For most of Turkey's modern history, its foreign policy drew from the suggestions of the armed forces, the civilian government and career professionals in the foreign ministry. The resulting policy formulations — whether they produced positive or negative outcomes for Turkey — emerged from a set process involving myriad interagency consultations over the country's capability, capacity and interests. Today, that is no longer the case. Since taking his current office in August 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the shots in Turkish foreign policy. The country's actions and objectives on the world stage are now a product of his preferences, rather than a deliberative process.
Proactive, Prudent and Predictable
In the Turkish republic's formative period, the founding elite — aptly personified in President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his predecessor, Ismet Inonu — shaped their nascent country's foreign policy priorities with survival in mind. As combat-seasoned veterans, both leaders avoided the pitfalls of territorial revisionism in the aftermath of World War I, which led to the formal dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and the founding of the Republic of Turkey three years later. Turkey's military-bureaucratic elite focused on orienting the republic's foreign policy toward domestic development during the interwar years, with the aim of establishing and maintaining a Western-leaning, industrialized, capitalist state. To that end, Turkish diplomats concentrated on rebuilding vital political and economic ties with former adversaries such as the British Empire, Greece, France and Italy, countries that could provide critical lines of credit and trade opportunities. In addition, Turkey focused its diplomatic resources on establishing a relationship with the United States while keeping potential hegemons whose worldview it did not share — namely the Soviet Union — at arm's length, mainly through a treaty of friendship. Granted, these policies were leader-driven. But they were still the result of a deliberative process.
Were it not for President Ismet Inonu's painstaking efforts to keep the country neutral throughout most of World War II, despite jeers from the United Kingdom and threats from Nazi Germany, Turkey would not exist today.
The onset of World War II ushered in a careful balancing act for Turkey's leaders, whose importance cannot be overemphasized. Were it not for Inonu's painstaking efforts to keep the country neutral throughout most of the war, despite jeers from the United Kingdom and threats from Nazi Germany, Turkey would not exist today. In the years that followed, Turkey opted to participate in the Korean War, to join NATO and to apply for membership in the European Economic Community. The moves were in part an effort to fulfill Ataturk's vision for a Westernized country, but they also served a more practical function. By actively participating in the nascent liberal international order's institutions, Turkey ensured reasonable levels of socio-economic development, dependable relationships with all its fellow members and, most important, security from the military conflicts that plagued its neighbors. Its position on the edge of the Soviet Union made the country a crucial member of the Western alliance. As such, Turkey consistently punched above its economic and military weight, thanks to its carefully considered foreign policy choices.
Turkey remained a proactive, prudent and predictable actor on the world stage in the uncertainty that surrounded the Soviet Union's collapse. The country stood up to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, for example, and helped with the containment and subsequent defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo in 1998. Turkey's late foreign minister, Ismail Cem, embodied the accumulated values and principles of the country's foreign policy achievements. Though unable to overcome the fundamental differences that plague his country's relationship with Greece, Cem proved crucial in constructing a level of trust that helped pave the way for the two states' (unsuccessful) peace negotiations over Cyprus in 2004 and earned Turkey formal candidacy for EU membership in 1999.
Putting a Face to Foreign Policy
Erdogan's presidency, by contrast, has transformed the arena of foreign policy into a tool for obtaining a series of personal ambitions. The policy decision-making process has largely abandoned the traditional three advisers and succumbed to the whims of a bellicose president. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, is no longer an institution that provides analysis and input into policymaking but is merely an implementer of decisions taken in the presidential palace. The National Security Council, which had for so long given the military a strong voice in decision-making, has been silenced. Instead of catching wind from these institutions, international leaders and observers today learn of Turkey's policies mainly through Erdogan's weekly speeches in front of his fellow Justice and Development Party members.
It is this personalization of foreign policy that explains the numerous anti-Western policy pursuits Turkey's allies and partners have observed recently. When a handful of EU countries — including the Netherlands, Germany and Austria — refused to permit Turkish Cabinet ministers from holding election rallies within their borders, for instance, Erdogan brazenly retorted that Nazism was still very much alive in Europe. The president also threatened that he would scrap his country's deal with the European Union to keep Syrian refugees from reaching the bloc unless Brussels provided financial compensation to Ankara and visa-free travel rights to Turkish citizens in return.
The Price of Personalized Policy
Some have referred to Turkey's new way of interacting with the world under Erdogan as "transactional" — a rather polite characterization. But whatever the term for this policy, and the incendiary language surrounding it, Turkish decision-makers in the pre-Erdogan era never would have subscribed to it. It simply doesn't help Turkey achieve any meaningful goals. Instead, the new approach to foreign policy undermines the country's relationships with its European partners and serves to confirm the suspicions of Europe's right-wing voters and skeptics that Turkey does not belong to their club.
The new approach to foreign policy undermines the country's relationships with its European partners.
Similarly, Turkey's insistence on toppling the government in Syria initially was born not of any strategic goal but of Erdogan's outrage at Syrian President Bashar al Assad for defying his recommendation to step down. During the Cold War, Turkey limited its substantive involvement in Middle Eastern politics to signing the 1955 Baghdad Pact and its successor, the Central Treaty Organization, to contain the spread of communism. Its foreign policymakers determined that deeper engagement in regional affairs would render no tangible benefit for the country. Under Erdogan's direction, on the other hand, Turkey has plunged headlong into regional politics, working since 2012 to oust the Syrian government. Along the way, it has brought the region closer to the brink of open war by risking confrontation with Russia and Iran and by embittering its relationship with the United States. Erdogan justifies his country's involvement in the Syrian conflict with reasons more or less legitimate. The prospect that a Kurdish state allied with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party will coalesce along Turkey's southern border, for example, is a genuine worry for the country. Yet Turkey's operation in Afrin province to prevent that outcome carries with it the risk of a clash between U.S. and Turkish troops.
In his attempts to project strong, determined and charismatic leadership, Erdogan has pulled out all the stops. He has defied Europe and the United States to show voters that he's a tough man who isn't afraid to stand up to the West. And now he intends to parlay the success of that strategy into success in snap elections this summer. Erdogan's swagger is likely to win him populist support ahead of the vote, originally slated for November 2019, but in the long run it will chip away at the decadeslong relationships that previous leaders worked tirelessly to create. Furthermore, opposing Europe and the United States in demeaning ways, such as arbitrarily detaining and arresting their citizens, will do little to advance Turkey's strategic goals. As the economy deteriorates, the question of who will come to Turkey's aid remains unclear. Erdogan may win the presidency for a second term only to preside over an increasingly marginalized and inward-looking country. He would have no one to blame but himself.