360° Analysis

The Contemporary Turkish Neighbourhood Policy: The realpolitik behind AKP’s foreign policy choices?


March 20, 2011 08:45 EDT

The incumbent foreign minister of Turkey and professor of international relations, Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, has systematically developed ideas around Turkey’s potential in the current international system and more specifically on how Turkey can become a global actor. The main idea of his analysis is that “Turkey is not a bridge but it should become a central country [merkez ülke]”. This can be achieved if Turkey utilises its history and geography and implements five main principles in its “new foreign policy”. The second idea that Dr. Davutoğlu mentions is that of“zero problem policy towards its neighbours”. According to his analysis, Turkey should save itself from the psychological burden of believing that it is continuously surrounded by enemies and thereby developing defensive reaction. He also argues that this principle will be implemented in its totality in combination with the first principle, namely finding balance between security and democracy. Furthermore, he adds a third principle that refers to the development of relations with the neighbouring regions and beyond which complements the “zero problem” concept. However, given the instability, complexity and interconnection that characterise regional politics in the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans, one can legitimately raise the question whether the “zero problem policy” and the subsequent enhancement of relations are a dream, an overture or an applicable policy with tangible benefits. Especially the challenge of interconnection in highly polarised areas is reminiscent of a myth about the advice Great Alexander received from a wise man about how to govern his vast empire. The wise man asked Alexander to step on the one side of a desiccated hide of a billy-goat. When Alexander did that, the other side of the hide was lifted indicating how difficult it would be to maintain peace in all parts of his empire. Thus, how it is possible for Turkey to equally form good relations with Iran and Israel, Armenia and Azerbaijan and play important role in the Arab affairs and in the Palestinian problem, more specifically without creating antagonism with Egypt are some of the cases that question the applicability of the enterprise.

Although probing into the empirical results of Turkish foreign policy since AKP came into power and trying to make sense of the achievements and the new challenges that arose would be revealing as far as the way Turkey’s contemporary neighbourhood is evolving, this analysis is mainly preoccupied with AKP’s decision to develop a new vision of foreign policy in the first place. More specifically, the central question is what explains the inclusion of the “zero problem policy towards neighbours” in the core of AKP’s foreign policy thinking? International, regional but also domestic parameters are taken into account to arrive at a comprehensive answer.   

Turkey’s Neighbourhood Policy in Flashback

In order to obtain a good sense of the extent to which the ‘zero’ problem policy towards neighbours is an innovative concept for Turkish foreign policy and not just a historical legacy of previous leaderships, a short summary of Turkey’s stance vis-à-vis its neighbourhood is necessary. To begin with, Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, set the main parameters for the function and development of the nascent nation state. Among others he put forward a ‘modernisation’ project whose success was interwoven with establishing strong ties with ‘Western’ countries. His national project was supported by his pro-peace approach in foreign policy matters as it was expressed in his famous quote, “Peace at Home, peace in the World” (Yurtta Sulh, Cihanda Sulh). What is relevant to underline is that Atatürk supported the idea of Turkey as a status quo power. Certainly, the main concern at the time in the political circles of Turkey was nation building. External shocks of any kind could complicate the process.  In a sense, one can claim that the seeds of the ‘zero’ problem policy were planted at the time but in fact most of the problems with neighbouring countries had been resolved through the results of wars and more specifically under the terms of the peace treaty of Lausanne (1923). So, the main aim was to sustain the results of the Lausanne Treaty.

Atatürk’successors followed similar policies keeping Turkey away from actions that would endanger the country’s territorial integrity, such as in the case of the Second World War when President Inönüdid not succumb to pressures for participation on the side of one of the two coalitions. Everything changed during the Cold War when Turkey put aside policies of neutrality and allied with NATO in 1952. The country played crucial operational role during that period because of its proximity to the Soviet Union. However, while Turkey had an upgraded role in international politics and high profile among its ‘Western’ allies, it cannot be argued that this was the case vis-à-vis neighbouring countries. This period is the low point in Turkey’s neighbouring relations. 

More specifically, relations with the Arab world were characterised by mutual distrust, such as with pro-Soviet Syria whereas relations with Iran were far from flourishing. Furthermore, the Caucasus and a large part of the Balkan area were in the sphere of Soviet influence. Even relations with its neighbouring NATO ally – Greece – were hostile because of the frictions over the Cyprus problem and the Aegean dispute. Turkey indeed was an important US ally but did not have any strong interaction with its neighbourhood whatsoever. 

This starts to change in the early 1990s when the President of the Republic, Turgut Özal, and former Prime Minister decided to engage Turkey in active foreign policy regarding regional matters. The aim was not necessarily to develop a comprehensive neighbourhood policy that would be based on specific premises but to counterbalance the potential geopolitical downgrade of Turkey that loomed large after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, Özal himself engaged Turkey in the first Gulf War supporting the US, such as in implementing embargo on the exports of Iraqi oil and providing logistical support through the use of Turkish military bases. Furthermore, he favoured strong relations with the nascent Turkic Republics in the early 1990s, namely Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan. Although these countries did not border Turkey, they resided in close proximity and most importantly shared some cultural characteristics, such as the language and, to some extent, religion. President Özal, optimistic about the role that Turkey could play as a bridge between the ‘West’ and the Turkic world, spoke about the dawn of the ‘Turkic century’. These two cases constitute a first indication that Turkey started to depart from the logic of a secluded anti-Soviet stronghold and be more pro-active and open to opportunities for involvement in regional affairs. However, the country’s problematic relations with neighbouring countries, such as Greece and Syria, did not see any improvements. On the contrary, Turkey came to the brink of war with Greece in 1996 and with Syria in 1998. Nonetheless, few years later, in 1999, Turkey would be designated as EU candidate country and relations with Greece would start to improve.   

In 2002, the Justice and Development party (AKP) won the elections in Turkey and a new political elite with pro-Islamic ideological background started to become powerful. The formulation and implementation of a new vision in foreign policy was one of AKP’s main goals. The architect of this new vision has been Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and incumbent foreign minister. More specifically, he has been theorising about how Turkey could play a significant role in international relations. To that end, he has put forward five principles. The first is about the “balance between security and democracy”, the second refers to the “zero problem policy towards Turkey’s neighbours”, the third to the “development of relations with the neighbouring regions and beyond”, the fourth to “adherence to a multi-dimensional foreign policy” and the fifth to “rhythmic diplomacy”. Each of these five principles constitutes part of the whole, i.e. the new vision, but he does not make direct references abouthow the different parts are complementary to each other. One can assume from Dr. Davutoğlu’s analysis thateach premise has an intrinsic value for Turkey’s interests. However it seems that two of the premises are straightforwardly complementary and both refer to Turkey’s neighbourhood policy. Going backwards, in order to develop relations with neighbouring regions, one can assume that issues that create significant frictions between Turkey and its neighbours should be solved first.  Therefore, the ‘zero’ problem policy should not be probed only for its intrinsic value but also for its complementarities to other concepts. 

It is noteworthy that from this concise historical summary one can argue that neighbourhood policies had never been in the epicentre of the analytical toolkit of the executive in Turkey as much as they are today. AKP seems to be preoccupied in enacting a neighbourhood policy, which, for all its novelty and inclusiveness, raises questions about its applicability and the specific advantages it can deliver to Turkey. 

“Zero Problem”: The realpolitik behind the concept

No matter how much the “zero problem policy towards neighbours” concept is reminiscent of pro-peace ideas, state policies are never a sole reflection of universal ethical standards. One has to search for answers in international and domestic developments and examine how these developments might have been perceived by the state actors themselves. In the case of Turkey, I will look into the effects of the post-War era and Turkey’s European Union candidacy as well as what AKP’s rise in power signifies in terms of foreign policy.

Starting the analysis from a macro perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s meant the inevitable end of the Cold War and a rapid metamorphosis of the international system. The monolithic agenda of the two global hegemons during the Cold War, i.e. the US and the Soviet Union, for global deterrence of the ‘enemy’ that had usurped external and internal aspects of many nations’ political life has become irrelevant in the post-Cold war era. Most importantly, the perceived life-and-death threat of a global war that forged by and large the cohesive alliances of the Cold War, namely NATO and the Warsaw Pact Organisation, has not been replaced with a new mutually perceived threat(s). Thus, although the US came out victorious from the Cold War, the international system looks more fragmented in terms of how states but also international organisations, such as the European Union, comprehend and deal with global challenges, such as the global economic crisis, environmental degradation and asymmetric threats, such as terrorism. This is not to suggest that cooperation between states is diminishing but that states which aspire to play regional or/and global role have to actively interact with other countries in order to formulate common goals and practices.

In the first years of the post-Cold war era, Turkey found itself in the difficult position of trying to defend its geopolitical significance. Its location had been unique for US Cold war calculations. Bordering the Soviet Union directly, in close proximity to the rich oilfields of the Middle East and with strong historical and cultural ties with the Muslim populations of the Balkan region, such as that of the pro-Soviet Bulgaria, rendered Turkey the most important anti-Soviet outpost in the Eastern Mediterranean. Taking into account the aforementioned macro analysis about the newly emerging international environment, one would expect Turkey to engage more in regional affairs and attempt to create more legitimacy for its aspirations employing ‘soft’ power. However, what the empirics illustrate with regard to Turkish foreign policy in the 1990s is the use of hard power when it comes to bilateral relations, such as in the case of Greece and Syria and the lack of a systematic neighbourhood policy. Even Turkey’s engagement in the First Gulf War seems to be path dependent. President Özal taking the matter upon himself decided to assist the US against Iraq disregarding domestic opposition. Turkey could prove to its allies once more how valuable its location on the map was for their interests. However, the development of neighbourhood policy was of secondary importance at the time. Thus, it seems that this macro analysis does not account for the timing when the ‘zero problem’ concept was put forward one decade later. Therefore, probing into the possible reasons why AKP has chosen to consider its neighbourhood as central to Turkey’s foreign policy becomes relevant.  

When AKP won the elections in 2002 very little was known about their foreign policy agenda. Much had been speculated given on their pro-Islamic background. The main question at the time was whether AKP’s control of the government would be tolerated by the Turkish army given its secular reflexes in the 1990s. Needless to say that imagining the party to have some kind of influence on foreign policy decisions when the army controlled the National Security Council, the main foreign policy institutional body, seemed premature. Nevertheless, AKP started to unfold its vision in foreign policy right from its early days in power. There are three potential factors that explain AKP’s eagerness to include neighbourhood policies in the core of its foreign policy vision. The first is Turkey’s EU membership, the second is AKP’s relationship with the Turkish army and the third is AKP’s ideological background.

To begin with, Turkey had been designated as EU candidate country three years before AKP came to power. The previous coalition government had started reforms but more was expected to be done for Turkey to secure a date for the commencement of accession negotiations. In terms of foreign policy, the EU had not set a framework of foreign policy conditions with the exception of the Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus problem and some generic overtures for peaceful resolution of bilateral problems. Hence, one can argue that the EU factor is irrelevant to AKP’s ‘benign’ theorisation of neighbourhood policy. However, for the divisive debate in European Union political circles about whether Turkey should and could join the EU, the country has to prove more than any other candidate country of the past enlargement rounds that it will be an asset and not a liability. Thus, the geopolitical liability of bordering unstable regions, such as the Middle East and Caucasus, and having bilateral problems with EU members and third countries had to be transformed into geopolitical asset by playing the role of a stabilising power that promotes peace.

Certainly the high prospect of EU membership is a relatively strong exogenous force that pushes countries to change when their foreign policy is in stark contradiction with the values and practices of EU member states. However, the question remains. Why was AKP emphatic even at the beginning of its tenure that there was a need for a ‘zero problem’ neighbourhood policy when the previous coalition government that started the pre-accession negotiations with the EU was not showing evidence of a major shift in its neighbourhood policy with the exception of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement in 1999? One can develop numerous other hypotheses based on observations about how international opportunities and/or challenges have an impact on Turkey’s foreign policy but the important part of this analysis is why AKP and its top ranking officials chose to depart from the previous isolationist neighbourhood policy. Domestic politics seems more likely to have rendered ‘zero problem’ concept a choice of realpolitik in the case of AKP.

There are mainly two domestic factors that are possible explanations. The first is the growing polarity between political Islam and the Turkish army since the early 1990s and the second is the intrinsic value of AKP’s ideological background. More specifically, the hawkish policies of the army towards pro-Islamic parties especially when in government, such as the army ultimatum to the Welfare party (Refah partisi) and the subsequent collapse of the coalition government and the closure of the party in 1997, indicate that AKP was in a narrow path of political survival. When it formed a single party government in 2002, there were two options, namely either to develop an acrimonious anti-western and anti-secular rhetoric as the Welfare party did, or to seize the opportunity to enhance its political legitimacy by supporting Turkey’s EU bid and subsequently start to change civil–military relations through democratising domestic institutions, such as the National Security Council and de-securitising foreign policy. Both policies could entail short, medium and long term goals with the medium and long term ones referring to the de-securitisation of Turkey’s foreign policy. Thus, AKP would remain in office while expanding its leverage on Turkish politics by delegitimizing the Turkish army in the eyes of the Turkish public, the EU and neighbouring countries. Therefore, the ‘zero problem’ concept that was introduced very early in AKP’s tenure can be seen as part of a multifarious domestic policy for the survival of AKP and its attempt to expand its legitimacy while removing or transforming structural elements, such as Turkey’s highly introverted and securitised neighbourhood policy which fostered favourable conditions for the Turkish army’s interference in Turkish politics. 

Nevertheless, one can also argue that AKP’s ‘zero problem’ neighbourhood policy derives from its ideological background, a combination of political Islam and, more specifically, its romantic view of Pax Ottomanica, the apogee of the Ottoman empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. As the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated in his speech in Sarajevo in 2009, “like in the 16th century, the rise of Ottoman Balkans as the centre of world politics, we will make the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East together with Turkey as the centre of world politics in the future. This is the objective of Turkish foreign policy and we will achieve this”. In other words, the foreign minister presents a transnational ideal about the prospect the three regions to re-emerge as one of the world’s epicentres. Dr. Davutoğlu has not specified how this can be achieved but what becomes apparent is that AKP takes a holistic approach about the future of the three regions without making ethnic or religious distinctions in principle. Interestingly enough, there is no other contemporary political organisation or institution in these three different regions that echoes such an ideal citing the Ottoman legacy or any other empire’s legacy. On the contrary, there are analysts inside and outside the country who perceive AKP’s rhetoric as an indication of neo-Ottomanism. Although there is no consensus about what neo-Ottomanism represents, it is assumed to refer to AKP’s aspiration for Turkey to become the hegemon of Eastern Mediterranean as the Empire’s “true” heir. The Turkish foreign minister has declined the characterisation of his foreign policy actions in the region as neo-Ottoman and he has maintained that “Turkish Republic is a modern nation state and it is in the equal status with the countries in the region. We can build diplomatic relations with any big or small countries, which previously were in Ottoman geography in an equal status”.

Whether AKP’s neighbourhood activism, including the ‘zero problem’ policies, aims at elevating Turkey’s position in the international system by gradually subduing countries of its neighbourhood remains to be seen. However it is relevant to note that the “zero problem” concept has enabled the AKP to extend its neighbourhood policy to include Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria and Iran that had been neglected by the secular establishment. Neither the EU nor the US and nor other pre-existing domestic vested interests seem to have directly influenced AKP to consider cooperation with these countries. The political identity of the party as largely representing Turkish political Islam is the reason why AKP put forward a plan to initially solve bilateral problems or reduce mutual suspicion and then enhance Turkey’s political, economic and cultural ties. Polarisations in the identity politics of Turkey have rendered foreign policy another important tool for the cultivation of external sources of legitimacy for the parties in power. Thus, in the case of AKP, rationalising its highly controversial political identity especially in the first years of its tenure was an absolute necessity for its survival. Solving bilateral problems and developing economic and cultural ties with Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria and Iran would create vested interests that could form a counterbalance to long-standing external sources of legitimacy for the Turkish secular establishment, such as trade with, and the prospect of “modernisation” deriving from good relations with the West. Although ties with Western and Middle Eastern countries are not mutually exclusive, as vivid international political life has illustrated, the tendency in the political circles of Turkey especially when tension runs high is to present one option against the other depending on the identity they want to promote.

AKP’s “zero problem” policy has been -at least during the first years of their tenure- an agonising attempt to survive and expand their political agenda in a way that would balance the military influence in the domestic political affairs of the country. Furthermore, its political identity was a positive factor for considering a systematic neighbourhood policy that would include countries of the Middle East that had been neglected by the secular establishment. Furthermore, the international and regional environment including Turkey’s EU bid had been favourable and encouraging for AKP to present a new vision in foreign policy. Interestingly, the factors that explained AKP’s neighbourhood policy in first place have been changing rapidly the last 5 years and the way neighbourhood policy has been implemented has changed too. The systematic applicability of the “zero problem” has always raised questions. Can Turkey develop relations with Iran without Israel changing its position towards Turkey as opposed to what happened in the myth of Alexander and the desiccated hide of the billy-goat?


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