Erdogan’s U-turn in foreign policy: choice or necessity?

Erdogan’s U-turn in foreign policy: choice or necessity?
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With changes in key actors, diplomatic principles, and regional conditions, Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP administration fluctuates drastically.

For a long time now, Turkey has had poor relationships with other countries in the region. After the last one to two years, those relationships that had taken a turn for the worse especially after the Arab Spring are at the point of being mended. Erdogan has begun to hold meetings and shake hands with leaders of whom he had once been endlessly critical. Are Erdogan’s recent gestures a strategic move in anticipation of the 2023 election or are there other factors forcing his hand?

20 Year of Turkish Diplomacy: From Peace to War

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) which came to power in Turkey in 2002, improved economic welfare in addition to implementing many democratic reforms as it oversaw accession negotiations to the European Union. In its foreign policy, the AKP administration adopted a policy named “zero problems” with regard to neighboring states while it attempted to develop closer relationships with the West. According to this policy, Turkey must have been able to resolve its disputes with its neighbors if it were to become a regional power.

Throughout the 2000s, the country warmed its relationship with Syria, with which relations had been tense in the 90s. The obstacles to commerce between the two countries were lifted. A policy of open borders between Turkey and Syria was adopted. Turkey, which had been mediating Syria’s relationship with Israel, withdrew from this process at Israel’s 2008 bombing of Gaza.

Once more at the precipice of war with Greece in the 90s, the AKP continued the process of smoothing relations, which had started before it came to power. As part of this process, the High Level Cooperation Council meeting took place for the first time in Athens in 2010.

Turkey, which had been occupying the north of Cyprus since 1974, accepted a solution under the framework of the UN’s Annan Plan. Yet the resolution was ultimately left up in the air upon the Greek Cypriots’ “no” vote in the referendum. However, it became clear in this period that Turkey was painting a portrait of itself as being solution oriented.

Turkey started a process of rapprochement with Armenia during the same period. There were no diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey at the time. Relations were fraught between the two countries due to the weight of the Armenian Genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. At the same time, the land border crossing between the two countries was being kept shut by Turkey. Beginning with soccer diplomacy in 2008, the countries both signed protocols for the normalization of political ties.

Following the United States’ invasion of Iraq, Turkey had begun to foster a warm relationship with the Iraqi Kurdistan administration. Especially with strengthening economic ties, the trade volume between the two countries was on the rise. The AKP government carried out its dealings with the Iraqi Kurds despite the objections of nationalist opposition groups at home.

The Davutoglu Effect and the Arab Spring

Ahmet Davutoglu, who worked as a foreign policy advisor from 2003 to 2009, was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2009. Davutoglu was a proponent of Turkey taking a more proactive role in the region as opposed to the principle of conscious indifference that had been the consensus since the creation of Turkey as a country.

The start of the Arab Spring was met with enthusiasm by the AKP elite. With Davutoglu at the forefront, the AKP administration foresaw the rise to power of other conservative or moderate Islamist administrations. It is especially due to this prediction that it gave considerable support to the opposition in Egypt and Syria. Davutoglu believed that this constituted a historic opportunity for Turkey.

However, the failure of the Arab Spring upset the AKP’s calculations. Diplomatic ties between Turkey and Egypt came to a sudden halt when Sisi wrested control of the government through a coup. Meanwhile, the happenings in Syria became an unmitigated disaster for Turkey. The Turkish administration, which had actively been supporting the armed opposition in Syria to the point of allowing them to utilize Turkey as a base, had expected the Assad regime to collapse. Yet Assad prevailed and millions of Syrian refugees streamed into Turkey. Capitalizing on the consequent power vacuum, the terrorist organization ISIS formed and killed hundreds in attacks it organized in Turkey. Turkey also brought the Kurdish YPG, an enemy militia, to its borders.

Rising Authoritarianism and Isolation

Turkey’s loss of the gamble it took in the Arab Spring and its abandonment of the democratic agenda were coinciding developments. In the aftermath of the Gezi Park protests which shook Turkey, Erdogan turned towards building an increasingly more authoritarian regime and began to put aside Davutoglu’s concept. After Erdogan was elected President in 2014, he handed the reins of his party over to Davutoglu. However, when Davutoglu chose to lead the party autonomously instead of assuming the role of a puppet, Erdogan brought Binali Yildirim, notably loyal to him, to the head through a series of internal party maneuvers. Thus, not only did Davutoglu’s own political career collapse, but so did his foreign policy principles.

From then on, Turkey was acting independently in its foreign policy and favored putting aside the principle of forming good relationships. In this process, Turkey began to experience significant conflicts with almost all its neighbors. While waging a proxy war with Syria, it was also experiencing problems with Iraq. As a positive policy agenda more and more gave way to a harsher tone, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq all took their places among the ranks of adversaries. Relationships with Israel had been strained since 2009, and only deteriorated in the years that followed. This isolationism was characterized as “precious loneliness” by Ibrahim Kalin, the newest architect of foreign policy.

As the 2010s came to a close, Turkey was a nation in conflict with the West in terms of both ideology and foreign policy, and a nation that had no close friends in the region save for Somalia, to which it provided economic support, and its ally Qatar. The only positive relationship it had formed was a special bond with Russia, and at a time in which Turkey was being increasingly cast aside by the West, the choice was made to get closer to Putin.

Reconciliation Stages

In 2018, Turkey began to utilize a presidential system that allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expansive control. Though Erdogan won the elections in June and reached new heights of power, August saw a national currency crisis which has been impoverishing the nation day by day.

On the one side, the flow of foreign capital into the Turkish economy dwindled. On the other, the pandemic also had negative impacts on the economy. In such an atmosphere, Erdogan came to the realization that the resource problem could not be solved while there was such a high number of enemies. The energy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean also added to the pressure. Turkey was pushed further into isolation in 2019 when the countries in opposition to it formed the majority at a forum attended by Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine. Turkey tried to overcome this difficulty through the Maritime Boundary Treaty it co-signed with Libya, but was unable to achieve the results it desired.

Subsequently, Turkey put aside its isolationist policy and reinstated a period of attempted peacemaking with the countries in which it was embroiled in conflict. Having signed 13 agreements with the UAE in February 2022, the two countries entered a period of normalization. The nation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which had soured after the Jamal Khashoggi murder was committed in Turkey, softened when Turkey withdrew from the investigation. Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia in 2022 and attempts to further their relationship began.

Recognizing the administration change in Israel in August 2022 as an opportunity, Turkey also began the normalization process with this country. In March 2022, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey and both countries appointed ambassadors for the other.

Turkey initiated attempts to form diplomatic ties with Armenia after the 2020 war in which it had fully backed Azerbaijan. Leaders of both nations met in October at the European Political Community meeting in Prague and are currently working on normalizing their relationship.

Lastly, Turkish President Erdogan shook hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who he had for years declared an enemy, at the opening of the World Cup in Qatar. Normalization negotiations between the two countries are ongoing.

Erdogan’s U-Turn: Is it a Lasting Policy Change?

Murat Yetkin, a prominent Turkish journalist, noted that Erdogan could even pursue peace with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of its attempts to reconcile with neighboring states. Yetkin remarks, “Well, is the normalization of relationship with Egypt, Israel, and Syria bad? No, it is not. It was bad that they deteriorated. What was bad was using foreign policy to substitute for domestic policy’s need for an enemy.”

Yetkin, who underscores that the “Precious Loneliness” theory fell to pieces when confronted with the crisis in the economy, writes, “Nowadays, just like in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, they are looking for a return to the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ discourse. I believe that Erdogan might decide to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to make peace with Bashar al-Assad instead of leaving things to Emir of Qatar.”

On the other hand, Professor Ilhan Uzgel, Ph.D., writes that Erdogan and his team know quite well to keep track of global and regional developments and trends, to position themselves accordingly, and to adapt to changing conditions. Uzgel points to Erdogan’s ability to perceive demands of him even before he came to power and says that Erdogan can still comfortably exercise this flexibility. Uzgel says, “In the time leading up to the election, the tools he has in the economy sector are limited in comparison to those in foreign policy. For example, there is a limit to how much the interest rate can be manipulated before it hurts the economy, and that limit was reached in only a few months. Due to this, Erdogan is using all the tools at his disposal to focus on the topic of foreign policy and security, to solidify his position from this standpoint.”

According to Uzgel, “If one defining characteristic of Erdogan’s politicking is the frequent change of allies, another is his ability to unite various power centers and their politics to suit his own goals. However, I think this is the first time in many years that he is trying to bring together for his own advantages this many disorganized actors and problems. This is why his attempt is risky.”

According to an article by Turkey experts Rich Outzen and Soner Cagaptay, “Turkey now faces a changing landscape in 2022, and accordingly seems to be shifting a third time — away from unilateral realpolitik and back to a more nuanced and multilateral approach.”

Outzen and Cagaptay write that in this regard there are six influential factors: “US retrenchment; the need to boost exports and foreign investment in order to revive economic growth; the need to diplomatically consolidate gains from recent military victories in Libya, Syria, and the South Caucasus; the need to reverse anti-Turkish alignments in the region; Ankara’s increasing regional competition with Russia and Iran; and the impending presidential elections of 2023.”

Emphasizing the weight of economic conditions especially, Outzen and Cagaptay say, “Most importantly, Turkey’s massive foreign debt and a weak Lira have necessitated more trade, investment, and comity with Europe and the US. Europe is an especially important piece of this new alignment: Turkey remains completely integrated economically with the EU — thanks to the Customs Union in place since 1996, as well as centuries-old bilateral economic, investment, and trade ties — notwithstanding Erdogan’s efforts in recent years to make Turkey’s identity more Islamic at home and more Middle Eastern internationally. All these factors presage return to a multi-axial and less pugnacious foreign policy.”

On the other hand, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Turkey Resident Representative Henrik Meyer characterizes Turkish foreign policy as generally being à la carte: “Observers and even allies find it difficult, in this jumble of alliances, to maintain an overview of all the economic, military and cultural claims. Turkey, on the other hand, knows very well from which forum it can derive which benefit. Nothing else could possibly be the goal. This variety of alliances allows the Turkish President to serve himself à la carte, depending on current requirements. Alliances are entered into or put on hold, strengthened or weakened, emphasized or concealed, according to Turkey’s own interests. As long as it is able to prove itself as a valuable member of an alliance, it can make political capital out of it. This is precisely what the Turkish government is doing, and many states are looking at Ankara with admiration.”

According to Meyer, Erdogan knows how to play his cards efficiently: “Turkey’s behavior is an expression of a changed world order whose poles are simultaneously becoming more numerous and losing their clearly defined contours. The era of global dualism is long gone; the idea of a leaderless world is being shattered in the face of reality. Global and regional powers are forming alliances, courting allies and attempting to organize the world into spheres of influence according to their ideas. It is no coincidence that Turkey, at the crossroads of Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Arab world and Africa, is a welcome guest at major events of all kinds. Erdogan knows how to play his cards without much regard for historical alliances. He takes this behavior further than most, and yet it’s safe to assume that it’s more than just his personal choice in tactics.”

Ana Palacio, a previous Minister of Foreign Policy in Spain, writes that the Erdogan administration acts knowing that the West cannot turn its back on Turkey: “The West is not prepared to turn its back on Turkey. US President Joe Biden has pledged to sell it dozens of F-16 fighter jets, and the European Commission recognizes Turkey’s critical role in supporting security in its neighborhood, not least through an uneasy collaboration on refugee management. This probably explains why Erdogan has not paid much of a price for his defiance of his Western partners. Erdogan might be holding a weak hand, but he is playing it skillfully. In fact, few leaders have managed to use today’s geopolitical tensions to their advantage as effectively as he has. Selective cooperation with Putin, in particular, has brought significant dividends for Turkey’s leader, who is eager to rewrite the rules of the game in his favor.”