Alliances in a Shifting Global Order: Turkey
Turkey: Escaping Dependence
by ÖzGÜR ÜNLÜHISARCIKLI
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Turks believe that geography is destiny whether it really is or not. Turks fear that history repeats itself whether it really does or not. And Turkey follows Edward N. Luttwak’s dictum that “all states have a grand strategy, whether they know it or not.” Informed by its geography and history, Turkey’s grand strategy is based on strong relations with the West while balancing the world’s great powers to escape dependence on any of them.
Turkey’s balancing act in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have its contradictions, but it is part of this historical pattern. Galip Dalay describes the country’s policy toward the conflict to its north as being “pro-[Kyiv] without being overtly anti-Moscow”. The first part of that description is reflected in Turkish denunciations of the invasion and UN votes in favor of condemning Russia. Ankara has also supplied armed drones to Ukraine, which were particularly effective in the war’s first months, and blocked the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to warring parties, as the Montreux Convention of 1936 permits. This prevented Russia from reinforcing its Black Sea fleet. Turkey nevertheless refrains from joining Western sanctions on Russia. As Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalin said, Ankara “does not want its strong economic ties with Moscow to be damaged”. In that sense, the policy has been a stunning success. Turkish exports to Russia jumped 87% in 2022, leading some to conclude that Turkey has turned itself into a trade hub between Russia and the West.
But why did Turkey, a NATO member, prefer a balancing act to conforming to the policies of its transatlantic partners? The answer lies in the country’s interpretation of its own geography and history. The Ottomans drew two conclusions from losing their supremacy to Western powers. First, they needed to establish strong relations with those powers to modernize and survive. Second, they needed to play those powers off against one another to protect the empire’s much coveted territory. In Grand Strategizing in and for Turkish Foreign Policy: Lessons Learned from History, Geography and Practice, Mustafa Aydın confirms this. He argues in the paper that “the unavoidable decline of the [Ottoman] Empire and its weaker position vis-à-vis the greater powers of the time, made the concept of ‘balancing’ and its corollary, ‘playing one power against another’, indispensable components of its strategic behavior, which were inherited by Turkey.”
Indeed, Turkey remained nonbelligerent during the interwar period and World War II. However, when the Soviet Union refused in 1945 to extend the Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality, which the two countries signed in 1925, Turkey decided to join the Western camp to thwart a perceived threat from the Kremlin. Turkey sent troops to Korea in 1950 and joined NATO in 1952.
With the end of Cold War Turkey returned to pursuing strategic autonomy. It diversified its foreign policy by building new relationships, most as “supplementary” to its NATO membership. But not all. Rapprochement with Russia began after the attempted 2016 coup and amid growing frustration with Western partners, primarily due to their perceived lack of support for Turkish policies toward those Ankara deemed terrorists.
Committed to Open Markets
Turkey has long pursued an open trade policy. It became a party to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947 and a founding member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. The country has concluded several free trade agreements in line with GATT and WTO rules, but its most important trade partner will remain the EU for the foreseeable future.
Turkey has had a customs union with the EU since the end of 1995 and has been an EU candidate country since 1999. Although the bloc’s share of Turkish trade has declined slightly over the past 15 years, the value of bilateral commerce has increased considerably over the same period. In 2022, the EU took in about 40% of Turkish exports and supplied just over 25% of Turkish imports. The United States that same year was the destination for 6.6% of Turkish exports.
As with its foreign policy efforts, Turkey is diversifying its trade relationships. Africa represents one success story; its trade volume with Turkey has jumped from $5.4 billion in 2003 to $34.5 billion in 2021. Turkey is also intensifying efforts to trade in local currencies rather than US dollars, in part through the introduction of central bank mechanisms to support such transactions.
Trying for Technology Transfer
Western companies are always Turkey’s first choice when it comes to high-tech projects. But high prices, lack of joint ventures, and insufficient technology transfer often lead the country to seek alternatives. Turkey is among the European countries to select Huawei as a partner in its 5G telecommunications infrastructure.
Turkey is not a high-tech country, but its defense industry has made notable strides recently. Its tenfold increase in defense and aerospace sales, accounting for an explosive 1,200% jump in the sectors’ exports, over the last two decades is evidence of this. Turkey still seeks technology transfer through foreign direct investment (FDI) and international partnerships to increase productivity and anchor sustainable growth. The EU, notably, accounts for 50%-90% of Turkish FDI in a given year, making the bloc key to this endeavor.
Going forward, Turkey will continue efforts to attract high-tech investment and production, whether from Western or non-Western countries. Ankara’s priority is identifying opportunities, regardless of their source, to develop a domestic technology sector.
“The World is Bigger Than Five”
Turkey is a strong supporter of a rules-based international order and multilateralism. At the same time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğa has said “the world is bigger than five,” a comment that reflects his advocacy for reforming the UN, especially the Security Council, and other multilateral organizations. Turkey argues that the UN Security Council specifically needs to broaden its global representation.
Democracy promotion has never been part of Turkish foreign policy. It contradicts Ankara’s key principle of refraining from meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and, in particular, from supporting armed uprisings. Turkey disregarded these principles during the Arab uprisings that began in 2010, and the country soon found itself regionally isolated and subject to containment policies. Saudi Arabia and its allies were particularly keen to preserve the regional status quo and repel Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence. Ankara is unlikely to repeat the error in the near future.
Turkey is also unlikely to change its orientation toward the West, which long precedes its joining NATO in 1952 and the customs union with the EU in 1995, and its becoming an EU accession candidate in 1999. Historical patterns nevertheless suggest that Turkey will continue to diversify its international relationships and explore ways to increase its strength, influence, and security to achieve its ultimate goal of strategic autonomy. In Turkey’s view, it should not be forgotten, the world has more than five powers.
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