Turkey’s determination to develop its strategic autonomy in foreign and security policy has increased since the inception of the AK Party rule in 2002. While Turkey pursued a pro-western/pro-European foreign policy orientation during the first decade of the twenty first century, it has gradually shifted to a more multi-directional and multi-dimensional foreign policy stance as the dynamics of international politics have turned out to become more complicated and multifaceted over the last decade. As the primacy of western powers in global politics has gradually decreased, the willingness of Turkish decision makers to develop more cordial strategic, political and economic relations with the rising powers of the non-western world has simultaneously spiked.
Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, Turkey has increasingly found itself at loggerheads with its traditional allies and partners in the West. The feeling that its western allies do not sympathize with Turkey’s security interests and put Turkey in the crosshair because of the alleged illiberal authoritarian turn in Turkish democracy has strengthened. A defensive nationalist ideology defining Turkey as the underdog and putting the idea of revitalizing Turkish grandeur in the center of all political and economic activities has increasingly shaped the policies of the ruling grand coalition between the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party and Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi/Nationalist Action Party.
While the growing militarization of Turkish foreign policy in recent years, in particular in Syria, Libya, Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus, has been continuously criticized by the majority of western powers, Turkish authorities could establish working relationships with their counterparts in Russia, China and some other countries which have adopted critical views on the continuation of the liberal international order unless it turns out to become more inclusive and participatory. While soft and civilian power practices in Turkish foreign policy were more evident during the first decade of the twenty first century, the last decade has seen the employment of military power instruments at greater scale.
The year 2021 seems to offer both opportunities and risks in Turkey’s international relations, in particular concerning its relations with the West. The first thing to note is that unlike Russia, China and some other non-western countries, Turkey does not dispute the constitutive principles and norms of the liberal international order of which it has been a part since the early years of the Cold War era. Turkey wants the current liberal international order to be redesigned in such a way to make it more inclusive and just. More than half of Turkey’s trade is with western countries and more than seventy percent of foreign direct investment in Turkey is of European origin.
Second, despite some occasional outbursts on the part of Turkish decision makers that Turkey is not without alternatives and if westerners do not want to see Turkey in the West Turkey would seek membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, Turkey’s commitment to NATO and membership negotiations with the European Union still continue. Given the current economic problems at home and the change of guards in the United States, Turkish rulers have in recent months geared up their efforts to underline not only the credentials of Turkey’s western/European identity but also the need to improve relations with western countries. Resuscitating the dormant liberal democratic transformation process at home by undertaking reforms in economy and judiciary, sending high level messages to westerners that Turkey’s commitment to find solutions to its problems with Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean within multilateral platforms and through diplomacy, and conducting backchannel diplomacy to mend fences with Israel and Egypt all testify to Turkey’s determination to have good relations with Western allies. It is also known that Turkey wants the Customs Union with the EU to be updated as well as the parties reach an agreement on visa liberalization.
Third, Turkish decision makers are aware of the fact that Turkey’s coming closer to Russia in recent years does not amount to an iron-clad strategic partnership. Turkey and Russia are at odds with each other not only in Syria but also in Libya and the Caucasus, yet Turkish and Russian leaders seem to have developed a trust-based cooperative relationship investing in diplomatic tools of all sorts.
Fourth, Turkish decision makers are hopeful that with Joe Biden in White House and given the strong American and European commitment to revitalizing the transatlantic relationship, the chances for improving Turkey’s relations with the West will increase in the years to come. The assumption is that Turkey is a swing state with middle power capacity that westerners would not want to lose to the Russian/Chinese camp. However, the risk of losing Turkey will certainly increase should Turkey come under biting economic, political and military sanctions. If the recent American embargo on Turkey’s defense industry in response to Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia paves the way for further American and European attempts at sanctioning Turkey for its alleged misdeeds, Turkey’s estrangement from the West might accelerate. At the end of the day, neither Turkey nor the West would gain anything from this.