Tag Archives: Turkish Foreign Policy

With Libya, Turkey “Returns” West


March 27, 2011

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Barely ten days ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had objected to a NATO intervention in Libya. Part of Mr. Erdoğan’s criticism sprung from his belief that, in moving the international community to intervene in Libya, France wanted to get its hands on the North African nation’s oil and natural gas. The Turkish Prime Minister was so angry that he recited a very anti-Western part of the Turkish national anthem (“Civilization is but a one-tooth monster”). 

President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Erdoğan (Photo courtesy of ntvmsnbc.com)

And then, on March 23, Ankara decided to send five warships and a submarine to the Libyan coast to enforce the arms embargo against Muammar Qaddafi. Two days later, Turkey agreed to let the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) take over command once U.S. forces conclude their operations in Libya.

What explains this sudden change in the Turkish stance? More important, after Westerners have worried about Turkey’s “Eastern shift” in the past few years, is Ankara finally “heading back” West?

Yes and no.

To be sure, Turkish naval forces enforcing the international embargo against Qaddafi is very different than the Turkish Air Force attacking Qaddafi’s armies and/or defending the rebels with other NATO allies.

But not only is the seeming shift in Ankara’s Libyan policy consistent with recent trends in Turkish foreign policy, it is also a testament to the country’s Western character.

A year and a half ago, the Turkish minister of foreign trade had mentioned the Libyan government’s interest in investing $100 billion abroad and had hoped that Turkey would get a substantial portion of that money. One source indicates that Turkish construction projects initiated in Libya within the past two years alone are close to $8 billion. Another report estimates that Turkey will invest €35 billion in Libya’s infrastructure over the next ten years.

That is precisely the indication for Turkey’s “Westernness” – pursuing economic ends with political means.

And it’s an ironic twist: Turks, just like other nations in the developing world, regularly blame developed countries (with some justification) for manipulating political troubles in developing countries in order to “exploit” them. Although I don’t think that statement explains recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, it is certainly true that, in the contest between political ideals and economic needs, many Western countries frequently choose the latter over the former. Most of the time, they mix both.

Turkey may or may not be “moving East.” Its foreign policy axis may or may not be “shifting.” But in the final analysis, Turkey’s Western commitments still matter – especially as Turkey acts very “Western” these days.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Watch Out for the “Rover”: Turkey’s New Foreign Policy According to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara


December 3, 2010

The Wikileaks documents have caused a political ruckus in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is threatening to sue Eric Edelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, for reporting rumors to Washington in 2005 about the Turkish leader’s alleged bank accounts in Switzerland.

It’s going to be entertaining to see if Mr. Erdoğan actually takes Mr. Edelman to court for a classified report he wrote at a time when he had diplomatic immunity.

Now, a less sensational but more important Wikileaks document shows how the U.S. government has perceived analyzes Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to a report, which the U.S. embassy in Ankara allegedly sent to the State Department early this year, Turkish foreign policy in the last few years appears to both fascinate and worry American officials. In the report, titled “What Lies Beneath Ankara’s New Foreign Policy,” former Ambassador James Jeffrey jokingly asserts that Turkey’s new activist foreign policy has “Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources.”

Discussions about Turkey “moving away from The West” and becoming a “neo-Ottoman” power in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus have been raging for nearly two years.

In line with those discussions, Ambassador Jeffrey’s January 2010 report takes a cautious line. For example, Mr. Jeffrey correctly points out that the ruling AKP’s “desire to be more independently activist and Islamic orientation” informs Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to the report, however, “rational national interest, particularly trade opportunities and stability considerations also drives Turkey’s new slant.” (Turkey’s trade with the Arab world and Iran has increased from $6.5 billion in 2002 to nearly $30 billion in 2009.)

Nodding to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” maxim, Ambassador Jeffrey seems to appreciate Ankara’s efforts to resolve the Cyprus dispute, its rapprochement with Erbil and Baghdad, mediating the indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria from 2006 to 2008, and attempts to bring the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks closer for a safer and prosperous Balkan peninsula (which, after the report was drafted, resulted in Serbian President Boris Tadic apologizing for his country’s role in the Bosnian War and his participation to the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica last summer).

But the report has less than flattering passages as well. For example, according to Mr. Jeffrey, Turkish mediation in the region’s conflicts “has not achieved any single success of note.” Worse, Ankara’s efforts to present itself as “a bridge between East and West” are not working.  Mr. Jeffrey observes that AKP’s efforts to present Turkey as a “successful meld” of “Europe’s secularism” with “oriental religiosity does not seem to carry much weight in most European capitals, let alone populations.”

In all fairness, Turkey’s foreign policy overtures have had their limits: The border with Armenia remains closed and Ankara’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties with Yerevan has angered its allies in Azerbaijan. In the Balkans, Bosniak-Serbian reconciliation runs the risk of relapsing into old enmities; in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus remains divided; in the Middle East, the Israeli-Syrian proximity talks have not resumed; the future of Iraq remains uncertain; and the Iran nuclear standoff is as troubling as ever.

(As for growing conservatism in Turkey, a 2008 study shows that it’s simplistic to claim that Turks are becoming more religious; the situation is a lot more complicated than that.)

To be fair to the Turks, only in the last five years have they begun immersing themselves in their region’s conflicts. In fact, they are getting some modest but tangible gains. For example, after coming very close to forging a peace agreement between Israel and Syria until the Gaza war, Turkey has reciprocally lifted travel visas with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Qatar. And last summer, Turkey agreed to create a free trade zone with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

These results are not that modest if one considers how Turkey came close to fighting a war with Syria barely twelve years ago and only had basic relations with other Arab countries.

Since the aftermath of the Cold War Turkey has capitalized on its large population and rapid economic growth to become the political and economic fulcrum at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The process simply accelerated under the AKP government.

But will that process succeed? No one can tell at this point. But going back to Ambassador Jeffrey’s “Rolls Royce-Rover” analogy, we need to remember that luxury cars can be disadvantageous in rough terrain. Sitting at the eye of multiple geopolitical storms (the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Middle East), if Turkey can get a skilled driver, its Rover just might outmatch the Rolls Royces in that part of the world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).