The Role of Domestic Political Gamesmanship on Turkey’s Unpredictable Foreign Policy
Fouad Pervez, PhD Candidate, Georgetown University
This paper was submitted as part of the Rumi Forum Fellowship program.
Over the past decade, Turkey has emerged as a major political and economic player in the Middle East, Europe, and the world overall. During the period that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated domestic politics, Turkey experienced strong economic growth, outside of the global recession. Foreign investment flows increased substantially into the country, and it has become one of the main tourist locations in the globe. However, in recent years, Turkey’s foreign policy has becoming increasingly aggressive and interventionist, shifting away from the “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Turkey has increasingly shifted its interests from the West to the Middle East, and has become increasingly entangled in conflicts in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq. This change in foreign policy has concerned many both inside and outside of Turkey, and may cause serious problems in the near future.
European Union Issues
For much of the past decade, Turkey attempted to gain membership to the European Union. This move was touted as a way to gain better access to European markets, improve Turkey’s standing in the world, and help the EU and Turkish economy through migration, by providing Europe a large, primarily young, workforce and provide jobs for Turkish citizens. However, this major foreign policy initiative has become derailed in recent years, due to both Turkish domestic politics, and a rise in anti-immigrant xenophobia in Europe, both of which might be fueled by economic slowdowns.
On the Turkish side, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), particularly Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, have shifted away from their democratic push when they first came to power towards a more authoritarian state. This reversal from vibrant democracy includes limits on press freedom, attacking institutions not lining up directly behind them, and a harsh crackdown through the police on opposition groups, most visibly evidenced by last summer’s actions in Gezi Park and throughout the country. Erdogan also gave loyalists an increasing share of state power, and went so far as to try to have the inflation rate set to zero percent, something the central bank stopped from happening. These moves, aimed at consolidating power for the AKP domestically, have had negative repercussions abroad, particularly with Europe. The EU accession process is lengthy and complicated, but there is a particular emphasis on human rights and economic liberalism. Not surprisingly, European Union leaders were very critical of Erdogan’s policies. France and Germany, the two main powers in the EU, have often expressed concerns about full EU membership for Turkey, and German chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly called for a “privileged partnership”, but not full EU membership, for Turkey.Europe’s financial woes have only made matters worse, as anti-immigrant sentiment has risen in the continent. This, coupled with concerns about troubling domestic policies in Turkey, has led to a large majority of Europeans opposing Turkey joining the EU. In response to European leaders’ criticisms, the AKP, especially Erdogan, have offered harsh public rebukes that EU leaders are not likely to soon forget.  The Turkish public, seeing European attitudes and taking public cues from their own leaders, has not surprisingly decreased its support dramatically for EU membership, down thirty percentage points from a decade earlier.
Discussions with faculty members at Zirve University in Turkey highlighted the issues with Turkey’s (and Europe’s) domestic politics and foreign economic policy. For the AKP, business growth is its biggest selling point, and the EU is its main trading partner. Thus, EU accession would be a huge boom for the regime, since accession would have many positive economic outcomes. However, in efforts to control the domestic political environment, Erdogan and the AKP may have incorrectly gambled that the EU would overlook their transgressions. Alternatively, the EU accession process may have all been part of a cover to limit military influence over the government. As part of joining the EU, Turkey had to commit to strong democratic principles, which necessitated limiting the military’s power. Given the history of the Turkish military overthrowing regimes, and the military’s history of opposing religious parties, the AKP might have used the EU accession process as an excuse to further their own political survival, while having limited intentions of actually joining. Not surprisingly, given the fragility of the economy in Turkey, political leaders are, once again, touting EU membership. This raises the concern that, if and when the economy rebounds, the AKP might shift rhetoric back to an anti-EU stance.
Overall, it seems domestic politics played a major role, in some shape or form, in Turkey’s EU accession process, and given the economic importance of the EU and the constant changes in posture from Turkey, this shows the unpredictability of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
Syria, neo-Ottomanism, and Irritating Allies
Whereas Turkey has seemed to look away from its most vital economic partner in Europe, it has increasingly shifted attention to the Middle East. This can be seen in its role in trying to mediate between Palestinians and Israelis, America and Iran, and its role in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. There was even speculation that Turkey was using Turkish Airlines to ship weapons to Nigeria, possibly for Boko Haram. Much of this new interventionism appears to be due to Turkey overestimating its power and influence, which may have led Turkey to move from “no problems with neighbors” to a much more interventionist role, something that is causing the country serious issues today.
Turkish foreign policy in the region started changing in the late 2000s. The government began establishing ties with questionable governments in the Middle East, most notably Syria, Iran, and Sudan. It opted for close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. These moves were all risky, and most of them backfired, but most telling, they were a deviation from Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East prior to that point. Indeed, Turkey was mostly focused on Europe, and did not involve itself in the politics of other countries very actively. A major reason for this shift may be an overestimation of their regional influence. Given their strong economic growth and their rising global standing, Turkey seemed to think they had more influence in the Middle East than they actually did. This overconfidence in their abilities may have either caused, or been the result of, a neo-Ottoman vision for the region. The AKP’s Islamist background, which they did not play up much early during their rule, may also have played a role in them trying to orient themselves more to the Islamic world versus Europe.
The result of this has been a far more interventionist Turkish government with respect to the Middle East. However, playing this role has neither been very easy or very successful for Turkey thus far. They simply do not have the pull over regional leaders that they thought they did. Indeed, the only “success” is with Libya, and in that case, Turkey was very cautious about involvement. They didn’t really become involved in helping oust Qaddafi until the very end, as they were wary of the risks to the high amount of their capital invested in Libya. They tried to convince the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to run their regime similar to the AKP’s, but they were largely ignored, and their overreach may have indirectly led to the military intervention. They assumed they could get Assad to compromise in Syria, but he also ignored them. In response, they became one of the main players in the Syrian conflict. They backed Sunni rebels against any minority forces, possibly to limit Kurdish power in a post-Assad Syria. Backing Sunni groups created some tensions with Iran and Iraq, angering even more countries in the region.
Turkey’s desire for regional power means they are fully committed to toppling Assad, though this strategy has caused great instability in the region, and has been particularly stressful for Turkey. Turkey is rumored to have funneled American, British, and Saudi Arabian arms to Sunni Syrian rebels, some of whom became ISIS. Faculty at Zirve University noted Turkey’s difficult role in the conflict, one in which they forced themselves into. They bear the consequences of the instability in arming ISIS fighters (and other rebels), seen by over 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and ethnic tensions with Kurds, whom the NSA helped them spy on, and whom they bombed this recently instead of ISIL.-The huge border between Turkey and Syria is fairly porous, something we could see this summer when we were near Syria. Thus, there may be ISIS fighters in Turkey, something that cannot bode well for the country. Additionally, the expense associated with such a large refugee population is not minor, and that huge influx of people puts a strain on resources for those communities living near the border.
Finally, the shift to a more interventionist role has caused issues within old Turkish alliances. In an effort to have more military capability and independence, Turkey pursued a missile defense system from China, as opposed to one from NATO allies. The system may not even be interoperable with NATO. This move certainly frustrated NATO members, which is problematic given how important NATO is to Turkey. 
Another key example is Erdogan’s efforts to get into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a pretty clear jab towards the European Union, particularly because it seems unlikely that Turkey will be admitted to this group. This, coupled with some of the odd alliances, represents a source of frustration for Turkey’s allies, who see Turkey’s new activist stance in the region as driving many potential sources of instability. Again, this shift seems to stem from domestic politics, particularly a view of neo-Ottomanism, and not strategic decision-making.
A Reversal, or More of the Same?
As highlighted, I argue that domestic political gamesmanship over the past decade explains much of Turkey’s changing foreign policy, shifting from the hands-off “no problems with neighbors” approach with an eye to Europe, to a much more aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, with interests, seemingly, in becoming a possible regional hegemon in the Middle East. The transition has something to do with regional dynamics and power openings that have occurred over this time (declining global sentiment towards Israel, turmoil in many Arab countries, rising Turkish economy vs. declining economies in other regional powers), but the shift still required a push, and it seems the domestic political gains for the AKP and Erdogan in particular had a major role in the shift.
The question remains: is this sustainable, or more directly, will Turkey reverse course and return to its previous foreign policy approach, or is this the new normal? On the one hand, this aggressive foreign policy has been very problematic for Turkey. They have not had the success they anticipated, largely due to overestimating their sway in the region. There aggressive approach has frustrated allies, created new potential enemies, and created regional instability that may be challenging to stabilize even if the best outcomes, from Turkey’s perspective, are reached in Syria and Iraq. Economically, Turkey’s turn away from the European Union has not been particularly helpful, and as economic growth has slowed considerably, the AKP might have to return to their earlier foreign policy approach, as Erdogan’s rhetoric, the AKP’s crackdown on domestic dissent, and Turkish meddling in the Middle East and turn away from the West has all contributed to the stagnation in the Turkish economy, particularly from foreign investors wary of instability in Turkish domestic politics. [SA1] Given the centrality of economic growth to the AKP’s electoral success, an declining economy could be a serious problem.
In contrast, we may continue to see this new Turkish foreign policy. The AKP has continued winning elections, and Erdogan is attempting to move executive power in the country from the Prime Minister to his new position, the President. Greater power in the executive, particularly when Erdogan is the President, could mean a stronger ideological push in domestic politics, particularly since the AKP seems unlikely to be defeated in elections anytime soon. The split between the Hizmet movement and the AKP creates a fissure Erdogan can exploit to further differentiate the AKP from other domestic actors, and the most frequent way this is done is through an appeal to nationalism and ideology. This fissure is particularly prone to this since the domestic opposition in Turkey is fragmented. If this is indeed what occurs, Erdogan’s overconfidence in Turkish influence and power will probably manifest itself in continued intervention in the Middle East, continued interest in regional hegemony, and continued suppression of domestic challenges to these policies. Perhaps a sign of this, Erdogan is pushing for schools to teach with an Arabic script.
Overall, it seems likely that the domestic political climate will play a major role in Turkey’s foreign policy moving forward. If the economy continues to be a serious problem, enough so to worry the AKP about their electoral chances, a reversal in foreign policy seems increasingly likely. On the other hand, if the economy rebounds and Erdogan succeeds in consolidating more power in his office as President, he seems likely to use it to continue the aggressive foreign policy he has steered the country on in the past few years.
[SA1]I highlighted a section of your footnote. You shouldn’t add that. We need to steer clear of any domestic/international US politics, especially the CIA.