Will Turkey Now Change its Foreign Policies?

by Graham E. Fuller

It was welcome news that Turkish President Erdo?an was dramatically foiled in his bid to win a majority in Turkey’s recent parliamentary elections. Those election were in essence a referendum on Erdo?an himself and his ambitions to create a super-presidency in which he could legally extend his increasingly authoritarian ruling style for years to come. The Turkish public clearly recognized that Erdo?an had overextended himself and had lost his touch in the increasing self-adulation and erratic ruling style over the past few years. The AKP, even with a plurality of votes, will not now be able to form a government without the participation of one or more opposition political parties.

Washington, which had grown increasingly irritated with Erdo?an’s policies and unpredictable style in recent years now hopes that a new Turkish government, even a coalition, will significantly change Turkey’s foreign policy strategies and tactics.

Don’t bet on it. Despite Erdo?an’s personal excesses and recent poor judgment in foreign policy, the main thrust of his earlier foreign policies is unlikely to change significantly. While we can’t know yet what kind of ruling coalition will emerge in the weeks ahead, no combination will dramatically change the substance of Turkish policies.

In my book of last year, “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Turkey and Leadership in the Middle East” I set forth detailed arguments for why AKP foreign policy in its first decade of rule (up until the turmoil of the Arab Spring) represented a new, profound, substantive, and permanent strategic shift in Turkey’s foreign policy vision.

What are those key elements of AKP strategy?

-1 As a “lite” Islamist party, the AKP moved to embrace and celebrate Turkey’s Islamic heritage and identity, much to the approbation of a majority of Turks; that identity had been suppressed under previous decades of imposed, official, authoritarian secularism that alienated large segments of the traditional Turkish population. The AKP moved to acknowledge and embrace Turkey’s central role in the past centuries of Middle Eastern history in the form of the Ottoman Empire. In this sense it represented “the return of history”—Turkey’s re-acknowledgment of itself as, among other things, a Middle Eastern culture.

-2 The AKP moved to distance itself from key US policies in the Middle East which it had judged to be flawed, failing, and, above all, harmful to Turkey’s own interests: US refusals to negotiate or deal with its chief opponents in the region (Iran, Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and Saddam’s Iraq); coupled with the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; and US unconditional backing of Israel).

-3 Foreign minister Davuto?lu proclaimed a new policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” That meant abandoning its long-term ideological hostility against virtually all of Turkey’s neighbors and working to reach accommodation on all bilateral issues where possible. Ankara’s new relations were revolutionized in respect to Iran, Syria, Iraq, Hamas, Hizballah, as well as with Russia and China—efforts that were hugely successful in promoting Turkish economic and political interests in these regions. “Zero problems with neighbors” actually embraced a new ideological open-mindedness and flexibility, very much at odds with US policies that were quick to brand countries and leaders as enemies; in Davuto?lu’s view, how you address another country can heavily influence your relations with it.

-4 A new sensitivity to Arab issues and a desire to witness the spread of democratic values whose absence Davuto?lu saw as a key source of the region’s weakness. But Turkey nonetheless accepted existing rulers of the day as a reality.

-5 A “global” vision of Turkey’s place in the world that included a Eurasian dimension (close relations with Russia, China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Central Asian states), expansion of interests and ties into Africa (especially Muslim Africa), and even early forays into Latin America. Turkey proclaimed its interest in preserving Islamic culture across the Muslim world and bolstering Islamic development.

-6 Ankara encouraged the spread of high-quality Turkish schools in over 100 countries under the aegis of Fethullah Gülen’s huge Islamic civic organization Hizmet (Service) whose vision openly championed building schools, not mosques, as the best way to advance the Muslim world as a whole. (Ironically, Erdo?an later came to feel threatened by the Islamic credentials and growing power of Hizmet, especially in its willingness to call out the AKP government on corruption issues; Erdo?an has since proceeded to demonize his former ally and conduct an hysterical and obsessive witch hunt against it.)

In short, Turkey saw itself as becoming a significant major player with a broad visionary foreign policy while its economy attained the position of number sixteen in the world, becoming a new international hub. Turkey was democratic, it removed the military from politics for the first time ever, had a powerful army that was part of NATO, all while bidding to meet EU criteria for membership. Most Muslim states would have given their eye teeth for accomplishments like this, especially when coupled with AKP’s confidence in being able to still say no to the US on key foreign policy issues.

Whatever new government emerges in Turkey, these milestones will almost surely persist. Turkey is never going back to being a “loyal American ally.” It will never again deny its Islamic identity (although it will likely downplay some of the Islamic rhetoric). It will not destroy the valuable international network of Hizmet schools. It will not reject the foundations of Turkey’s broad political, economic and cultural soft and hard power. Turkey will not cease to be the most important Muslim country in the world—without benefit of oil.

But then Turkey’s foreign policy went off the rails with the roller coaster events of the Arab Spring. (So did America’s). It could not decide whether to deal with existing realities, or to push for democratic change that would alienate authoritarian rulers. Erdo?an’s personal prestige got particularly caught up in overthrowing Asad in Syria at all cost, a massive mistake. A new government will likely walk back from that blunder. A new government will also be less sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood (but will not condemn it.) It will work with Iran as a vitally important neighbor. It will not give up its Eurasian (Russian, Chinese) ties. It will maintain its strategic independence from Washington.

So we should welcome the curtailing of much of Erdo?an’s new and dangerous megalomania and personal ambitions. But don’t expect any new government to introduce dramatic changes in foreign policy either.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com. This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.

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  1. I appreciate this fine, informative article. The one point of contention I have with it is its optimism about the new government walking back certain policies such as the one regarding Asad in Syria. I’m afraid that’s a long term strategy Turkey has adopted and it’s going to stick to that. For all practical purposes it seems Turkey has adopted a policy of breaking up Iraq and Syria to carve out a Sunni Arab chunk right in the middle. And it’s using ISIS to achieve that goal. I see that move as a way of keeping Iran even further away from Syria by having a chaotic buffer in the middle. I also see that as a way of creating another enemy for the Kurds to keep them tied up for the next few decades to prevent any rise of a powerful Kurdish state that could foment unrest in Turkey’s significant Kurdish population.

    I do agree with the author’s assertion about the economic implications though and that could change the strategey. Erdogan’s rise was due to the immense economic benefits of his initially conciliatory policies toward its neighbors. Should the current, more assertive and hostile policies antagonize the neighbors enough that it would reverse the economic fortunes of Turkey I believe all will be lost and Erdogan will turn into just a blip in history instead of the new Ataturk he desires to be. He has for sure been playing with fire in the way he has practically embraced ISIS as a useful tool for achieving the policy of carving out that Sunni chunk.

  2. I disagree. The AKP desperately wants to get out of Syria’s quagmire. It has gone from disaster to disaster in a spiral of failures. These are costing billions of dollars and creating increasing instability in the country. For the AKP, the fact it has lost the majority and must share the decision power with another party would be the best chance to get a face saving exit. The CHP wants to send all the refugees back to Syria after making a deal with the Syrian government, a policy supported by the majority of the Turks. The leader of the CHP is Alevi, more sympathetic to the Syrian Alawites than Sunni Erdogan.
    This is a unique chance for the AKP to restoree his old glory that has been tainted since Erdogan started his Moslem Brotherhood obsessive ‘crescentade’ in Syria, Libya and Egypt.
    Erdogan’s ego has come out been psychologically wounded by the election results. It was more than a slap on his face In the post-election pictures, he looks like a man struggling against a depression.
    Unless he recovers and find a trick to get back the majority, we will see an important U-turn in Turkey’s foreign policy on Syria, We already see Israel come back in Turkey, a renewed interest in Europe and the eventual withdrawal of Saudi Arabia from the Turkey-Qatar-KSA anti Syria coalition.
    These are signs that the war in Syria may be now at its last stage.

  3. Virgile, they don’t have troops involved and so I’m not sure whether they even perceive this as a quagmire or just a regular mess that hasn’t sorted itself out yet. But regardless, while I agree that for the most part Syria hasn’t gone as planned, if AKP is going to get out of this mess I don’t see the telling signs. Have you seen anything that indicates they have stopped being a gateway and a tunnel for ISIS recruits? Are they making things any easier for Kurds? Have they stopped buying oil from ISIS? They are the regional power closest and best equipped to militarily take on ISIS and we don’t see them even lift a finger. If they were serious about removing the ISIS threat they might want to start by reversing some of their policies that nurtured ISIS in the first place. Israel is pretty much doing the same thing as Turkey in the south, shielding and nurturing ISIS affiliates and even providing peripheral support, e.g. medical aid. If Turkey is trying to get out of the anti-Syria coalition why are they re-normalizing relations with Israel who is intensifying their efforts and fueling instability? I’m seeing too many signals to the contrary. Maybe we’ll see those reversals when the economy pays the price of these foreign policy blunders, or if and when Turkey starts experiencing ISIS blowback (because if they want their old Califade back Turkey is part of it, is it not?) on Turkish soil.

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