A Case for Caution in Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkish foreign and security policy adventurism has seen an unprecedented rise under the AKP, but in order to preserve its vital interests Turkey should return to its cautious and impartial roots
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For more than a decade, “daring” has been the operative keyword in Turkish foreign policy at the expense of “caution”. This trajectory developed in two primary ways. First, Ankara increasingly came to challenge its Western allies and their policies towards actors and developments in Turkey’s vicinity. An early warning of this tendency can be seen in Turkey’s vote against sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council in 2010, a move that may once have been considered unthinkable. Second, Ankara turned its back on the conventionally non-interventionist practices of classic Turkish foreign policy that value reciprocal respect of sovereignty and avoidance of Middle Eastern entanglements. Since the end of the early 2000s, Turkey has become increasingly prone to picking sides in contentious matters throughout the Middle East.

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While such trends may have first become visible in Turkey’s confrontational stance vis-à-vis Israel beginning with Tel Aviv’s December 2008 operations in Gaza, Turkish involvement in the Middle East has now grown to unprecedented heights. In Syria, for example, after failing to achieve affecting any sort of democratic reform in the country, Turkey hosted Syrian opposition within its territory and provided them military assistance in their armed struggle against the Assad regime. 

Additionally, Turkey supported Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi, complete with his Islamist leanings and undeniable connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. This support of Cairo transformed into a bitter hostility when Morsi was toppled by the Egyptian military in 2013.  Before these massive shifts in its approach to the region, Turkey prioritized and touted its ability to assume a mediatory position and hold talks with multiple parties involved in interstate and domestic disputes. Over the last ten years, however, Turkish decision-makers seem to have made an about-turn from this neutral approach.

After the Arab Uprisings of the 2010s, Turkey’s economic and democratic indicators, as well as its relations with neighbors, went on a downward slide. Nonetheless, despite its shrinking room for maneuver, Turkish policy-makers rarely pumped the brakes when it came to taking risks. On the contrary, Turkey’s adventurist foreign policy accelerated, dizzying onlookers in the aftermath of the country’s 15 July 2016 coup attempt. Turkey unilaterally intervened in Syria despite heavy criticism from its Western allies and the threat of direct military confrontation with the US. Ankara then went on to procure Russian-made S-400 air defense missile systems, thereby terminating its participation in the US’s F-35 advanced fighter jet program and ultimately causing its allies, and the world, to question its core security commitments to NATO. Also, Turkey’s dramatic declaration that it would open its gates to Europe for refugees despite the 2016 deal was a nightmare for Turkish-European Union relations. Moreover, Turkey’s involvement in Libya and its recent positioning in the Eastern Mediterranean with respect to energy exploration and the delimitation of maritime borders has brought it to the brink of conflict with Greece.

Most of the AKP’s supporters saw this type brinkmanship as a natural outcome of increased experience on the part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Indeed, he has even attributed this tendency to his elevation from “apprenticeship to mastery” over the course of his three consecutive terms in Turkey’s top political office. Thus, the longer that Erdogan has stayed in power, the more he has been able to take risks, especially in the eyes of his followers. Some of the country’s nationalist elites prefer to see such blatant recklessness in the face of Turkey’s traditional alliances as illustrative of the country’s ability to engage in major power politics. For them, Turkey’s unilateral incursions in Syria and Libya are simply early steps on the way to their country’s inevitable rise to great power status. Even for some secularists, this daring approach defies “Islamist” or “nationalist” definitions and marks the emergence of an independent Turkey capable of making its own decisions.

A Return to Caution

Turkish decision-makers should start to seriously consider downshifting back to “caution” in foreign affairs. The risks Turkey is taking are rapidly approaching the boundaries of what is manageable and fly in the face of decades of work to maximize the countries’ true interests. A country with an expanding economy using its soft power to exert influence is one thing, but a country with a faltering economy engaging in militaristic adventurism despite the warnings of its allies is another.

Decision-makers should shift their focus to securing Turkey’s vital interests rather than moving full speed ahead into uncharted waters. First, Turkey needs to stop sending mixed messages about the future of its strategic relations and reassure its Western allies of its commitment to NATO. Turkey’s inclusion under the alliance’s nuclear and conventional umbrella is indispensable, especially considering the country’s dangerous neighborhood. Besides, Europe is still Turkey’s main economic partner and may yet contribute to the development of democracy and rule of law in the country. Ankara should stop blackmailing the EU with refugees and instead focus on deepening their partnership and on developing a long-term solution to the refugee crisis.

All of this isn’t to say that Turkey should cut its ties with the other major powers. Indeed, a multifaceted approach that doesn’t rely solely on relations with major powers is welcome in a world undergoing a “pluralization of diplomacy”. With this in mind, it needs to be said that despite its purchase the S-400 systems, Turkey might find it difficult to build bilateral relations with Russia based on trust.

Turkey should refrain from engaging in military excursions that are not explicitly tied to its security. Ataturk’s notion that wars void of defensive intents can equate to murder should be regarded. Turkey’s recent military activities in Syria and Libya are neither militarily, financially, nor diplomatically sustainable in the long-term. Turkey should start to seek out agreements that would protect its vital interests in return for a withdrawal of its military from foreign soil. Similarly, a naval confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean only enables Greece to portray itself as morally superior and solidifies Western support for the Greek approach to matter. Turkey should pursue a détente with Israel and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean before it’s too late and solve its differences with Greece through diplomacy and negotiation.

In short, Turkey has exhibited a tendency to punch above its weight in recent years. It needs to return to caution in its external affairs, focus on its vital interests, and avoid accumulating unnecessary liabilities. In order achieve this, Ankara should work to restore faith in its alliances with the West and be consistent in its messaging and positioning vis-à-vis major powers. Last but not least, Turkey should avoid further military entanglements and prioritize diplomacy over the application of hard power.