The limitations of Turkish foreign policy


The EU-Turkey accession negotiations slowed down not because Turkey was not interested but because Turkey demanded fair play in the negotiations.

Ali Gokpinar
25 February 2013

As the Syrian crisis deepens, criticisms against the AKP’s foreign policy from opposition parties and the international community have significantly increased. In parallel to axis shift and neo-Ottomanism discussions,  there is criticism of Prime Minister Erdogan’s provocative Shanghai threat to the EU, the failure of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy and Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu’s one man show style. So, after ten years in power, how do we assess the AKP’s foreign policy?

Ten years ago, the AKP redefined Turkish foreign policy.  To achieve both national and international goals, it undertook to frame a multi-dimensional, constructive, proactive, realistic and responsible foreign policy. Turkey did not shift its axis. Rather, Turkey diversified its foreign policies and employed a portfolio of tools ranging from public diplomacy initiatives to humanitarian aid and scholarships for students coming from fragile states. 

The EU-Turkey accession negotiations slowed down not because Turkey was not interested but because Turkey demanded fair play in the negotiations. Merkel’s Germany and Sarkozy’s France created more problems than it solved in encouraging Turkey’s EU membership. The EU’s longterm mistaken stance over Cyprus was another disincentive that led the AKP government to question its EU policies in an era of internal democratization efforts.

In this regard, Turkey managed to play a two-level diplomatic game by implementing desired democratic reforms, desecuritizing Turkish foreign policy and integrating the Turkish economy into the Middle East and Central Asia region, with an emphasis on the strong state. Projects for peace and humanitarian aid followed while Turkish businessmen were encouraged to invest in every corner of the world. From the economic perspective, Turkey successfully maintains its investments in the Middle East, Eurasia and Africa, despite a decreasing level of exports and imports in certain countries in the Middle East.

The Arab uprisings required Turkey to adjust its policies more realistically. Even before the Arab uprisings, Arab diplomats made clear their reluctance to see Turkey as a powerful regional partner, let alone as a model or source of inspiration. This is why FM Davutoglu’s rhetoric should be tuned down to correspond better to Turkey’s actual power and used in a humbler way to reduce negative perceptions about Turkey. The current mockery summed up in, “zero problems, hundred troubles” is nevertheless an exaggeration of Turkey’s failure in the broader Middle East. Turkey was constrained by the conflicting geostrategic interests of the major powers and the inability of the international order in its attempts to find an alternative solution.

Skeptics might argue that Turkish relations with Israel and Iraq are evidence of failure. Yet, despite supposed souring relations with the Shi’ite PM Maliki, Turkey has achieved important business deals in Central Iraq and an energy pipeline partnership with the KRG. As for Israel, the Turkish government’s unrealistic but just demands will inevitably limit the level of cooperation, although the two countries get along well enough when it comes to the military industry. To sum up, Turkey mainly needs some adjustment to its discourse when it comes to its policies in the Middle East. 

Finally, Turkish investments in Africa seem to be successful, with a volume of $8.4 billion dollars as of November 2012. Traditional British, French and ever-growing Chinese interests might clash with these developments at some point. Apart from economics, in a recent historical visit, the Turkish Prime Minister did not hesitate to slam colonial powers for their centuries of wrongdoing. Although African countries might welcome such comments, the continuation of such a discourse might harm Turkey in the long run.  

In fact, it remains rather unclear to what extent important regional and major powers will cohabit to pursue their economic and political interests.  Utilizing foreign aid, Turkish schools and Turkish Airlines to link countries to each other are effective soft power tools in Africa as elsewhere. Yet, this is the point where Turkey’s limitations become evident, because Turkey needs a more creative portfolio of policies to be a smart and leading power and to push an agenda, whatever that agenda might be. It is still the constraints in the international order, however, that are most are likely to prevent Turkey from achieving its grandiose goals.

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