ISince the founding of the Republic, Turkish foreign policy has gone through three major stages. We can roughly summarize those stages as neutrality and low level of involvement (1923‒1947), staunch NATO ally (1947‒1991), and autonomous ally (1992‒present). An interplay of internal and external factors produced these stages, as well as the policy shifts that mark them. Indeed, such an interplay may be producing yet another stage today, along with a corresponding policy shift.

In the first stage, neutrality, the founders of the modern Turkish state were suspicious of the victorious allies of World War I and mindful of the need to consolidate their new regime and build up an economy ravaged by prolonged wars. Thus they sought to avoid extensive international engagements and settle remaining postwar issues, such as sovereignty over the Turkish Straits and Mosul-Kirkuk, by peaceful means. This allowed them largely to remain aloof from the destruction of the Second World War.

Even before that war ended, however, it was clear that a new global order was emerging, and that Turkey’s leaders would have to usher in a new stage of foreign policy in response. Toward the end of the war, as the main features of that new order began to take shape (and in view of the fact that the Soviets expressed interest in revisiting Turkey’s sovereignty over the Turkish Straits and its eastern borders), Turkey moved to link with the Western camp, culminating it its joining NATO in 1952.

Turkey’s security and, to some extent, economic dependence on the United States ensured that its attachment to NATO remained strong even despite complications like the status of Cyprus. In 1991, however, the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet threat inaugurated the third stage of Turkish foreign policy—one characterized by a greater degree of latitude in policymaking.

The economic roots of the third stage date back to before even the Soviet collapse. On January 24, 1980, in a decision whose importance was not fully recognized at the time, Turkey scrapped a set of rules and regulations protecting the value of the Turkish lira. This decision represented no less than the abandonment of import-substitution‒oriented economic development in favor of export-led growth. Turkey now had a strong economic spur to seek out new export markets and develop new relationships with its neighbors.

Turkey developed into a “trading state.” Russia, the Middle East, and countries even farther afield became targets of Turkish expansion, and the end of the Cold War only accelerated this trend. In addition to the United States and European countries with which Turkey has historically had strong ties, the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, Iran, the Central Asian republics, China, and Latin America now do an increasingly brisk trade with Turkey.

For Turkey, now the sixteenth-largest economy in the world and the sixth-largest in Europe (as measured by purchasing power parity), questions of economic prosperity play a more important role in its foreign policy than they did in the past stage, when security concerns were paramount. (Parallel to this trend, democratization has also increased the role played by public opinion in Turkish policymaking.)

The Third Stage

This third and latest stage (1991‒present) deserves to be considered at greater length, as it could be in the process of giving way to something new.

Turkish foreign policy in this third stage can be divided into two sub-periods. During the first sub-period (1991‒2007), which also covers the first term of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish foreign policy maintained its strongly western orientation even as it enjoyed more autonomy and expanded its geographical reach.

With the end of the Cold War, Turkey joined other allies in expanding its relations with former adversaries as well as building ties with newcomers to the international system. Despite the general feeling both among Turkish politicians and the general public that its allies neither supported its fight against separatist terrorism nor understood its position on Cyprus, successive governments did not challenge the principle that Turkey’s fundamental interests lay with the West. Accordingly, Turkey pursued the goal of becoming a member of the European Union, culminating in the declaration of Turkey as a candidate country in 1999 and in the opening of accession negotiations in 2005. Turkey also cooperated in enforcing a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq, participated in peacekeeping efforts in places like Bosnia, and sent troops to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The only notable policy disagreement during this period was Turkey’s refusal to allow American forces to pass through Turkey en route to Iraq during the invasion by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003. The government had introduced a resolution allowing U.S. forces to pass through, but the motion failed in parliament when several key AKP members failed to vote for it.

Several very particular factors led to this disagreement—not least of which is the fact there was considerable disarray within NATO itself on the question of the Iraq war. Adding to that were Ankara’s anxieties about Kurdish separatism and the problems presented to its reputation in the Middle East if it were to allow the passage. After the initial shock of the refusal waned, the U.S.-Turkish relationship settled. Tensions occasionally still bubbled over, but after U.S. President Barack Obama took office and made one of his first official trips a visit to Turkey, the relationship settled into a more comfortable groove.

Turkey As an Autonomous Middle Power

We can mark the beginning of the second sub-period at the Justice and Development Party’s win in the 2007elections. The real change, however, came with Professor Ahmet Davutoglu’s appointment as minister for foreign affairs in 2009. With Davutoglu’s ascension, Turkey has pursued an even more independent path in its foreign relations.

Perhaps the most visible signpost on this new independent path has been Turkey’s progress—or rather, its lack of progress—in accession to the European Union. There is ambivalence in both Europe and Turkey with regard to moving this process forward. Various issues regarding trade in Cyprus still stand in the way of opening several chapters in the accession negotiations. More importantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel now seems to favor a Turkish “special relationship” rather than full membership, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy has rejected membership outright. He has vetoed the opening of several accession chapters and has assumed what many Turks consider to be insulting stands—for example, stating that Turkey does not belong in Europe and devoting only five minutes to the Turkish president on his official visit to France, then chewing gum during those five minutes. The result of all this so far has been stalemate: Both Europe and Turkey agree that relations should not rupture, but progress seems impossible unless new leaders take charge in Germany and France.

Turkey’s relationship with Israel is a second signpost delineating its new foreign policy path. Historically, Turkey and Israel had exceptionally good relations, owing to these facts: They are the only two Western-oriented democratic societies in the region; they have cooperated heavily in the field of defense; and Turkey had remained neutral with regard to Arab-Israeli conflicts. Davutoglu even sought to build on this relationship by offering Turkey’s services as a peace broker and initiating proximity talks between Syria and Israel. In December 2008, however, just as these talks seemed poised to succeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, having given the impression that a breakthrough was imminent, returned to Israel to launch one of the severest attacks on Gaza in history. Feeling betrayed, Turkey became convinced that Israel had never had any intention of negotiating a settlement. Since then, relations have deteriorated.

Closer Russian-Turkish relations are another signpost for current Turkish foreign policy. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner, supplier of most of its natural gas, and recently signed an agreement to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Thus Turkey has refrained from actions that could be construed as challenging Russian security (for instance, lax implementation of the Montreux Convention as it pertains to the presence of non-regional naval vessels in the Black Sea). There are, however, competitive aspects to the relationship, relating to the flow of energy supplies through the region and the growing Turkish presence in the Caucasus, which Russia considers to be its domain of interest. Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia has not so far seriously challenged Turkey’s ties to the western alliance, but potential sources of tension remain on issues like Black Sea naval access, the Caucasus, and the possibility of a Western anti-missile system being based on Turkish territory.

“Zero Problems”: Limited Success

Davutoglu’s “zero problems” foreign policy doctrine, which seeks peaceful settlements for all of Turkey’s outstanding problems with its neighbors, is perhaps the most recognizable element of Turkish foreign policy since 2009. This policy, however, has enjoyed only limited success so far.

For instance, almost all outstanding issues with Greece remain unsolved—and Cyprus in particular. (This latter stalemate, it should be noted, owes a lot to the fact that the European Union allowed Cyprus to join, thereby removing any motivation on the part of the Greek Cypriot government make concessions toward a resolution). And Turkish efforts to open the border, as well as diplomatic relations, with Armenia were stymied when Azerbaijan strongly objected that Armenia must first withdraw from the Azeri territories it occupies.

Davutoglu’s “zero problems” policy is enjoying some small victories, however. Turkey is expanding its diplomatic presence in Africa and Latin America in the expectation that the former will become an increasingly important source of raw materials and that the latter is finally acquiring more influence in global politics and economics. Turkey is also looking to open up new economic opportunities in South and East Asia—especially Japan, Korea, and China. 

Iran and the Arab world, however, represent the most consequential tests for Turkish foreign policy.

Historically, Iran and Turkey have maintained good relations, having not fought a war since 1638. This is partly because geography has usually prevented one side from dominating the other. Other factors—especially access to Iranian gas, trade routes, and markets—have ensured that the relationship remains positive in more recent years.

These positive feelings, however, don’t mean that Turkey has no problem with Iran developing a nuclear capability; rather, they mean that Ankara approaches the problem much differently than the West. Turkey has seen that embargoes do not work and that they disproportionately affect neighboring countries. It also believes that world governance, including as it relates to nuclear issues, is not fair and tends to give existing nuclear states a near-permanent monopoly over not only nuclear weapons but also peaceful uses of nuclear technologies. Turkey’s attempt to mediate between Iran and the West (in cooperation with Brazil) was thus an attempt to modify the current framework of governance rather than an attempt to buck the will of the West or of the UN Security Council. 

Prior to this year, Turkey had been working hard to develop close relations with the countries of the Arab Middle East, all of which were ruled by authoritarian governments. The upheavals of the Arab Spring, however, placed the entire set of relationships under stress. Turkey had no difficulty in supporting change in Tunisia and Egypt; Egypt was seen as a conservative regime, unresponsive to the aspirations of the masses. In Libya and Syria, Turkey has been much slower to act. While it could be said that Turkish workers in these countries explain some of the hesitation, some also derives from the fact that Turkey did not wish to see the vast network of relations it had worked so hard to construct unraveled. In the end, Turkey gradually and reluctantly concluded that Qaddafi had to go, and it now seems to be moving toward a similar stance with regard to Syria. The new policy emerging from the Arab Spring will likely emphasize closer cooperation with Turkey’s traditional allies and friends. 

Neither Islamic Nor Neo-Ottoman

The end of the Cold War and the ascendance of economic considerations in Turkey’s external relations have guided Turkey to pursue a foreign policy that stretches, but does not burst, the broad framework of its alliance ties. This implies that Turkey and the West will have occasional differences on policy questions. Treating these differences as normal may be the best way to preserve the alliance relationship. What this, in turn, also implies is that the alliance relationship is less comprehensive than it was during the Cold War. All allies, including Turkey, have more room to develop and implement relationships that fall outside the embrace of the alliance.

Contemporary observers often ask whether Turkey is pursuing an Islamic or a neo-Ottoman policy. This concern misses the mark. The changes to Turkish foreign policy are not confined only to Turkish relations with Islamic countries; they also concern non-Islamic countries like China, Russia, and the Balkan states.

It is certainly true that many members of the current ruling elite in Turkey are personally religious, have limited exposure to the West, and feel more comfortable in countries that share similar traditions, customs, and religious practices. The current prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also enjoys mass appeal in the Arab world. None of this means, however, that Islamic prerogatives are the sole or primary basis on which Turkish foreign policy is made. Similarly, neither Ottoman nor cultural or ethnic ties are the primary motives for Turkish foreign policy. The Ottoman past remains in the past.

Rather, Turkey’s ascendance as a middle power is the result of global changes under way today—changes that call for Turkey’s allies to adjust their perceptions about its role in the world. Indeed these adjustments seem to be taking place already. The Western allies must emphasize consultations and consensus-building, while continuing to recognize that some policy differences are perfectly natural and to be expected. Turkey, for its part, will needs to gain a better appreciation of the limits of this new status, not to mention the boundaries of its allies’ patience.
Ilter Turan is a professor of Political Science in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.