Aaron Stein has argued in these pages that the AKP’s foreign policy is underlined by more realism than idealism. Certainly the party has crafted different policies toward different Arab states. But there’s a larger process at work here that runs deeper than the AKP, and that is the Turkish state’s tendency to think of foreign policy in large, grandiose frameworks conditioned on Turkish leadership. This preference of over-hyping Turkey’s importance has led to short-sighted policies, an inability to anticipate regional and, especially, domestic changes in other countries, and a rigidity that precludes quick enough adaption to these changes.
The notion that Turkey is—or should be—at the center of a multi-regional web of alliances is relatively recent. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk aligned the country toward the West, and while he never intended for Turkey to ignore the Middle East or other bordering regions, he was less interested in playing an important role in their politics. His immediate successors had different ideas about where Turkey’s ultimate interests might lie, but they, too, maintained a Western-oriented foreign policy that followed the American lead on most international issues.
The end of the Cold War in 1991 changed this line of thinking. The end of bipolarity detached Turkey from the Western alliance—at least, that’s what many Western and Turkish policymakers and thinkers wondered. The sudden disappearance of what had been for decades the cornerstone of Turkish foreign policy re-opened internal debates about Turkish identity and its place in the world. Coinciding with the growing strength of Islamist politics and popular identification with Islam, the declining political role of the Turkish Armed Forces (which wasn’t obvious at the time), a momentary lack of American interest in the country, the emergence of a host of new international problems, and a resurgence of a sense of Turkish self-importance, the lack of a foreign policy anchor prompted Ankara to consider a new role for itself in world politics.
And in considering this new role, it thought big. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the “Outer Turks” (Dıs Turkler) of Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics accessible and, in their under-developed state, ripe for tutelage. Turkish leaders matched rhetoric to aspirations: Suleyman Demirel spoke of a massive “Turkic world” stretching from the Adriatic to China ; Turgut Ozal was grander, referring to the 21st century as “the century of the Turks.” As Turkish leaders toured the region, they spoke repeatedly of the Turkish model for the newly-independent republics: a secular, Muslim, democratic, free-market country.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because many Turks—again reinforced by Western observers—said the same thing about the Middle East after the Arab Awakening. But the same conditions that undermined Turkey’s ability to become the big brother to Central Asia and the Caucasus are at play in the Middle East. That Ankara hasn’t learned, even with different leaders and different parties in power, is a deep problem that inhibits the development of a more careful, sustained, long-term foreign policy.
There’s nothing in Turkey’s history that suggests trying to construct a geographically-broad foreign policy based on a single, simple formula of Turkish leadership works. Worse, it undermines Ankara’s ability to craft nuanced, issue- or country-specific policies and fit them into a general framework.
In both Central Asia and the Middle East, Turkey’s focus on large-scale ideas inhibited a closer study of individual countries and sub-regions. In the 1990s Turkey failed to realize how under-developed the republics were—the infusion of investment was far more than Turkey could provide. It also failed to see the internal struggles between different ethnic groups and how this might influence their politics. And it didn’t see Russia’s intent to remain predominant; when the two clashed, Turkey was forced to back down.
Similarly in the Arab world, Turkey doesn’t seem to have realized that the domestic political struggles aren’t over, and that the instability they generate prevents any unified policy. As with Central Asian and even Azerbaijani leaders, Ankara also overestimated the influence it would have over Arab leaders—because it assumed they wanted Turkey’s goodwill and leadership more than they really did. Thus Ankara’s frustration at Bashar al Assad’s complete refusal to address its demands regarding attacks on civilians.
All of this has led to a slow-moving, clunky regional diplomacy that rests on an either-or policy. Either Turkey is actively involved in regional countries, or—because its influence over them is revealed as more mirage than anything else—it must simply wait out events before deciding what to do next. This was the case in Central Asia, which Turkey more or less left after a flurry of official visits, investments, construction plans, and more. (Turkish firms continue to operate in the region, but at a less frenetic pace.) And it’s the case in the Middle East today.
The fault is not all Turkey’s. World politics is an uncertain realm, and Ankara cannot be held accountable for all the decisions by and internal struggles within local states. But what it hasn’t done is incorporate such possibilities in its plans. If it hasn’t realized by now that it needs to, then its delusions of grandeur will remain in place and it will continue to feel left out and buttressed by events instead of working to exert some control over them.
Brent E. Sasley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research interests overlap between Middle East politics and International Relations. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and you can follow him on Twitter @besasley.