Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
Mobile Codes 532,533,542,505
ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

Turkish Foreign Policy Evolution and Goals under the AKP Government

By Valeria Giannotta

Turkey’s diversification of its foreign policy goals since the AKP’s first electoral triumph in 2002 has delivered a number of notable results. The AKP continues to consolidate the currents in Ankara’s foreign policy, launching Turkey towards a more assertive and independent role in its neighborhood. Remaining institutionally anchored in the West, the new government, equipped with a huge democratic mandate and the prospect of EU accession, realized that it would also be convenient to forge new relations with the South and the East, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the post-Cold War scenario.

An Independent Foreign Policy in a Multipolar World

In light of this increasing interest and activism in surrounding regions, some commentators have concluded that Turkey is turning away from the West and moving towards the East, pursuing a sort of a ‘Neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy designed to restore Turkey’s regional predominance and to turn it into an independent player in a multipolar world.

In making this case, they have often referred to the ‘strategy of depth’ crafted by current Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. This exemplifies Ankara’s newfound appetite for engaging in all neighboring areas, as a means of gaining recognition for Turkey as simultaneously a European, Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea power.

In fact, these multiple regional identities, as well as Turkey’s historical and cultural legacy, “mandate us (Turkey) a foreign policy that is multifaceted” with the main goal being “to promote good neighborly relations with all, to replace disagreement with cooperation, to seek innovative mechanism and channels to resolve regional conflicts, to encourage positive change in our region, and to build cross-cultural bridges of dialogues and understanding.”[1]

In his 2002 book, Davutoğlu (then an advisor to new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) articulated these efforts for improving relations with neighboring countries, in line with the AKP’s desire to harmonize Turkey’s European and Islamic identities. Since Turkey is located at the center of important ‘geo-cultural basins’ in which the West has interests (the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia), the author argued, it should pursue an activist policy, taking advantage of all opportunities existing in these areas.

According to his point of view – as was the case during the Ottoman Empire – Turkey must serve as the epicenter for regional events, “rediscovering its historic and geographic identity” while “balancing the approach towards all global and regional actors” and building “strong economic linkages with all regional states.”[2]

Under the AKP umbrella, not only has Turkish trade with neighbors increased, but also critical historic relations with countries like Russia, Syria, Iran and Greece have improved. A number of ambitious mediation efforts showed that Ankara would like to become a key regional player. All of these negotiations demonstrate that the AKP is pursuing its ‘zero problems’ policy with neighbors, improving its relations with explicitly Islamic regimes, but also reaching out to non-Islamic governments.[3]

Making clear that its policy is not driven by an Islamic sentiment, Davutoğlu wrote of his aims to balance Turkey’s strategic relationships, rather than to prioritize relations within Turkey’s historical framework of relations with international organizations and a Western orientation. In this trend must be recognized a deep degree of pragmatism which underlines significant continuity, with respect to AKP’S foreign policy activism.[4]

AKP Phases of International Relations

In analyzing Turkey’s international relations during the AKP era, it is possible to identify two different phases. During the first period (2002-2005), continuing the policy of previous governments, the AKP government pushed for Turkey’s full membership in the EU, and sought to improve its economic and democratic performance. After 2005, however, a certain loss of enthusiasm on the focal point of joining the EU, and a deviation towards a ‘soft eastern’ strategy can be discerned.

The AKP has not been homogenous in terms of foreign policy behavior, however, and while in its first wave the foreign policy activism put strong emphasis on Europeanization, more recent developments have increased tensions between Europeanization and Eurasianism. In this context, the shift does not mean a reorientation of foreign policy, but shows a new activism with respect to all neighboring areas, without gravitating firmly around the EU axis, as was the case in the past. What distinguishes this strategy is that the Western orientation is still a strong element of Turkish foreign policy, but will likely continue in a more flexible form.[5]

A number of factors have played a central role in this important change. First, significant internal tensions have emerged over the past several years, as the country has faced the challenge of balancing different components of its identity and cultural, historical and strategic values. Turkey, in fact, is struggling to consolidate democracy while preserving secularism; it will be the interaction of these domestic factors that will determine the critical equilibrium, and the path of this new activism in Turkish foreign policy.[6]

In the past few years of AKP governance, Turkey’s foreign policy was transformed from that of a “hard power” to a ‘soft power,’ and recent internal and external developments have contributed to Ankara’s soft power potential.[7] In other words, there is a close relationship between the degree of secularization of Turkey’s foreign policy – which is traditionally related with the Kemalist legacy, the foundation of the Republic and the role of the military – and the current orientation of the AKP abroad.[8]

In this framework, a deterrence of possible internal and external challengers through the adoption of coercive strategies marked the path of past security practices. Following the collapse of communism and the emerging of regional instabilities in the Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East, the Western credentials of Turkey’s identity were questioned. Given that the EU considers liberal democratic transformation the main criteria of membership, Turkey thus accelerated the process of de-securitization and worked to increase its soft power identity, a sine qua non condition to gain credibility in Western eyes.[9]

Looking at the domestic causes of this transformation, the main element to be considered is the changing character of the civil-military relationship, following the de-securitization process promoted by the government in which previously securitized issues were gradually redefined as political issues. More politicization, in fact, has increased civilian primacy in the process and helped to prioritize negotiations and consensus building as the most important point of conflict resolution.[10]

Without any doubt, this internal dynamics were affected by the patterns of Turkey’s internal politics, based on the important lesson of the ‘February 28 Process’ following a military-led ‘post modern coup’ in 1997, against the pro-Islamist government that was essentially a forerunner of the AKP.[11] And it was under these conditions that the AKP emerged, with the aim of staying in power by trying to take as much civilian control as possible over internal and external politics.[12] Consequently, the party sought to adopt a multilateral and cooperative approach on foreign policies that would minimize the role and relevance of the military.

The AKP government has in fact shown that it believes Turkey to be the legitimate successor to the Ottoman Empire. In this context, the party’s policies indicate that it believes Turkey should play a responsible and proactive role in the maintenance of regional peace and stability. This course of action is perceived as the only way to demonstrate its relevance to the West, by helping Western efforts to deal with emerging security threats.

As has been noted, Turkey’s new soft power identity has been positively affected by recent developments in the Middle East and by the EU accession process.[13] Once the EU decided to formally start accession talks in 2005, people in the Middle East seriously considered the idea that Turkey’s potential accession could help to develop and modernize their own countries and the region. Just as the EU contributed to peace and stability in Central and Eastern Europe through its enlargement process, it was suggested. Turkey could contribute to regional stability in the Middle East and in other critical areas by conveying European and international standards to the area.

Turkey’s soft power identity is nowadays visible in its relations with neighbors: from the economic diplomacy of the current government to its repeated calls to further enhance democracy and freedom in the region. (Not to mention the popularity, and profitability of Turkish soap operas across the Balkans and Central Asia).

The Evolution of AKP Policy and EU, US Relationship Trends

To a significant extent, the evolution of Turkish foreign policy in the AKP era has been conditioned not only by domestic trends but also by US policies in the Middle East, and by the EU approach towards Turkey.

Since the end of the Soviet threat the interests that bound Turkey and the US have grown significantly weaker, and this became clear in March 2003 when the Turkish parliament refused to help Washington by voting against the opening of a northern front for the intervention in Iraq. With this decision, the AKP government intended to show that its concerns about domestic politics, public opinion, good neighborly relations and regional stability took precedence over the strategic relationship with the American partner.

As far as the EU is concerned, the picture is more interesting because the logic of integration has led Turkey to improve its soft power policy for dissolving regional conflicts and consolidating regional alliances through the pursuit of economic interdependence. At the same time, however, the growing anxiety about the exact nature of Turkey’s future relationship with the EU has added additional currency to the idea of pursuing a multifaceted foreign policy.[14]

Indeed, there is a consistent consensus that Turkey is a regional actor that can pursue its own rights and interests in defining its own hegemonic position within the international community. This new orientation suggests that rather than looking outside through the prisms of the West, Turkey should make use of its links with the West to pursue its interests abroad through a rather instrumental approach.

From the AKP government’s point of view, in fact, the EU accession process is seen from this perspective: its value depends on the realization of Turkish economic interests abroad, and on the democratic dynamics domestically.[15] This underlines that the EU accession process has contributed to the improvement of Turkey’s domestic stability, while attracting foreign investment and supporting the interest-based logic of the AKP.

It must be considered, moreover, that unlike the previous, more outspoken Islamic parties AKP does not display euroskepticism; it considers Turkey as belonging to both the European and Islamic civilizations. This is the case even though they do not recognize themselves as European and their aim is to integrate Islamic culture into the European sphere.[16]

At the same time, the intense debate about Turkey’s economic interests and the frustration linked to the slowing accession process in recent years generated a serious nationalistic backlash in Turkey, and strengthened some anti-EU and anti-reform feelings. Without any doubt, these negative signals originated from the accusations made to Europe to be willing to end Turkey’s accession process and push Ankara away from the Europeanization process. Still, even if some important domestic factors have weakened the commitment to membership, the AKP has declared that its attachment to the EU has not changed.[17]

Perceptions of an EU Future amidst a Foreign Policy of Complexity

Arguably, the fact that the AKP represents a broad coalition of interests, encompassing liberals and nationalistic elements within a conservative framework, has reshaped the attitudes of the party to EU membership. Indeed, since 2007 the AKP government has not pushed for key reforms requested by the EU. Together with the strong polarization of Turkish society, this evidences a loss of enthusiasm that has had quite negative effects on the whole process.[18]

What seems to be a shifting point in Turkish relations towards Europe and the West during a time of disappointment and a weakening of EU relations, in reality stresses the co-existence of both Europeanization and Eurasianism in Turkish foreign policy. The main horizon of Turkish foreign policy since the 1990s had been the West, with the EU as its main reference point. Nevertheless, in parallel with this alignment Turkey has taken the role of regional power based on its soft power and a multilateral approach.[19]

In this, the AKP political leadership is attempting to exploit linkages between different dimensions of foreign policy, mediating in various conflict situations and becoming important in enhancing its status as a pivotal power in surrounding regions. AKP foreign policy in recent years has particularly emphasized this mediator, for example opening some channels of dialogue and facilitating some diplomatic contacts role in the Middle East.[20]

Economic Aspects

In addition to and in connection with these diplomatic initiatives, the Turkish economy has become stronger during the AKP government’s rule. The significant trade and investment linkages which characterize Turkey’s foreign economic relations with all neighboring countries enable Turkey to deploy its soft power resources much more effectively. The importance of these growing economic interactions is particularly reflected in foreign policy initiatives involving new actors related with the democratization process.

Therefore, in this new era Turkey’s proactive foreign policy comes off as much more convincing, as it does not automatically mean the rejection of the Europeanization project. What it indicates, however, is that the EU in not the center of Turkey’s external relations anymore- at least not the only one.[21]

Turkey today is taking every chance available to pursue its own national interests. Rather than turning away from the West, Ankara is thus realizing that its neighborhood consists not only of Europe but also the Middle East, the Balkan and the wider Black Sea regions. This new trend indicates a breaking away from the old Kemalist notion of Turkey as a country surrounded by enemies and strategically located in the West; it instead emphasizes the cooperation between Ankara and the neighbors, to provide stability in the region.[22]

However, there are some limits to the effectiveness of this rhythmic diplomacy causing counterproductive impacts, especially if it is managed unilaterally without considering policy alignment with Europe and the US. The 2010 diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey, bilateral relations with Iran and diplomatic contacts with Hamas, all conducted unilaterally, reduced the legitimacy and the effectiveness to these initiatives, led to the interpretation that Ankara is turning away from the EU.

Today, many issues are on Turkey’s agenda, and its success in its chosen new role will depend on how it reacts to conflicts and changes in the regions surrounding it. The Europe-inspired modernization process, in fact, would accelerate Turkey’s transformation into a developed and democratic nation state. But in doing this, Turkey needs to be seen from many perspectives and not only as a deeply religious Muslim state, different from the West and with a Hobbesian approach to security issues.[23]

Without any doubt, relations between the Turkish AKP government and some of the other Middle Eastern countries are helped by that emotional feeling based on shared values and religious beliefs. In general, however, what is motivating all this in the background is Turkish interest to define its own regional political and economic leverage, regardless of previous institutional linkages with the international community.[24]

The European Perspective on Turkey

In the European perspective, therefore, Turkey has to be considered as a strategic crossroad and as a fundamental political, economic and military actor- it should not be forgotten that it has the second-largest military force in NATO. In a rapidly changing domestic and international context in which Turkey represents a large country with a huge population, a growing economy and diverse market, it is obvious that its foreign policy must have goals in line with its welfare.

In fact, there is no rational reason why Turkey should be restricted to only one sphere of influence. Demonstrating a broad and autonomous foreign policy based on a number of relations with different states is a normal goal for all developed countries seeking to strengthen their positions in the international arena.32

EU members are divided as to what conclusions should be drawn from the evolution of Turkey’s new foreign policy. All of them recognize that what Turkey is doing beyond its borders, including in the Middle East, is as important as domestic developments, and can be highly valuable from the point of view of the EU’s own interests.33 None of them would honestly deny that Turkey could contribute to enhancing stability and peace- a main goal of the EU as an international actor.

From the EU accession perspective this new multilateral and multifaceted trend could help provide regional stability and a more peaceful environment. In pragmatic terms, however, some doubts arise- it is a quite difficult task to play peacekeeper and mediator when there are several historically unresolved issues (such as Cyprus), and therefore, difficulties in having a clear and transparent dialogue with all interested parts. Unfortunately, as the Israeli crisis showed, the AKP government still has to improve its negotiation ability based on effective diplomatic skill, and avoid emotional approaches.

[1] A. Murinson,“The Strategic Depth Doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy” in Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 42, n. 6, November 2006.

[2] A. Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007” in Insight Turkey, vol. 10, n.1, 2008, pp.77-96 and A. Davutoğlu, Statejik Derinlik, Bağlam Yayınları, Istanbul, 2001.

[3] K. Buğra Kanat, “AK Party’s Foreign Policy: Is Turkey Turning Away from the West?” in Insight Turkey, vol.12, n.1, 2010, pp. 205-225.

[4] W. Hale, “Turkey and the Middle East in the New Era” in Insight Turkey, vol. 11, n.3, 2009, pp. 143-159.

[5] Z. Öniş and Y. Şuhnaz, “Between Europeanization and Euro-Asianism: Foreign Policy Activism in Turkey during the AKP Era” in Turkish Studies, vol. 10, n.1, March 2009, pp. 7-24.

[6] S. Çağaptay, “Secularism and Foreign Policy in Turkey: New Elections, Troubling Trends” in Washington Institute Policy Focus, n. 67, April 2007.

[7] T. Oğuzlu, “Soft Power in Turkish Foreign Relations” in Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 61, n. 1, 2007, pp. 81-97

[8] N. Danforth, “Ideology and Pragmatism in Turkish Foreign Policy: from Atatürk to the AKP” in Turkish Policy Quarterly, vol. 7, n. 3, pp. 83-95.

[9] L. K. Yanik, “The Metamorphosis of Metaphors of Vision: “Bridging” Turkey’s Location, Role and Identity After the End of the Cold War” in Geopolitics, vol. 14, 2009, pp.531-549.

[10] T. Oğuzlu, “Middle Easternization of Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Does Turkey Dissociate from the West?” in Turkish Studies, vol. 9, n.1, March 2008, pp. 3-20.

[11] The February 28 process followed by a military memorandum forced Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign without suspending Parliament or Constitution. This event signaled the end of that Islamic-oriented government in Turkey.

[12] W. Hale, “Turkey and the Middle East in the New Era” in Insight Turkey, vol. 11, n. 3, 2009, pp. 143-159.

[13] T. Oğuzlu and M. Kibaroğlu, “Is the Westernization Process Losing Pace?” in Turkish Studies, vol. 10, n.4, pp. 577-593, December 2009.

[14] W. Hale and E. Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics, pp. 120-121.

[15] S. Larrabee, ‘How Turkey is Rediscovering the Middle East’, Europe’s World, Autumn 2009.

[16] W. Hale and E. Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, op. cit., pp. 120-121.

[17] K. Barysch, “Can Turkey Combine EU accession and Regional leadership?” Centre for European Reform Policy Brief, January 2010.

[18] M. J. Patton, “AKP Reform Fatigue in Turkey: What has happened to EU Process?” in Mediterranean Politics, vol. 12, n. 3, November 2007, pp. 339-358. See also S. Kiniklioğlu, “Stockholm broken promises and the EU” in Today’s Zaman, February 3, 2010.

[19] A. Finkel, “EU tutelage” in Today’s Zaman, February 16, 2010. See also Z. Öniş and Y. Şuhnaz, “Between Europeanization and Euro-Asianism: Foreign Policy Activism in Turkey during the AKP Era,” in Turkish Studies, vol. 10 n. 1 March 2009, pp. 7-24.

[20] C. Çandar, “Turkey’s Soft Power Strategy: A New Vision for a Multipolar World” in SETA Brief, n. 38, December, 2009.

[21] I. Safi, AKP deputy general secretary, author’s interview, Ankara, April 2010.

[22] L. Elvan, AKP member of Turkish-EU joint parliamentary committee, author’s interview, February 2010.

[23] T. Oğuzlu, “Soft Power in Turkish Foreign Relations.” op. cit.

[24] “Israeli FM report on Turkey annoys its own envoy” in Today’s Zaman, January 28, 2010. See also B. Yinanç, “Israel’s big question: Where is Turkey going?” in Hürriyet Daily News, January 6, 2010. See also “Lieberman criticizes Turkey’s anti-Israeli stance,” Agence France-Press in Hürriyet Daily News, February 9, 2010. See also “Mottaki: Threat to Iran amounts to threat to Turkey” in Today’s Zaman, February 4, 2010. See also C. Sağir, “Turkey Dismisses Missile Threat from neighbouring Iran” in Today’s Zaman, December 23, 2009. See also “Turkey, Saudi Arabia denounce Israel’s settlement policy” in Today’s Zaman, January 4, 2010.

Looking for More Publications?

Find articles in the Central And Eastern European Online Library (CEEOL)

Buy articles and e-books for Amazon Kindle