The third age of Erdoğan’s foreign policy

Turkey has been forced to adopt a new foreign policy, providing the United States and Europe with a valuable opportunity. We must seize it, and quickly.

Turkish foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seen a number of sharp turns since 2003, with Erdoğan taking stock of global and domestic dynamics, changing the direction of the country back and forth, between Europe and the United States. States and the Middle East.

The country now seems on the verge of a new foreign policy turning point, informed by Erdoğan’s frustrated pivot in the Middle East since 2011 – more specifically his failure to capitalize on the Arab uprisings – and the slowing Turkish economy, which is peeling Erdoğan’s base and forcing him to turn Turkey’s face towards Europe and the West, with which it is economically integrated. Its goal: to restore ties with wealthy Gulf countries and Israel, and build a narrative of good relations with the West – to attract investment, restore economic growth and rebuild its base to win the elections of 2023.

Erdoğan came to power in Turkey 19 years ago, serving as prime minister until 2014 and as president since. So far, its foreign policy can be divided into an initial period of ambitious multilateralism with a strong pro-EU tiltand a subsequent era rooted in hard force and hard bargaining, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood and a Middle East Tilt. Both approaches were rational responses to changing international, national and regional dynamics. This dynamic changed again in 2022, indicating a third evolution.

Erdoğan’s initial foreign policy idealism stemmed from the belief that Ankara’s 1990s approach to its immediate neighborhood – the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq – lacked imagination and the reach beyond NATO was weak.

Despite a powerful military, huge economic potential and socio-cultural ties with neighboring regions, Turkey has barely influenced regional affairs. Turkish diplomatic and intelligence networks, military partnerships and overseas investments have lagged. Overcoming this underperformance would require an optimistic, multidirectional and multidimensional approach, embodied in the slogans “zero problems with neighbours” and “strategic depth”.

This approach made it possible to reach the Kurds of Iraq and even the PKK; Arab-Israeli attempt mediation; reconciliation with Assad’s Syria; nuclear talks with Iran on behalf of President Obama; diplomatic relations with Armenia; improvement of relations with Russia; unification of Cyprus; reforms to facilitate the EU membership; new business ventures in dozens of countries; and significant development and diplomatic engagement in Africa.

The era of optimism ended with a series of disappointments. Assad has taken back much of his country from pro-Turkish rebels, and with it Erdoğan’s hopes of a friendly government in Damascus. Libya has descended into civil war after Gaddafi’s ouster, Israel lost interest in talks with the Palestinians and was deeply moved by Erdoğan’s devotion to Hamas, Iranian influence grew in Iraq and Syriathe EU admitted Cyprus and froze Turkey, while Washington imposed de facto arms embargo against Ankara.

Turkey’s economic position has improved, but Erdoğan has simultaneously lost faith in collective security mechanisms. External disappointments were heightened by the president’s anger at the PKK for resuming its insurgency in 2015, with former liberal partners rallying against it in 2013 Gezi Park protests and the Gulen movement for attempting to undermine and ultimately overthrow his government during the failed coup 2016 attempt.

Subsequently, growing threats on Turkey’s borders — PKK attacks in Turkey from Iraq and Syria, a budding Greek-Cypriot-Israeli-Egyptian Alliance in the eastern Mediterranean, Russian and American unilateral moves across the Middle East – particularly in Syria where both powers have cultivated the PKK’s Syrian franchise, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG) – have shifted Turkish foreign policy towards realpolitik overdrive.

Erdoğan spearheaded the development of a complex power projection system including an improved diplomatic network, accelerated economic exports and agreements, defense industrial self-sufficiency, defense basic and access agreements in Africa, in Europe and Asia, as well as the adoption of a less constrained military and naval doctrine – the latter denies Greece access to much of the eastern Mediterranean. He simultaneously adopted other authoritarian methods at home, limiting potential opposition to his hard power moves. These allowed Erdoğan to prevent a PKK-controlled “terror corridor” along Turkey’s southern border (between 2016 and 2019), pushing the YPG back from the Turkish border and using drones against them. bases and recalcitrants of the PKK inside Iraq, and to conduct sequential actions and successful military campaigns in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, conferring what amounts to a geopolitical veto over Turkish territory and close – often at the expense of Russian allies and proxies.

However, Turkey now faces a changing landscape in 2022 and therefore appears to be moving away for a third time – away from one-sided realpolitik and return to a more nuanced and multilateral approach.

Six key factors are driving current adaptation: American entrenchment; the need to stimulate exports and foreign investment in order to to restart economic growth; the need for diplomacy consolidate the achievements recent military victories in Libya, Syria and the South Caucasus; the need to reverse anti-Turkish alignments in the region; Growing regional competition from Ankara with Russia and Iran; and the impending presidential elections of 2023.

The successful application of Turkish hard power has created a new set of problems: growing Greek-Arab-Israeli security cooperation around Turkey, US cover maneuvers and continued cooperation with the YPG, the turn of the Russia’s hard power in Syria and Ukraine; Iranian reassertion in the Levant; and chaos in Afghanistan.

More importantly, Turkey’s massive foreign debt and weak lira necessitated more trade, investment, and courtesy to Europe and the United States. Europe is a particularly important element of this new alignment: Turkey remains fully integrated economically into the EU – thanks to the customs union in place since 1996, as well as centuries-old bilateral economic, trade and investment relations – despite Erdoğan’s efforts lately. years to make Turkey’s identity more Islamic at home and more Middle Eastern internationally. All these factors presage a return to a multi-axial and less pugnacious foreign policy.

The new approach is already evident in Turkish efforts to facilitate talks between Ukraine and Russia, as well as its ongoing engagement with both the taliban and their Afghan adversaries. High level sensitization in Armenia to establish Diplomatic linksand the steps to restore relations with the United Arab EmiratesSaudi Arabia and Israel reinforce the trend. Turkey has closely coordinated with Washington on Afghanistan and Ukraine, despite the Biden administration’s reference in April 2021 to the 1915 Armenian killings as genocide. He also pursued the purchase of a new F-16 fighter jet to reinvigorate defense links.

These measures are not simply intended to curry favor with the United States or its allies. They are designed to pragmatically reduce tensions at a time when the need for Western financial support and solidarity against revanchist powers, notably Russia, is growing. Despite the lack of Western support for Turkish efforts against the PKK, interests largely overlap regarding Ukraine and Afghanistan, as well as Syrian refugees, Iraq and Africa, where the Turkish presence provides a useful counterweight to Chinese influence. Turkey will continue to cover its strategies with non-Western powers – especially other Turkish states, but also medium-sized partners in Africa, as well as Eurasia, South and Southeast Asia – but interests Commons present significant opportunities for U.S.-Turkish rapprochement that have been exceedingly rare over the past decade.

Without wanting to eliminate the warts in Turkey’s relations with the United States and Europe, the Biden administration must return the favor. The most concrete step would be for Congress to approve the purchase of the F-16 this year, with no delay in seeing whether Erdoğan loses the 2023 election.

The United States should also consider reviving consultations with Turkey on areas of overlapping interest across the “joint mechanism” mentioned by President Biden in October.

The results could bring greater stability to these regions despite the downturn in the United States. The new era of Turkish foreign policy presents a narrowing window of opportunity; keeping Ankara at a distance will push it either towards unilateralism or towards a multilateralism favoring the other great powers.

A Turkey on better terms with its Western partners might have more leeway to resolve some of the most important bilateral irritants for the United States; as during the cold war, liberalization could be the product of security and economic cooperation, rather than a precondition for them.

Col. Rich Outzen (Retired) is a geopolitical consultant and retired foreign area officer who served on the State Department’s Policy Planning Team and as an advisor to several Secretaries of State . He is also a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

Ringer Cagaptay is BeyerFamily Fellow and director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute. His latest book, A sultan in autumn: Erdogan facing the uncontrollable forces of Turkeywas released in September 2021.

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