Luke Frostick

Turkey’s foreign policy is in a muddle. Its relationship with its NATO allies is strained to the point of crumbling. Ankara has failed to build new alliances in the Middle East, quite the opposite in fact, and has shown its vulnerability to Iran and Russia, its traditional regional rivals. In his new book Erdoğan’s Empire, Soner Çağaptay breaks down the geopolitics of the AKP era in forensic detail.

According to Çağaptay, it is right to see President Erdoğan as a realist. Yet the president’s philosophy is crucial in understanding his foreign policy. Having written an excellent biography of Erdoğan, Çağaptay is well placed to speak about this.

The author begins the book by laying out how Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and some of the AKP’s electoral base internalized the Kemalist misrepresentation of Ottoman history. He says they see the West as hostile to Turkey and untrustworthy. Moreover, they believe Turkey ought to be a leading power in the Islamic world and the region the Ottomans once ruled.

This Neo-Ottomanism remains a core component of the president’s philosophy. Commenting on Libya recently, Erdoğan could not resist bringing up a reference to Ottoman times. Beyond rhetorical statements, Erdoğan’s worldview resonates with Turkey’s Islamist base and has shaped the AKP’s foreign policy.

Erdoğan’s Empire explores in great detail how Erdoğan and Davutoğlu translated their ideological approaches into the so-called policies of “Strategic Depth” and “No Problems with our Neighbours”.

While the limits of these policies are well understood by now, Çağaptay adds much flesh to bones of the story. The book shows how negotiations with the European Union collapsed due to a combination of German and French apathy, a backlash to Erdoğan gaining tighter control of the Turkish judiciary and Ankara’s failure to make progress to reform contract tendering and increase workers’ rights.

Çağaptay argues that Turkey’s adhesion to the European Union would have averted much of its democratic backsliding. As an example, he discusses the case of Poland and its similar attempts to seize greater control of the judiciary that were blocked by the EU. Yet the EU’s inability to rein in Victor Orban suggests EU adhesion could have done little to thwart Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.

Another critical relationship the books tackles is that of the longstanding US-Turkish alliance – and its breakdown. Çağaptay examines the relationship between Bush and Erdoğan, though that with Obama was doubtless more significant. If Obama initially got on well with the Turkish leader, the Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in 2010 strained ties between Ankara and Washington. The Gezi Park crackdown as well as Obama’s unwillingness to prop up Morsi in Egypt further damaged them until the Syrian conundrum buried the US-Turkey relationship.

Çağaptay contends Obama critically misunderstood Turkish concerns and priorities in Syria and that Turks “will remember Obama as the president who ‘gave weapons to the PKK’.” As for the Trump era, a consistent Turkey policy on the part of the White House is hardly discernible. Despite spats over Halk Bank, Gülen’s extradition, the S-400 and F-35 and Pastor Brunson, Erdoğan has been able to get what he wants out of Trump.

Çağaptay argues compellingly that the most consequential change during this period has nothing to do with Trump. Rather, it has to do with a change within the US military that went from viewing Turkey as an allied nation to one that is no longer reliable. Such a point is insightful. For it could spell heavy consequences for the future of US-Turkey ties and that of the NATO alliance. 

The major policy change of the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu era is their view that Turkey could be a stand alone power and wield influence in the ex-Ottoman territories independently of the West’s corrupting influence. This however, has amounted to a fiasco.

Initially, Davutoğlu’s “Strategic Depth” approach seemed to bear its fruits. Ankara was effective at building soft power through a booming economy, Turkish Airlines and television shows. While the Arab Spring jeopardized the Turkish policy, it also offered some opportunities. Erdoğan saw the rise of democratic Islamist parties like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that as a way for Turkey to wield clout. But as Muslim Brotherhood failed to topple Arab autocrats, Ankara alienated important players in the region whilst supporting Islamist groups.

That being said, the policy wasn’t necessarily flawed from the beginning. For instance, Erdoğan is not to blame for the fall of Morsi. Arguably, had Morsi heeded Erdoğan’s calls, the army might have not ousted him.

However, Ankara’s mistake was to put all its eggs in one basket. That is noteworthy as it suggests Erdoğan still regards Turkey’s historic role within this Neo-Ottoman paradigm. Turkey’s recent forays in Libya attest to the fact it still desires to act as a standalone power.

It may be wise for Ankara to rethink its foreign policy. While Neo-Ottomanism is popular with Erdoğan’s domestic base, many across the Middle East and beyond do not long for a return of Ottoman hegemony.

Such blunders have left Turkey isolated with Qatar as its only ally in the region. There is a long-standing belief in Turkish politics and society that there are foreign powers intent on damaging Turkey. Ironically, thanks to the AKP, this has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those malignant powers however aren’t western. An Anti-Turkey alliance that is a direct consequence of the AKP policy – which Çağaptay calls “The Block” – , has formed, composed of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and other Middle Eastern states. 

Çağaptay strives to provide a fair account of the government. Thus, he also shows the areas in which Turkish foreign policy has been successful: Africa, the Balkans and in the ex-Soviet Turkic states. There, Ankara built diplomatic and trade relationships, while getting these countries to act against the Gülen organisation. Still, that was not enough to provide Turkey with enough security, diplomatic cover or economic advantages to make up for the losses.

A key theme that runs through the book is Kurdish politics. Çağaptay makes the case that the YPG and the PKK are foreign policy tools for Russia, Iran and Assad. For example, he argues Assad’s withdrawal of troops from Syria’s Kurdish regions constituted a strategy to strengthen the PKK and YPG in order to undermine Turkey.

Çağaptay evidence for this is however underwhelming. If it is true that the PKK and the YPG are affiliated and that there is an international dimension to the PKK, the book doesn’t make much of the oppression of Kurdish political life within Turkey as a result of the PKK’s resurgence.

Moreover, whilst discussing the “Battle of the Sheridan Circle” events, the author refers to the protesters as “pro-PKK”, though reports widely suggest they were part of a broader anti-Erdoğan coalition. This plays into the Turkish state’s narrative according to which any Pro-Kurdish movement or anti-government protest are orchestrated by the PKK or other foreign-backed enemies of Turkey. 

The book seeks to isolate the PKK from internal Turkish politics and the crackdown on legitimate Kurdish grievances, instead making it primarily an international issue. Çağaptay argues the YPG alliance should make way for Kurdish leadership in Syria beyond the YPG. He maintains that reducing exchanges between the YPG and the US is a vital first step to normalizing the US-Turkey relationship. 

In fact, that is really the crux of the book. Çağaptay believes that Turkey’s western relations remain vital in military and economic terms. He also contends that Europe and NATO still need Turkey and that on that basis, that relations can and should be restored. Erdoğan’s Empire is a counterargument to the widely-circulated contention that the US should be more antagonistic to Turkey and supportive of the Saudi-Egyptian block.

Beyond that, Çağaptay provides suggestions as to what Erdoğan could do to rebuild Turkey’s geopolitical standing. He says Ankara should solve the PKK issue and liberalize Turkish society. If enacted, such proposals could do much to fixing Turkey’s foreign policy and social and economic woes. Yet Çağaptay does not have much faith they will be implemented.

In sum, Erdoğan’s Empire is a concise breakdown of the forces pushing and pulling on Turkey’s geopolitical landscape. His criticisms of the Turkish state and other actors are balanced. I believe Çağaptay’s books merit praise for one main reason: he hasn’t given up on Turkey and is still willing to make the positive case for the country in a climate where much of the coverage and commentary is negative.