Turkey does imperialism: Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East

To understand Turkey’s actions in the Middle East, we need to grasp its precarious place in world capitalism.

Gönenç Uysal
12 August 2019, 9.37am
Hasan Kirmizitas/Zuma Press/PA Images

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

The world capitalist system is characterised by hierarchies among countries, which both stem from and reproduce uneven economic development. In this sense, the world economy can be considered imperialistic. Located at the periphery of global capitalism, Turkey has long had dependent economic, political, and military relations with the big Western powers. At the same time, however, over the past decades it has been pursuing ‘proactive’ foreign as well as economic policy in the Middle East, policy which can be considered ‘sub-imperialist’. This has sometimes brought about tension between Turkey and the Western countries. Turkey’s ruling AKP party has continued to forcefully promote not only its economic but also political and military interests significantly in Syria and Qatar, despite facing the immediate possibility of a massive economic crisis.

Turkey’s assertive foreign policy has been attributed to the AKP having a ‘neo-Ottoman’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ outlook. However, it has been almost a century since the Ottoman Empire and its ancien régime were consigned to the history books. In reality, what the AKP has been ruling is fundamentally a peripheral capitalist state. This article discusses the AKP’s foreign policy in the Middle East since the 2000s, in relation to contradictions thrown up by the world capitalist system. In this way, it explores how a peripheral country like Turkey can act in an assertive manner vis-à-vis the peripheral countries of the Middle East, and what could be the prospective consequences of such an assertive foreign policy.

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World capitalism 101

According to Marxist theory, the process of capital accumulation – the creation and appropriation of surplus value in the form of money, goods and commodities, production processes, and land – causes capital-owners (firms, corporations, banks, estate agencies, and so on) to compete to create and appropriate more surplus in the forms of profit, interest, and rent. This competition results in uneven development on a world scale, and hence, domination and subordination of peripheral countries by imperialist countries.

Peripheral countries safeguard domestic capital accumulation by developing relations of dependence vis-à-vis imperialist countries. In this way, a peripheral country can attempt to appropriate more surplus on a regional scale by dominating and subordinating other peripheral countries. However, it can only appropriate such surplus at levels subordinate to imperialist countries. In order to sustain such a hierarchical economic structure, the peripheral country attempts political and military domination on a regional scale. While doing so, it preserves its relative autonomy vis-à-vis imperialist countries. Such an attempt can lead to geopolitical rivalries and economic competition between and among the given peripheral country, other regional peripheral countries, and imperialist countries.

Turkey can be regarded as a peripheral country, whose capital accumulation has depended on the import of capital goods (such as machinery) and intermediate goods (such as automotive spare parts), and technology, particularly from the EU and the USA. Turkey’s dependent relations with the Western countries were reinforced with Turkey’s economic, political, and military commitment to the Western bloc; for example, its commitment to the IMF, World Bank, NATO, and the EU accession process.

Turkey’s economic and geopolitical role

In the 1980s, Turkish firms began to expand on a regional scale. Such an expansion deepened political and military relations between Turkey and the regional countries relatively autonomously from the Western countries.

The AKP continued to promote the expansion of Turkish firms particularly in the Middle East beginning in the 2000s. With this aim, the AKP fostered free trade agreements significantly with Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Syria. Turkish firms functioning in labour-intensive sectors found the Middle Eastern peripheries, where labour was relatively cheaper, as ideal spaces to expand. Egypt emerged as a major example in textile and glass sectors.

The AKP furthermore used foreign aid, such as food and medical supplies, as a means to favour expansion of Turkish firms, particularly in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, and Libya. The advancement of economic relations, nevertheless, enhanced relations of dependence between Turkey and the regional rivals. Turkey significantly developed dependent relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the form of import of intermediate goods (such as unprocessed aluminium, petroleum oils, semi-products of iron/steel, unprocessed polypropene).

Post-Arab Spring: Syria and Qatar

The advancement of economic relations was followed by the restructuring of political relations with the countries in the region both in harmony and in tension with the Western countries. In Syria, Turkey promoted the Muslim Brotherhood in alliance with the USA against the Baath regimes beginning in the 1970s. Following the eruption of the armed rebellion in Syria 2011, Turkey allied with the USA and Gulf countries and called for the ousting of the President Bashar al-Assad. The AKP allied with Saudi Arabia in providing arms, medical treatment, and shelter to the armed rebels.

The AKP sometimes went too far in provoking Russia, as was the case with the downing of a Russian jet plane; the subsequent negotiation process between Russia and the USA put Turkey in a difficult position. Nevertheless, the recent dialogue between Turkey and the USA regarding Turkey’s future role in Syria following the US’ withdrawal of troops signalled that Turkey, as a NATO member, is prepared to undertake the role of subcontracting of the US imperialism. Indeed, Turkey already has a military presence in northern Syria in alliance with the US-backed Free Syrian Army against the Syrian forces to foster Turkish and US interests.

The contradictions of the economic and political relations the AKP advanced in the Middle East reinforced the contradictions of military relations with both Western and Middle Eastern countries. Turkey’s relations with the Gulf countries are an important example. On the one hand, the AKP fostered military industry, military training, and security cooperation with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which became two of the top three importers of arms from Turkey by 2017. On the other hand, the AKP allied with Qatar, where Turkey introduced an overseas military base in 2015, against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar in 2017 as a result of its relations with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. While the USA backed Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the AKP promised to increase its forces on the Turkish military base in Doha. Although the AKP directly challenged neither the USA nor Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the Gulf region, it fostered military relations with Somalia and Sudan alongside Qatar – trying to buy time so that it could secure an important role in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

A blurry future?

In conclusion, the AKP’s foreign policy in the Middle East has sought to promote the economic interests of Turkish firms while aiming at political and military domination in the region. Such an attempt has fuelled economic and geopolitical competition between and among Turkey and the Western and Middle Eastern countries. It is questionable to what extent the AKP would be able to afford such antics, considering the immediacy of a massive economic crisis knocking on the door. In fact, an economic crisis would hugely affect Turkey’s foreign trade and government spending on political and military endeavours. It would further Turkey’s dependent relations since the possibility of an IMF loan is already on the table.

Nevertheless, the fundamental characteristic of capitalism is the motive to seek profit. In times of economic crises, successful firms are able to hang in and swallow up the ones that are not. For this reason, economic crises serve as opportunities for the rich to get richer. In the case of an economic crisis in Turkey, Turkish firms and the Western firms for this matter could continue to benefit from the AKP’s sub-imperialist foreign policy at the expense of good neighbourly relations.

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