Ideas or Interests: Understanding the Engine Behind Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Turkey’s foreign policy has been unusually prominent on the radar screens of Washington DC and Brussels. Articles and news stories have mushroomed in print and web media on the topic, with some expressing deep concern about Turkey’s shifting alliances and others celebrating the democratization of its foreign policy.

What has been common to these discussions on Turkey’s foreign policy is a misguided focus on the importance of ideas and ideologies. The discussions have been flooded with Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s ideas on “strategic depth” and “zero problems”, the Islamic and neo-Ottoman ideology of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s personal convictions, particularly on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What been missing is a well-calibrated description of what gave rise to these changes. Without a correct diagnosis of the changes in Turkey’s foreign policy, we run into the risk of drawing flawed conclusions about its ramifications for regional alliances and power balances.

Political Economy of Turkey’s Foreign Policy:

Economic interest groups in Turkey are a growing voice in shaping the foreign policy of the government. As the volume of trade and investment with non-European countries multiplies, the government feels increasingly pressured by domestic interest groups to improve its diplomatic relations to facilitate economic transactions.

The 2001 financial crisis in Turkey was a milestone in this regard. With the devaluation of the Turkish Lira and instability of domestic markets, the private enterprises that proliferated during the 1990s as a result of neoliberal economic policies of the period, rushed to new external markets to sell their products and services. Within a short period of time, the number of economic actors in the foreign trade arena multiplied exponentially.

The subsequent years were marked by a constant search for new markets for these enterprises. Turkey’s largest trading partner, the EU, proved to be a difficult market for exporters partly due to the high level of saturation, sluggish economic growth rates in Europe and EU’s extensive trade regulations. It was no surprise that the Turkish government identified geographic dependency as a major challenge and made geographic diversification a trade policy priority.

Trade and foreign policy went hand-in-hand to further geographic diversification. Turkish Embassies were established in regions with limited prior presence, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of embassies doubled since 2008. Turkey also became an observer in the AU and a member of the AfDB (African Development Bank) during the same period. In other countries where Turkey had prior presence, diplomatic relations were strengthened in an effort to facilitate the access of Turkish companies to these new markets.

The result was a visible increase in Turkey’s diplomatic and economic presence in many countries. The volume of exports to Middle Eastern countries, for example, went from being less than one sixth of Turkey’s total exports in 2000 to being more than a fourth in 2010. And once a critical mass of exporting and investing Turkish enterprises were located in a given country, diplomatic policy was then faced with pressure from this new constituency. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs is now paying more frequent visits to non-European destinations, numerous economic cooperation agreements are being signed with non-European countries, and Turkey is expressing divergent opinions in the international arena regarding countries like Sudan, Libya and Iran.

Mistaking Institutional Artifacts as Signs of Shifting Alliances

In demonstrating the extent of the shift in Turkey’s alliances, the frequency of Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s visits to EU capitals has been compared to the frequency of his visits to “Islamic” capitals. An institutional element that has been omitted in explaining this comparison has been the role of the Secretariat General for EU Affairs (EUSG).

Established in 2000 as part of Turkey’s accelerated attempts to join the EU, the EUSG has since been changing locations within the government structure. Initially located under the Prime Ministry, it was moved back-and-forth between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Ministry until 2009. When the EUSG was finally moved back under the Prime Ministry in 2009, and a state minister was appointed to work exclusively on EU affairs, this was welcomed by many as a demonstration of the government’s renewed commitment to the EU process. The natural consequence of this appointment has been State Minister Bağış taking on an increasingly active role in EU affairs and to some extent replacing the Foreign Minister in being the face of Turkey in European capitals. In explaining the decrease in the frequency of foreign ministerial visits to European capitals, one cannot look only to the shift in Turkey’s alliances but also to the role played by institutional artifacts – in this case the role of the EUSG.

Is Davutoğlu Really a Super-Minister?

Since his appointment in May 2009, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been applauded by some for mastering an unprecedented breakthrough in Turkey’s foreign relations and has been singled out as the architect of this “new era”. What’s missing from this depiction is a sense of perspective based on a simple fact about the nature of Foreign Ministers’ terms in office in Turkey – that they have been overwhelmingly very short. Since 1990, Turkey has had seventeen foreign ministers with an average tenure of slightly above a year. Only three of these ministers, Hikmet Çetin (December 1991-July 1994), İsmail Cem (June 1997-July 2002), and Abdullah Gül (March 2003-August 2007), were in office for longer than two years.

In other words, only three ministers in the last two decades had even a couple of years to develop new policies and implement them. Without exception, each of these ministers who had longer terms developed new policies. Çetin’s term came at the end of the Cold War and was marked by Turkey’s attempts at becoming the older brother to the new Central Asian Turkic republics. Cem’s term was marked both by an unprecedented accelaration in Turkey’s EU membership bid and a breakthrough in its relations with Greece.  Gül’s term was marked by a climax in Turkey-EU relations and the earlier phases of a geographic diversification of Turkey’s economic partners.

Davutoğlu will be the fourth minister to serve over two years in the last two decades and what we are observing may not be a super-minister but simply a minister who like three others before him has had enough time to develop some new policies.

Israel: A Tool for Domestic Policy?

There is no question that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the few international issues that can galvanize both nationalist and religious sentiments in Turkey.  So it is no surprise that the conflict has become a readily available tool for politicians who have an interest in spurring these public sentiments to increase voter support in times of elections and referendums.

In February 2009, the first major episode of the falling apart of Turkish Israeli relations took place in Davos with the now famous “one minute” incident when Prime Minister Erdoğan walked out of a panel with Simon Peres. The “one minute” incident came after weeks of demonstrations in Turkey against Israel’s attacks on Gaza and two months before local elections in Turkey.

Following Davos and after a series of tense diplomatic exchanges, some of which were triggered by the depiction of Israel in television series in Turkey, the second major episode of the crisis came in May 2010 with the blockade incident. The incident came after months of demonstrations in Turkey against the “Kurdish opening” of the government, an overall rise in nationalist sentiments and increasing dissatisfaction voiced by AKP’s more nationalist constituency. It was also four months before the constitutional referendum, which was transformed into a vote-of-confidence for AKP.

Understanding a Complex Picture

What is clear is that Turkey’s foreign policy is the outcome of the interaction of various factors. AKP’s ideology and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s ideas are part of this complex picture but they are certainly not the most of it. Focusing too much on the “softer” factors might in fact be coming at the risk of missing the more complex picture of political economy, institutions and domestic policy of a rapidly changing and tremendously diverse country.

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