On Turkey

Turkey’s Recurring Quest for Security, Status, and Geopolitical Identity

April 01, 2022
Galip Dalay
9 min read
Photo credit: answer5 / Shutterstock.com
Turkey’s place in the world and the nature of its relations with the West and Russia have always been primarily defined by broad global processes.

The invasion of Ukraine is the latest watershed moment that will deeply inform regional and systemic restructuring, and thus Turkey’s international relations. So far it pushes Turkey and the West closer, while gradually driving a wedge between Turkey and Russia. The question remains as to whether there will be a durable geopolitical convergence between Turkey and the West as a result of the war.

History and Global Processes

One of the important turning points for the Ottoman empire in the 19th century was its inclusion in the Treaty of Paris in 1856. This came after the Crimean War, in which it had aligned itself with Britain, France, and Austria to defeat Russia. Inclusion in the Paris Treaty meant three things for the Ottoman empire: security vis-à-vis Russia, status in international affairs, and confirmation of its aspiration to a European geopolitical identity.

The Ottoman elites saw the treaty as the most important podium in the international affairs of the time. And, to attain a European geopolitical identity, they introduced domestic legal and political changes. For them, the empire was a natural part of the European imperial order and it needed to be seen and treated as such, yet they felt insecure about this geopolitical identity into the early 20th century.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was again the search for security, status, and geopolitical identity in the new international system that pushed Turkey to join NATO and be part of the transatlantic system. Among other things, the Soviet Union’s demands for territory from Turkey and for special rights in the management of the Turkish straits in 1945 made it the main object of Ankara’s threat perception. Membership in NATO was intended to address this. Turkish elites also saw it as the most important alliance in the world and membership as a status symbol. Being part of NATO also confirmed Turkey’s Western geopolitical identity.

Being part of NATO also confirmed Turkey’s Western geopolitical identity.

And again, just as domestic reforms prior to the Ottoman empire’s inclusion in the Treaty of Paris were meant to facilitate its inclusion in the European imperial order, Turkey’s quest to be part of the West after the Second World War had a direct impact on its domestic politics.

From the establishment of the republic until the end of the Second World War, Turkey was under single-party rule. There is no known historical record showing that adoption of a multiparty system after the war was a requirement for its membership in NATO and place in the Western system. It is more plausible that the governing elite introduced the multiparty system to prepare for the world and time that was emerging from the ashes of the Second World War.

Thus, in the mid-19th century and again in the mid-20th century, systemic-level changes had an impact not only on Turkey’s geopolitical orientation and identity, but also on its domestic political course. 

The Post-Cold War Period

During the two decades after the end of the post-Cold War, Russia had a diminished international stature and a diminished capacity to pose a threat to Turkey. This led to the gradual emergence of a new narrative in Ankara that framed Moscow largely as a partner. However, the past decade has seen Russia’s resurgence. From Georgia to Crimea, the Middle East, and Ukraine, it has engaged in extensive geopolitical revisionism. At the same time, it has not pursued a systemic one because the current international system is still largely a product of post-Second World War order, of which Moscow was an architect.

Russia’s geopolitical revisionism and status projection manifest themselves differently in different regions. Moscow looks at the post-Soviet space through the perspective of domination, beyond solely influence, framed in the language of national security, and the Middle East and North Africa through the prism of power, status, and influence projection. These two perspectives are a direct challenge for Turkey.

Moscow effectively wants to turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake through invasion while Turkey is also a major Black Sea power. Meanwhile, Russia’s idea of a sphere of domination in the post-Soviet space, including in the Turkic states of Central Asia, also appears to mean that the states there should not exercise independence in their foreign and security policy or choose their own geopolitical identities. In a sense, Russia is offering a form of neo-imperialism for the post-Soviet space This space is geographically and culturally close for Turkey, which wants to cultivate deeper ties and influence there.

Russia is also enlarging its footprint in Turkey’s immediate southern neighborhood, be it in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. This is set to have a long-term impact on Turkey’s geopolitical room for maneuver. 

Despite this geopolitical incompatibility, Turkey has sought to cultivate closer relations with Russia, to work with it in different conflict zones, and to avoid joining any anti-Russia sanction regimes. Two factors were crucial in the making of this policy—the regional restructuring in the Middle East and the reality or perception of systemic changes in global politics.

The West—Discontent and Decoupling

Decoupling in Turkish-Western relations, and Turkey’s discontent with the West, also led to closer ties between it and Russia. It was first politics and then geopolitics that drove Turkey and the West apart. The identity-driven opposition in the EU to Turkey’s membership path and later the democratic regression and transgression of the rule of law in the country led to political decoupling. However, it was geopolitical decoupling that brought relations almost to the point of collapse.

No crisis has tested Turkish-US relations as much as the war in Syria. It has clearly illustrated that both sides’ threat perceptions were changing. Turkey and the United States looked at each other’s local partners through the prism of terrorism and extremism. They harbored suspicion toward each other’s endgame in Syria. Many in Ankara see Washington as midwifing the emergence of a Kurdish statelet.

It was first politics and then geopolitics that drove Turkey and the West apart.

In the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, Ankara interpreted the United States’ support for its opponents’ attempt to form a regional energy and security order as part of a containment policy toward itself. This crisis has also put Turkey on a collision course with the EU as a whole and with different European countries, not least Greece and France.

Finally, the governing elite in Ankara publicly accused the United States of having advance knowledge, if not a hand in, the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016—an accusation that further contaminated the atmosphere of bilateral relations.

This political and geopolitical decoupling has led many to discuss openly, and even to see as plausible, scenarios of rupture in Turkish-Western relations

The Middle East Laboratory

Turkey’s reading and experience of the Middle East’s restructuring in recent years was another important factor in it rethinking its place and role in the world, which was increasingly away from the West and closer to the non-Western rising or resurgent powers. The region has disproportionately featured in Turkish foreign policy over the last decade. Ankara sees the Middle East as a microcosm and a laboratory of broader systemic changes in international affairs, to which it believes it is adjusting.

Turkey saw that the United States’ footprint in the region was diminishing while Russia was increasing its impact on regional security and China its role in the regional economy. Instead of a US-centric or Western-centric region, Turkey saw one that was increasingly shaped by multipolarity. More generally, whereas the United States has had a diminished appetite for geopolitical activism, Russia has displayed an increased appetite for geopolitical power projection. One reason that Turkey has worked closely with Russia in Syria was that it was the power on the ground in the northwestern part of the country, where Ankara’s first two military operations in Syria took place. In a sense, this engagement with Russia was a result of geopolitical imperatives and political realism.

The region has disproportionately featured in Turkish foreign policy over the last decade.

During the Trump administration, there was a growing gap between the United States and the EU on many major regional and global issues. The administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, its partial military withdrawal from Syria, and its decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem were just few examples. With some exceptions, such as the invasion of Iraq, European countries have largely operated within a US-centric framework to deal with major regional and international crises since end of the Second World War. However, the widening gulf between the United States and Europe during the Trump administration put this into question.

The cumulative impact of regional restructuring and geopolitical developments gave birth to one of the foundational assumptions of contemporary Turkish foreign policy: “We are living in a less Western-centric or perhaps post-Western world.” From this perspective, engaging in a geopolitical balancing act was merely adjusting to the new world. Turkey was not alone in drawing this conclusion. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are dependent on the US security umbrella, have been increasingly pursuing a hedging strategy in dealing with major international powers that is on display when it comes to the war of Ukraine. 

Politics and Geopolitics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to have systemic ramifications that will influence Turkey’s thinking considerably. The West has displayed a resurgence and a unified position to an extent not seen lately, while Russia’s status in the international system is highly likely to be reduced and its great-power identity contested. Western security doctrine is likely to treat China as a systemic rival and Russia as geopolitical adversary. These changes will reduce the room for the grey-zone politics that previously facilitated Turkey’s balancing act between Russia and the West. Furthermore, Russia’s geopolitical revisionism will accentuate Turkey’s perception of the threat it constitutes. This will push Ankara to seek ways to counterbalance it directly or indirectly.

In this new setting, geopolitics is likely to bring Turkey and the West closer. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment for the post-Cold War international system and post-Soviet geopolitics. Since previous global watersheds did not only define Turkey’s geopolitical identity but also influenced its domestic politics, the question now is whether this one will induce a new political course in Turkey, particularly as regards the quality of its democracy and rule of law. This would have clear implications for Turkish-Western relations.

Seeking security, status, and geopolitical identity are themes that have been present in Ottoman/Turkish history from the 19th century, if not even the late 18th century, to the present. Global processes and systemic level changes have always informed these quests. The international system that will result from the war in Ukraine is unlikely to prove to be exception.

Galip Dalay is a CATS Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), associate fellow at Chatham House, and doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford.