Understanding Turkey's Foreign Policy

A few days ago, I returned from a trip to Turkey, sponsored by the Rumi Forum. The trip included visits to four cities in Turkey and meetings with community, business and political groups. As someone who studies Turkey, the trip was an incredible opportunity to learn first-hand about a country I already admire. I have discussed my thoughts on domestic issues in Turkey. I also gained greater insight into the country's foreign policy.

Throughout the 20th century, Turkish politics was marked by the secular nationalist image instilled in the country by Ataturk's dramatic post-Ottoman reforms. The primary goal of the country's foreign policy was to maintain its security and territorial integrity. This led to a hard stance on minority issues such as the Kurds, hesitation to address the Armenian issue, and tensions with Greece over Cyprus. It also contributed to Turkey's US ties; fearful of the Soviet threat, Turkey allied itself with America and joined NATO. It also established close ties with Israel.

Turkey's foreign policy has changed markedly since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative party with Islamist roots. Opposition to Israeli policies has increased, as has hesitation to support US military actions in Iraq. At the same time, Turkey has reached out more to regional states such as Syria and Iran, made some progress on the Armenia and Kurdish issues, and intensified its efforts to join the European Union. These changes have led to a flurry of speculation, including some decrying Turkey's Islamic or Eastern shift, and others claiming its international relations can be explained by economic interests.

Neither approach is completely accurate. Turkey's relations with Israel and the United States are more strained than they were throughout the Cold War, but they do not represent a complete break. And claims of an Islamic shift in Turkish foreign policy are contradicted by the AKP's great efforts to join the EU. Instead, the two can be seen as part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's "Zero-problems" approach to international relations, which involves management of all regional and international issues. This includes regional tensions such as Turkish-Syrian relations and Iran's nuclear program.

At the same time, it would be inaccurate to claim economics or material interests alone are driving these changes. Turkish people I met with did discuss the monetary gains from the AKP's policies, but they also discussed their support for the government in terms of its new approach to democracy, and Turkey's historical and cultural ties to surrounding states. Beyond this, there is the fact that something changed with the AKP; something about this party led to a different approach to foreign policy. The potential economic benefits from trade with Syria and EU membership, and the stability to be gained from resolving the Iran issue were present before the AKP came to power. That is, in order to explain Turkey's current foreign policy, one cannot point solely to these international factors, which for the most part remained constant.

Instead, I would argue, it is something about the AKP that led to these changes. Again, it is not a story of an Islamist party coming to power. Instead, we have a conservative party with a broad base. Their supporters include business interests, religiously-minded voters, and minority groups. And the AKP's leaders have a distinct belief in the important role Turkey should play in international politics, which includes economic, security and religious issues. Religion is important to AKP members and supporters, but as a public value, not an Iranian-style theocracy.

When formulating foreign policy, then, Turkish leaders likely weigh these various interests and concerns. Economic gains must be balanced against security, domestic stability and religious values. At times these point in the same direction; Turkish-Syrian ties satisfy Muslim identification among voters, help Turkish businesses, ease regional tensions, raise Turkey's international profile, and alleviate domestic unrest through economic growth. At other times, these pressures may be counteracting each other, such as in the case of Israel or relations with the United States over Iraq; the increased prestige and domestic support gained through Turkish actions on these issues accompany tensions with allies and possible regional instability.

The answer, as always, is more complicated than most let on. Turkey is not becoming an Islamist or anti-Western state, but it is also not only acting on material incentives. Instead, its domestic politics, the makeup of its governing party, and the current state of the international system have combined to create a unique and dynamic foreign policy.

The important question, then, is what does this mean for the United States? Turkey still values its ties with the United States, and there is a great potential for the United States to work closely with Turkey on issues of common concern, such as regional stability, counterterrorism and trade. But America will have to accept some disagreements over the means through which these goals are achieved, just as it does with other allies like Britain and France.

Turkey's changing foreign policy is not a harbinger of a new multipolar world. It is, however, the first chance for the Obama Administration to act on its vision of a "multi-partner" world, which Secretary of State Clinton has laid out. The manner in which the Administration deals with Turkey, then, will have a great impact on its legacy and the US position in the 21st century international system.