Visionary Failure: on Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Visionary Failure: on Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Following Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election as Turkey’s president in August 2014, the governing Justice and Development Party announced that the new prime minister would be Ahmet Davutoğlu, an international relations scholar who rose to prominence as foreign policy advisor to Erdoğan in the 2000s, and has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2009. Pundits attribute his meteoric rise in domestic politics to his ability to earn Erdoğan’s trust in a fast-changing political landscape. Davutoğlu and his team are hailed as foreign policy visionaries in the government circles, so one expects his nomination as prime minister to be an acknowledgment of their achievements in that area, too. Yet, it is precisely the unravelling of that vision that will challenge the new government.

Erdoğan and his followers have time and again expressed the ambition to build the ‘New Turkey’, described as a country in which all citizens enjoy democracy and respect for fundamental rights, even though it appears more and more like a competitive authoritarian regime to its critics these days. Rethinking Turkey’s foreign policy choices has been part of that ambition since the Justice and Development Party’s rise to power in 2002. Erdoğan’s foreign policy team, which included Davutoğlu, diagnosed the nation’s diplomatic tradition since the foundation of the republic as suffering from three predicaments. First, Turkey did not live up to its political and economic potential in its dealings with the region because it lacked a grand vision.

[1] Second, and related to first, the secular republican elite’s disdain for the Islamic civilization prevented Turkey from realizing its historic role as heir state to the Ottoman Empire. Third, the elite’s choice for isolationism limited foreign policy to anemic diplomatic relations, thereby ignoring proactive engagement with the world.[2]

Davutoğlu’s call for “strategic depth”[3] was presented as a visionary approach in the mid-2000s.[4] Accordingly, Turkey would engage its surroundings (and especially the Middle East) to assume a leadership role, using instruments of soft power (i.e. commercial relations, track-two diplomacy and cultural assets). The vision projected a win-win scenario: Turkey would make the most of its economic and political potential; Middle Eastern regimes would appreciate the mediation of a sympathetic country in their often-hostile relations with the West; and the West would find in Turkey an enthusiastic partner at a time when the American involvement in the Middle East looked like an unmitigated disaster.[5] Toward that end the government introduced policy shifts: commercial ties with the neighbours and the Gulf states were strengthened,[6] Turkey’s official aid spending reached unprecedented levels,[7] inter-civilization dialogue initiatives were supported, and of course, the political leadership did not ignore the charm offensive factor in winning over the region’s rulers – the Erdoğan and Assad families’ vacation in Western Turkey in 2008 is an unforgettable if distant reminder of those days.[8]

Yet, the win-win plan was based on rather shaky premises that did not survive the Arab Spring. Davutoğlu’s vision did not specify whether soft power had to be backed by military muscle –a tolerable omission when the government was trying to improve relations with what they saw as Bashar al-Assad’s enlightened despotism throughout the 2000s–, but a fatal one when Assad’s crackdown on anti-regime protests provoked a civil war in Syria in 2011. The misunderstanding of power relations was accompanied by a lack of transparency and consensus in policy-making. The Turkish public was told that they were going to reclaim regional leadership, following the footsteps of the Ottomans, but there was no discussion of the potential costs, let alone the risk of putting Turkish citizens in harm’s way. The foreign policy discourse shifted suddenly from praise of Turkey’s increasing trade volume and the popularity of Turkish soap operas in the Middle East to arming rebels and controlling refugee flows around late 2011. Since then, citizens (and perhaps authorities) have lost track of whom and what is moving in and out of the southern border.

Furthermore, the foreign policy elite appear no better informed about the dynamics of the Middle East than the Western interventionists they rightfully criticize. Davutoğlu has repeatedly expressed his hope for a quick victory against Assad in Syria, which reveals the extent to which he miscalculated that regime’s strength, as well as Russia’s and Iran’s resolve in supporting it. Turkey is assumed to have supplied the Sunni rebels with arms and funding in Iraq and Syria,[9] but it is unclear who exactly was supported, and to what end. As of late 2014, Turkey seems to have lost control over what is going on in large sections of Iraq and Syria –much like the rest of the international community, but suffering the consequences much more directly.

The visionary qualities of the leadership are questionable, too. Erdoğan’s rants against Israel look terribly anachronistic at a time when the Palestinian leadership seeks to achieve desired goals through international recognition[10] and pro-Palestinian groups around the world engage in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns. Nasser-style posturing rouses crowds, but has no strategic value. One expects a visionary leadership to secure Turkey a seat at the table during regional crises, but the country is nowhere near its projected goal of becoming a regional or global decision-maker. Turkey’s failure to gain a seat at the United Nations (UN) Security Council in October 2014 (receiving 60 votes, down from the 151 it received in 2008) is just another reminder of the gap between the government’s self-presentation and global perceptions.[11]Erdoğan enjoys presenting himself as a world leader in domestic rallies, but in reality no regional or global actor (Israel or Hamas, Iran or the US, Ukraine or Russia) sees in Turkey’s leadership the capacity to resolve crisis situations.  

Erdoğan’s and Davutoğlu’s diagnosis of Turkish foreign policy before them is wrong-headed. The founding fathers of the republic chose non-interventionism and foreign policy minimalism, not because they were timid, unimaginative, and unappreciative of the Middle East, but because they experienced the disaster of the Balkan Wars, World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in less than a decade. War was no joke for that generation. Many of their problematic domestic and foreign policy choices notwithstanding, that generation’s vision of foreign policy helped Turkish citizens avoid bloodbaths –among them WW II, any potential conflict during the Cold War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Gulf War. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and undertook limited cross-border operations against the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK) rebels in the 1990s, but these involvements stand out as exceptions in a history of avoiding international conflict. The adventure-free foreign policy tradition remains one of the most precious yet underappreciated achievements of earlier generations.

Needless to say, there is much to criticize about this tradition. First and foremost, Turkey’s self-isolation has meant that it has never taken an active stance in defending democracy or human rights on principled grounds. The country has had a wilfully ambiguous immigration and naturalization regime to deter asylum-seekers. The paranoia of foreign invasion has strained Turkey’s relations with almost all of its neighbours until recently, and produced a sense of ontological insecurity in its dealings with powerful states as well as domestic dissent. Today’s foreign policy elite could have addressed these failures with a genuinely cosmopolitan, outward-looking and confident attitude, but it has missed a valuable opportunity by jumping on the bandwagon of neighbouring civil wars.

Can Turkey keep its foreign policy adventure-free in the midst of the regional conflagration unfolding in Iraq and Syria? I believe it is possible and necessary to say ‘no’ to isolationism and unwarranted adventures at the same time. Turkish troops have no business in Syria for two reasons: first, none of the actors on the ground is asking for it. The Kurds in Northern Syria expected Turkey to do much more to help in the regional fight against the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), but the Kurdish outrage at Turkey’s position during the siege of Kobane was about Davutoğlu’s refusal to open a humanitarian corridor across the border or enhance coordination between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq and Kobane, and the government’s overall ambiguous, if not mildly apologetic, rhetoric towards ISIS. The Kurds (or any domestic actor in Iraq and Syria, for that matter) did not want the Turkish Armed Forces to carry out the fight for them. Second, Turkey’s insistence on regime change in Syria does not provide a legal or political rationale for foreign military involvement. What is going to be the endgame once Assad is out? Who is going to fill the power vacuum? What reason do we have to believe that the Turkish government’s dream of regime change in Syria will bring peace and democracy to that country?

Yet, caution against a military adventure is not a call for total isolationism. Turkey should face the fact that there is no going back to the pre-1991 status quo of stable nation-states in the region. Baghdad’s loss of control over Northern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991, the failure of the U.S. occupation forces to set up a functional central government in the wake of the 2003 invasion, and the civil war in Syria have made such an outcome nearly impossible. Davutoğlu’s initial idea of promoting electoral democracy through moderate Islamist parties across the region will not work, either, least because no such actor is to be found in Iraq or Syria these days. Nobody knows if the uncontrollable advance of ISIS will continue, but either way Turkey’s likely neighbours in what used to be Syria will be the autonomous Kurdish government, a weakened version of the Damascus government, and a number of Sunni rebel groups (which may or may not include ISIS) that the Turkish state is incapable of controlling at this point. If Turkey continues its policy of supporting the rebels without projecting a foreseeable endgame, it will probably achieve none of its stated goals and alienate the Kurds further. A proactive and wise policy option would be to work closely with the Syrian Kurds, who (unlike ISIS) have always been there and are there to stay for the long-run, and build a future in which the Turkish state and the Kurds in the region see in each other allies rather than threats. In terms of the broader question of Syria, Turkey’s best option is to abandon its single-minded policy of ousting Assad and instead gain a seat at the negotiating table with the Syrian regime, the rebels, Iran, Russia, the United States and all other concerned actors. Proactive and open-minded diplomacy can help Turkey minimize its losses and rebuild its reputation as a regional peace builder.

Future options look dire for Turkey. The war in Syria keeps draining resources, and it is unclear whether the effort helps the Turkish policy-makers reach their goals – or what those goals are. More than 1 million Syrian refugees have entered the country, and there is no concerted policy to incorporate them.[12] In an effort to calm down increasing (and increasingly racist) reactions against the Syrians, the government says the refugees will go back home soon, but that is nearly impossible. As of this writing, the ISIS advance is coming to a halt as a result of U.S. airstrikes and the resistance in Kobane, but it is unclear how the power vacuum will be filled even in the unlikely event of a quick victory over ISIS.

Despite all the ominous developments, Turkey can still play a constructive role in the region. Davutoğlu and the ruling elite should abandon their failed vision of letting an unwinnable war continue in the hope of a quick regime change, and should not even consider involving Turkish troops in that war. Instead, they should build upon the country’s most prized achievement in the last 90 years: adventure-free foreign policy. A Turkey that all actors listen to and take seriously is way more powerful than a Turkey that plays dangerous games. The generation of 1914 learned it the hard way, but we do not have to.

Dr. Onur Bakıner, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Seattle University

Please cite this publication as follows:
Bakıner O. (December, 2014), “Visionary Failure: on Turkey’s Foreign Policy”, Vol. III, Issue 12, pp.54-60, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


[1] For Davutoğlu’s defence of a renewed interest in vision and agency in foreign policy, see: Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Principles of Turkish foreign policy and regional political structuring.” SAM Vision Papers 3 (2012).

[2] For Turkey’s “greater activism in the Middle East” in the recent past, see: F. Stephen Larrabee, “Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East.” Foreign Affairs (2007): 103-114.

[3]Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth) (İstanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001).

[4]Svante E. Cornell, “What drives Turkish foreign policy?” Middle East Quarterly (2012).

[5] Davutoğlu summarizes the tenets of this new policy of prioritizing Turkey’s “civil-economic power” in a 2010 op-ed. Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s zero-problems foreign policy.” Foreign Policy 20 (2010).

[6] Turkey has sought to expand trade with all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, but the trade volume with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been significantly greater. Haim Malka, “Turkey and the Middle East. Rebalancing Interests.” In Turkey’s Evolving Dynamics. Strategic Choices for US-Turkey Relations, Washington, CSIS (2009): 55-7. Also see: Şaban Kardaş, “Turkey and the Gulf Dialogue in the Middle East.” TESEV Foreign Policy Program, November 2012.

[7]Özkan, Güner, and Mustafa Turgut Demirtepe. “Transformation of a Development Aid Agency: TIKA in a Changing Domestic and International Setting.” Turkish Studies 13(4) (2012): 647-664.

[8] For an optimistic view on the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria around 2008, see: Sami Moubayed, “Turkish-Syrian Relations: The Erdogan Legacy.” SETA Policy Brief, October 2008.

[9] “Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S.,” New York Times, October 7, 2014; Patrick Cockburn, “Whose Side is Turkey on?” London Review of Books 36(21) (2014): 8-10.

[10] More than 30 countries have recognized the State of Palestine since 2005, bringing the total number to 135. As of November 2014, Sweden recognized Palestine, and the debate is ongoing in countries like the UK. See: “Sweden Gives Recognition to Palestinians,” New York Times, October 30, 2014; “MPs’ vote on Palestine state recognition is part of growing international trend,” Guardian, October 13, 2014.

[11] “UNSC Failure a Strong Message to Turkey on its Faulty Foreign Policy,” Today’s Zaman, October 17, 2014.

[12] Estimates vary between 1 and 2 million. The UNHCR estimates a total of 1,065,902 “persons of concern”. Available at:



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