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On Turkey

Predicting the Unpredictable Turkish Foreign Policy

August 04, 2022
by
Selim Yenel
8 min read
Photo credit: sefayildirim / Shutterstock.com
For decades, Turkish foreign policy could be summed up as being cautious to a fault.

This was a continuation of the Ottoman empire’s policy during its decline, whose only adventurous act was allying with Germany in the First World War—a decision that resulted in its demise. The new Turkish Republic focused on diplomacy as it gained İskenderun (Alexandretta) and succeeded in establishing sovereignty over the straits through the Montreux Convention in the 1930s. Its sole foreign intervention was much later in Cyprus as a reaction to the Greece-instigated coup there in 1974.

With the end of the Cold War and the bipolar world, Turkey1 began to be more assertive. Yet cautiousness and diplomacy remained the prominent features. Unless Turkish territory was threatened, it resisted foreign adventures.

The Change in Foreign Policy

Turkish foreign policy began to change in the last two decades. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, it continued the established course up until around 2009. This was when Ahmet Davutoğlu became foreign minister and, with the support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the inclination toward an ideological foreign policy began to emerge. Following the success of these early years, such as getting the country elected to the United Nations Security Council in 2009–2010, the AKP believed its own rhetoric. But when it tried to get the country elected again to the Security Council in 2014, it failed dramatically as none had tried to be elected so soon after its last term.

Getting involved in Syria militarily proved to be a continuous challenge internally and externally. After Davutoğlu left the government in 2016, foreign policy became more personally driven by Erdoğan, leading to estrangement from not only the European Union and the United States but also from most of the countries in the Middle East. 

The main reason for this reversal in Turkish foreign policy is economic. Along with mistakes in economic policy and shortcomings in the rule of law, the country’s 'splendid loneliness' in foreign affairs hastened financial decline as foreign investment dried up.

Turkey soon faced multiple disputes in its neighborhood and strained relations with its allies. Towards the end of 2020, there was a slight return to a more traditional foreign policy albeit with the personal aspect remaining. Relations with Egypt and Israel were patched up while a reconciliation process with several Gulf countries started. The most striking turnaround was with Saudi Arabia. Although Ankara had accused Riyadh of orchestrating the killing and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Erdoğan visited the country on April 28 after the Turkish judiciary passed on its responsibilities of the ongoing case to the Saudis.

The main reason for this reversal in Turkish foreign policy is economic. Along with mistakes in economic policy and shortcomings in the rule of law, the country’s “splendid loneliness” in foreign affairs hastened financial decline as foreign investment dried up. Thus, the quest for new investors and attempts at mending relations, especially with the Middle Eastern kingdoms. 

The Effects of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine May Be Limited

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now changed the international landscape and given Ankara an opportunity to act as a mediator. It has had a cozy relationship with Moscow due to the personal rapport between Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin. While Ankara joined the international community in criticizing Russia at the United Nations and has provided drones to Ukraine, it has avoided imposing sanctions on Russia. It was never consulted on this by the EU or the United States. And, if it had imposed sanctions, it would not have been able to help broker the deal recently reached in Istanbul on the export of grain from Ukraine.

Turkey’s strategic importance may have been acknowledged by its Western allies, but this does not seem sufficient to rebuild the broken bridges.

Russia’s aggression has forced the EU and the United States to recognize once again the country’s critical value and the need for its cooperation, and Ankara will continue its mediation efforts. In addition to its role in the Ukraine war, the country is also pivotal in dealing with the migration threat from Syria and beyond, which has not receded for the EU.

Turkey’s strategic importance may have been acknowledged by its Western allies, but this does not seem sufficient to rebuild the broken bridges. The defective judicial system, the situation regarding fundamental rights, the erosion of independent institutions, and the impunity of the persons responsible for these issues cause deep concern in the West. While it is a founding member of the Council of Europe and even though it is obliged to follow the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, the country decided to flaunt these. It could eventually see its voting rights suspended or could even be expelled from the Council of Europe. The recent Gezi Park case has the potential to further complicate these relations.

Fundamental Rights Remain Key to Improving Relations

Yet, there are nuances between the EU and the US responses to these issues. The EU opposes further developing overall relations with Turkey due to them. Their relationship, always precarious, turned for the worse after the July 2016 coup attempt. Long-standing matters such as the EU accession process, visa exemption and the modernization of the Customs Union are all on hold, while dialogue on international problems like the situations in Syria, Libya, or Ukraine continue.

It seems that the two sides are content with this state of affairs. Turkey is only paying lip service to pursuing membership of the EU. The EU criticizes it on fundamental rights and the rule of law but has no leverage left and Ankara continues to ignore its criticism.

Long-standing matters such as the EU accession process, visa exemption and the modernization of the Customs Union are all on hold, while dialogue on international problems like the situations in Syria, Libya, or Ukraine continue.

The situation with the United States is different. Although Washington is also concerned about human rights, with Ankara its focus is mostly on security matters. President Joe Biden demonstrated that his administration can modify its stance according to US interests, as seen with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela when it comes to energy security. For Ankara, the main issues are the connection between Kurdish actors in Syria and Turkey and the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric residing the in the United States. For its part, the United States is concerned about the country’s purchase of S-400 missile systems from Russia, which led to its removal from the F-35 fighter-jet program. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave new prominence to Ankara in the White House, which has asked Congress to accept its request to upgrade its F-16 fleet. Ankara also played an important role in a swap in Turkey of prisoners between Russia and the United States. Thus, it continues to be a crucial partner.

Reversing Misgivings Will Take Time

Despite all of the above, it will take time for Ankara to build back trust. The personal antagonism between Erdoğan and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi prevents efforts for reconciliation with Egypt from developing beyond a certain level. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leaving office created a thaw with Israel and the relationship seems to be stable, despite the recent clashes between the latter and the Palestinians. The recent high-level visits between the two sides after a hiatus of more than a decade have been consequential. Whether this reconciliation will survive if Netanyahu returns to power later this year is anybody’s guess.

Smoothing relations with its neighbors is trickier for Ankara. Resolving its main issues with Armenia and Greece will take more effort. Although the Eastern Mediterranean is quiet, agitation has begun in the Aegean from both sides. Cyprus is the one issue that is persistently resistant to a settlement, with no expectation of a resolution any time soon.

Predicting the Unpredictable

Ankara has changed its stance so often that its positions hardly seen credible. In October 20121, Erdoğan threatened to expel several Western ambassadors for issuing a joint statement regarding the years-long detention of the philanthropist Osman Kavala and had to backpedal shortly after.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed Finland and Sweden to for membership to NATO, Ankara threw cold water on this. It had legitimate objections, such as over the two countries’ arms embargoes against it and lax laws in the fight against terrorism, but the rhetoric and strong statements at the highest level has harmed perceptions of the country. A political deal was reached on the eve of the Madrid NATO summit in June after Ankara obtained the removal of the arms embargoes and promises of stronger cooperation against terrorism. Despite its bravado, the expectation was that, even with genuine concerns, it would accept some kind of agreement anyway. Now it contends that if, the conditions are not fulfilled, the Turkish parliament may not approve NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, but nobody takes this seriously.

Turkey needs to remind itself that it is a Western-oriented country, a member of NATO and of the Council of Europe and a candidate for EU membership with its responsibilities and privileges.

Ankara is relying on an old logic that predates the current government: that it is too important strategically to be ignored. The visit of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi earlier this month, after he had called Erdoğan a dictator not so long ago, was one example proving this true. Yet, Turkey needs to remind itself that it is a Western-oriented country, a member of NATO and of the Council of Europe and a candidate for EU membership with its responsibilities and privileges.

The economy is Turkey’s Achilles’ heel. This is one of the reasons why it keeps its options open with Russia with an energy crisis is looming for next winter. It wishes to mend fences and have commercial and investment opportunities as before, without paying any political or diplomatic price in consequence. One-time allies turned adversaries have become friends again almost overnight—and nothing prevents them from becoming foes again. Ankara initially opposes things vehemently yet accept them in the end. Ironically, constant policy changes are making the country unreliable yet also predictable. For other countries the maxim has become “Ignore the posturing and in the end Ankara will play ball.”

The continuous turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy aim to muster economic and commercial benefits. Real gains would accrue if the country based its foreign policy once again on being credible, reliable, responsible, and principled.

  • 1As the United Nations replaced “Turkey” with “Türkiye” as the country’s official name upon Ankara’s request, GMF now uses “Türkiye” as a rule. We make an exception, however, for Turkish authors who express a preference for retaining the use of “Turkey.”