Vol. 3, No. 13 (July 01, 2010)

Turkey’s evolving foreign policy: The domestic sources of a major shift

Javid Valiyev
Leading Research Fellow
Center for Strategic Studies (Baku, Azerbaijan)

Turkey is changing not only domestically but in its foreign policy orientation, increasingly shifting from a Western-centric approach to one that is more multi-vectored and balanced as can be seen in the accords Ankara has reached with Asian and Middle Eastern countries over the last several months.  But despite the apparent suddenness of this shift, it in fact has deep roots extending back more than 40 years and has gone through a series of stages.

Turkey began to move away from its Western-centric policy after US President Lyndon Johnson wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu in ways that led Turkish politicians and diplomats to re-examine their approach.  The second step in this direction came after the emergence of the Cyprus peace movement in 1974.  And the third began with Turgut Ozal after the collapse of the Soviet Union and involved a rapprochement with Greece, as part of Ankara’s narrower “no problems with neighbors” approach.

But if these earlier changes in Ankara’s policies came in reaction to the moves of others, the current shift goes beyond that, reflecting the view in Ankara that Turkey is a power onto itself and enjoys the support of its population.  Even opponents of the ruling party, they note, support this multi-vectored foreign policy approach.

That reflects a broader change in the domestic politics of Turkey, a shift that has allowed Ankara and the AKP in particular to move with confidence, even though there are some critics in Turkey and abroad who have suggested that AKP leaders sometimes are acting impulsively.  Such criticism, however, ignores the fact that the AKP by such steps wins supporters away from conservative and nationalist rivals, especially by blunting opposition charges that the AKP is taking orders from foreign powers or fears the actions of the latter inside Turkey with regard to religious or ethnic issues.

And that support in turn has reduced the power of the military to influence foreign policy and allowed Turkey’s president and government greater freedom of action.  Such freedom of action in turn has played back on the domestic scene and allowed Ankara to pursue a more independent internal policy as well.  But what is becoming increasingly obvious is that much of the change in Turkish foreign policy is rhetorical rather than practical.
Ankara’s approach to some issues has indeed changed, but it has not stopped its cooperation with the European Union and the United States.  Instead, it is more accurate to say that the Turkish government is giving less attention to these centers of power.  At the same time, Turkey’s increasing involvement with the Arab world has led some to conclude that it is no longer devoting enough attention to the Turkic world.  Only its relations with Azerbaijan have remained the same. 

A major reason for Turkey’s shift away from Europe is the obvious decision of the EU not to allow Turkey to join that grouping.  Consequently, Ankara began to look elsewhere.  And despite the continuing presence of the United States as a power in the region, Turkey also felt it could and should look to other power centers as it sought to navigate its way in the region.  But again, Ankara’s attention to other places does not mean that it is neglecting entirely its former friends and interlocutors, evidence that its foreign policy is truly becoming more balanced and multi-vectored.