankara. Although this militarization has pitted Turkey against a host of actors, in the West and in the Middle East, in the final analysis the government believes that the benefits of this strategy have outweighed its costs. Turkey has gained control over a large area in Syria, rolled back territorial and political gains by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, emerged as the most important external actor in western Libya, terminated Armenian control over a significant chunk of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, and weakened the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militarily in Turkey and Iraq. Moreover, setting aside customary condemnations from Europe and the United States and diplomatic isolation in the region and internationally, Turkey has not incurred any real costs for its militarized approach and coercive diplomacy. In this respect, it is not surprising that it has pursued this approach in an uninterrupted manner from mid-2016 until late 2020.

Yet, apart from Turkey’s ongoing and potential military interventions in Iraq, this approach has now largely run its course. It costs would be significantly higher now because the context has changed. Turkey’s militarized foreign policy was the product of a particular period and a peculiar context. Putting aside its first military operation in Syria, which occurred in 2016, all the other military operations by Turkey in recent years took place during the Trump presidency when there was a significant gap between the president and U.S. government institutions and between the United States and Europe over the Middle East and over Turkey. This increased Turkey’s room for maneuver. Likewise, be it in Syria or in Libya, the conflict contexts were conducive to Turkey’s military interventions, which meant the military and political costs of these interventions were relatively lower.

With the Biden administration now in place in the United States, there is a convergence between the U.S. president and the U.S. government institutions, and between the United States and Europe when it comes to Turkey. Therefore, new military interventions by Turkey would risk incurring a heavier bill. Furthermore, the conflict spots in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and South Caucasus are less conducive to military interventions, so the costs of military escalation would be higher now. There is an ongoing UN process and an interim government in Libya. Likewise, there appears to be more coordination between different European actors (more importantly between France and Italy), and between Europe and the United States on Libya. Moreover, despite several hot spots in Syria such as in Idlib, there are four zones of control—the regime-controlled one, Idlib, the Syrian-Kurdish/U.S.-controlled area, and enclaves controlled by Turkey and the Syrian opposition—and there is little prospect that there will be any major changes to these zones of control any time soon. The prospect of EU sanctions, a new administration, and a deepening economic crisis at home have convinced Ankara to de-escalate in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the South Caucasus, though fragile, a new status quo has emerged from the latest conflict, which is also unlikely to change any time soon. Finally, Turkey’s economic woes at home require de-escalation on the foreign policy fronts. Hence, another recalibration of Turkish foreign policy might be in offing, dictated by the realities of a new period and of a new context.

While Turkey signals its desire to mend ties with the West and its intention to end its militarized foreign policy and grandstanding vis-à-vis the West, the implications of such an approach on Turkey’s quest for “strategic autonomy” remains to be seen.