Turkey is keen to become a more influential player in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, where power balances have been upended by recent changes in the global order. U.S. retrenchment under President Donald Trump has accentuated these shifts and diminished opportunities for conflict resolution throughout the region. Faced with potentially destabilizing consequences, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has adopted a foreign and security policy that expands the country’s reach, even at the cost of rising tensions with its traditional partners in the West.
Erdoğan has adopted a foreign and security policy that expands the country’s reach, even at the cost of rising tensions.
Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power at home largely held Turkey’s foreign policy hostage to domestic political calculations. Military operations in Iraq, Libya, and Syria; hard-power tactics in the Eastern Mediterranean; and acrimonious relations with the European Union have put Turkey’s foreign policy in a mode of permanent crisis management that, in turn, has underscored the need for strong leadership at home.
Infused with nostalgia for its Ottoman roots, Turkey’s foreign policy increasingly bears the stamp of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, which has shaped it to advance the narrative of an independent Turkey leading in the region and diversifying its global partnerships. This is evidenced by Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air and missile defense system from Russia despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. Erdoğan has cut Turkey’s strategic interest off from former expectations of remaining in the Western fold.
Turkey’s foreign policy is also serving to further a narrative of national ascent. This political vision has driven initiatives like the failed attempts at regime change in Syria and, more recently, the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya to support the government of national accord against Khalifa Haftar. Turkey’s expanding regional footprint—with its forward military presence in Cyprus, Libya, Qatar, and Somalia—has strengthened this narrative, as have its burgeoning capabilities in surveillance technology and armed drones.
How long this path of strategic autarchy can be sustained is a pressing issue.
How long this path of strategic autarchy can be sustained is a pressing issue for Ankara. Turkey is increasingly a test case for a policy of nonalignment, as it attempts to navigate a combative relationship with partners in the West while maintaining its membership in NATO—jeopardizing its economy in the short term and its alliances in the long term. Any potential conflict resolutions in Libya, Syria, or other regional hot spots are thus of considerable importance. They will in all likelihood determine the future direction of Turkey’s foreign policy and the chances that its leadership will remain aligned with the West.
- Sinan Ülgen