Turkey’s foreign policy in free fall

For the last ten years, AKP’s policies have led the world to perceive Turkish government as negative, authoritarian, and expansionist. Turkey now has alienated its allies, confronted neighbors, became part of almost all the conflicts and disputes in some of which it has not a clear exit strategy. The Islamist understanding of politics has failed in all areas of life. Foreign policy is part of this general failure.

Since the 2000s, Turkey has emerged as a regionally active and occasionally assertive country in line with the transformation at the global level. With the rise of the Global South, regional powers like Turkey have gained more room for maneuver in their respected regions, they could use global powers like Russia and China as balancing in their ties with the U.S. Many staunch U.S. allies around the globe such as Brazil, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines found more autonomy vis-à-vis the U.S., and they turned into headaches for Washington compared to the times past. Turkey has been part of this process and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government tried to take advantage of this systemic transformation to entrench its position of a regional hegemony, first through intensive diplomacy, economic expansion and applying its soft power, and in the 2010s through applying extensive military power. However, I argue that the AKP government squandered this structural opportunity and failed in both instances. It has put Turkey at odds with its allies, left the country with a few friends and placed it in a self-isolation.

Throughout its history, Turkey has never been cornered itself in foreign policy to the level it is undergoing currently. Previously, it could resist pressures from the US to waive its veto for the return of Greece to NATO for six years and did not ratify the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement with the U.S. until the military regime toppled the elected government. For the last ten years, The AKP’s policies have led the world to perceive Turkish government as negative, authoritarian, and expansionist. Turkey now has alienated its allies, confronted neighbors, became part of almost all the conflicts and disputes in some of which it has not a clear exit strategy.

Forging closer ties with an ever-strengthening Russia might have been a wise decision provided that it could also be managed wisely. But the AKP government was not able to manage it. First it has a very inconsistent approach like downing a Russian aircraft first, apologizing next, conducting military interventions in Syria and Libya, purchasing the S-400 missile system, and not living up to its promises in dissolving and disarming Islamist militants in Idlib, and consequently supporting Ukraine and providing military equipment.

While Moscow displayed its discontent by not sending much-expected Russian tourists to Turkey, Russian spokesperson openly warned Turkey not to involve in the Crimean issue, and reminded Ankara’s vulnerability in ethnic problems, alluding the Kurdish problem. At the same time, the Erdoğan government played troublemaker for the US regional policies but especially its purchase of S-400s broke up the relations. And the EU is imposing a limited sanctions on several Turkish officials of its public energy company and Turkey had to back down from its position in the Eastern Mediterranean, ending its undersea explorations.

Furthermore, the EU and the U.S. declared that they would cooperate in their handling of the relations with Turkey. This led Turkey confronting three regional powers, the EU, the US and Russia all at the same time. The regional countries including Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus strengthened their ties in diplomatic, military and energy domains. The politics of pitting Russia against the U.S., threatening the EU with refugees, and threatening countries of the region with military force have all failed.

The U.S. expelled Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet production chain and confiscated the already purchased six planes, Saudi Arabia is imposing a de facto boycott on Turkish imports and Turkish construction companies cannot do business there, Russia is punishing Turkey by withholding flights to Turkey, depriving the country of the much needed currency.

Realizing the bottleneck, the Erdoğan administration is desperately looking for a way out by aligning more with the West rather than Eurasian powers like Russia. The AKP government is trying to implement a strategy based on “negative cooperation” with the E.U., namely avoiding further sanctions in exchange for withdrawal from the Eastern Mediterranean; “positive cooperation” with the U.S., which is building a strategic partnership in the Black Sea basin, and a “neutral cooperation” with Russia, that aims at keeping Russia at an arm’s distance so that this country would not harm Turkey. The EU pillar of this strategy has been seems to be working for now but only in condition that Turkey conceded the EU’s demands; the AKP government accepted to control the flow of refugees, commenced the exploratory talks with Greece which included the discussions of East Med, a position Turkey vehemently opposed, and Turkey’s withdrawal in the East Med region. The Russian and U.S. pillars of this strategy are still ambivalent that creates major apprehension on the part of Erdoğan.

The AKP government’s other aim is to fix the relations with the three U.S. allies, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to overcome its regional isolation, and to send the message to the U.S. that Turkey will side with the West in regional equilibriums. It looks like the U.S. has already substituted Turkey in the East Med, intensified its military ties with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus and has helped growing security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Greece and Republic of Cyprus on the other, an unprecedented development in the region. All of these countries have responded to Turkey by slamming the door on them in energy, diplomacy and security. It is important to note that none of the three countries seem eager to mend the relations with Turkey, and Egypt, among them, has put forward a list of preconditions including the end of Turkey’s military involvement in Libya and expulsion of the members of Muslim Brotherhood living in Turkey. 

The current state of Turkish foreign policy represents a severe loneliness, and lack of reliable friends and allies have put Turkey is a dire situation. Moreover, all the regional and global actors are aware of Turkey’s desperate situation. No time in the history of the bilateral relations did the U.S. have so much leverage against Turkey. And no time in the history of the bilateral relations did Turkey have so little leverage to use against the U.S. It is under these unfavorable circumstances that the Biden administration could use the definition “the Armenian Genocide” which the Turkish governments spent so much time and diplomatic energy for the last 30 years to prevent it. And the response from the Erdoğan government was surprisingly weak, and Erdoğan himself agreed to meet Biden on the margins of the NATO summit in June.

As for the debates in Turkish media that the TurkIsh government may suspend the use of the İncirlik base or the Kürecik radar station for the U.S./NATO operations. On the contrary, as can be seen the messages from U.S. security affiliates to the media and websites, it is clear that the U.S. no longer sees Turkey as a reliable and predictable partner. It is obvious that the Erdoğan government cannot dare to close down these two critical facilities at the time it is seeking ways to get closer to the Biden administration. It is also unlikely that the U.S. will want to withdraw from the İncirlik Base although it has new installations in Greece and in northern Syria and Iraq. A possible U.S. withdrawal would have been a nightmare for the Erdoğan government since it would diminish Turkey’s strategic importance.

It is ironical that pro-government commentators are criticizing Greece for deepening its defense ties with the U.S. and filling up their country with U.S. bases. The AKP government in fear of loosing its strategic importance is entering a competition with other U.S. allies in the region such as Greece, Republic of Cyprus, even the PYD in Syria that the U.S. would be better off if it cooperates with Turkey.

The AKP government’s ambition, incompetence, unpredictability and its attempts to use foreign policy as an instrument to remain in power have not been beneficial for the AKP, or the country, or the region. This Islamist understanding of politics has failed in all areas of life. It has created grave problems because the Islamists have not been able replace the old regime with a better one. Foreign policy is part of this general failure.

Although the global system is becoming more multicentral and multipolar, Turkey has not been able to take advantage of this global transformation. Instead, it has become economically and strategically more dependent on the West and the U.S. in particular. It is known that the U.S. needs the support of its allies like Turkey in its strategic competition with China and Russia but Turkey is loosing the opportunity to have more leverage against the US. Turkey’s unnecessary military adventures, ambitious doctrines such as Blue Homeland, and being a party to every conflict have ultimately weakened its foreign policy and squandered this historical advantage.

Turkey could have had strategic autonomy within the existing circumstances and could have conducted a foreign policy which contributed to security, peace and prosperity in the region. Instead, the government has exhausted all of its foreign policy tools and deepened the country’s dependence on Western powers. It has turned Turkey a vulnerable and fragile country before the West and in the eyes of its neighbors.