Continuity and  change in Turkish foreign policy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent electoral success after more than twenty years in power represents a historic period of political continuity in Turkey. Nowadays, an integral part of this continuum has to do with an ongoing recalibration of the country’s foreign policy. Internal and external dynamics had prompted this course correction three years ago, and it will now be up to Turkey’s former spy chief and new top diplomat, Hakan Fidan, to steer the effort.

Change by necessity

It was in the latter part of 2020 when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government first showed signs of buckling under the need for change. Its hard-nosed, adventurous approach to international relations, regional military posturing, and power projection had not increased Turkey’s circle of friends. The country’s self-inflicted regional isolation and alienation from its Western allies had become too costly. Hence, olive branches were extended to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel—countries with which Turkey’s relations had been fraught for some time. Meanwhile, Erdoğan toned down his characteristically combative rhetoric toward the West. Most surprisingly, as the issue of uncontrolled migration and especially the future of more than three and a half million Syrians displaced in Turkey began to weigh heavily on the domestic political scene, even the idea of normalizing relations with once nemesis Bashar Assad’s Syria entered the picture.

The motivation behind this changing foreign policy posture was not driven solely by Turkey’s problems in the international arena. It was also about the deteriorating circumstances at home. The Turkish economy was underperforming, spelling trouble for Erdoğan. Poor governance and inept policy decisions had entrapped Turkey in a vicious cycle. While democratic backsliding and an erosion of the rule of law undermined the investment climate, unorthodox economic policies and reckless foreign policy actions triggered international unease, hastening capital flight.

Turkey’s economic woes deepened against this backdrop due to high inflation, a severely depreciating national currency, and a widening balance of payments deficit. With its coffers already drained in vain, Turkey’s need for external financial flows became acute. Recasting Turkey’s image in a positive light for investors and potential donors alike, particularly in the Arab Gulf, was seen as the way out of this conundrum. Hence began the foreign policy recalibration, and soon enough, the much-needed financial support started to trickle in.

Mother Nature barges in

The massive twin earthquakes of February 6, which claimed nearly fifty thousand lives and wreaked destruction in Turkey estimated at more than $100 billion, compounded existing economic challenges. They also made access to foreign financial flows and aid even more critical.

On the flip side, the earthquake disaster ushered in a worldwide wave of empathy and support that touched everyone’s hearts in Turkey. This positive sentiment also found its place in official statements, stressing appreciation and vowing to always remember that Turkey had not been deserted in its time of need. An abrupt change of atmosphere in Turkey’s engagement with the rest of the world occurred. Longstanding differences were set aside, at least temporarily, and there was a respite from the tension between Turkey and its most fervent rivals, Greece and Armenia, who also rushed to Turkey’s assistance.

This sobering experience impacted Turkish society’s outlook on the other and the rest of the world. It ran contrary to a populistic narrative that had become fashionable in Turkey, that foreign actors are harmful by design and do nothing but collude against the country. Images of foreign search and rescue teams frantically digging in the rubble to save lives, mourning with the Turkish people, and rejoicing with them when lives were saved, told a different story. Nevertheless, the political utility of fearmongering about external forces lingers on, as masterfully practiced by Erdoğan during his latest election campaign, and disagreements with other actors have surely not evaporated. Still, it is possible to speak of a positive spirit that has dawned on Turkey’s foreign relations after the February earthquakes. This is an important window of opportunity that adds impetus to the idea of conducting a rational reframing of Turkish foreign policy.

Post-election options: To reset or not to reset?

As Turkey enters a new era under Erdoğan’s third term, with a new cabinet of ministers, the question is where the country goes from here. For international relations analysts, the core issue is whether Turkey will sustain the effort to reset its foreign policy and, if so, what that will mean for its engagement with the rest of the world.

The simple answer to the first part of the question is a straightforward yes. Turkey will stay the course in recalibrating its foreign policy. The reasons for this, which constitute an answer to the second part of the same question, are twofold.

First, Turkey’s security interests require it to do so. A regional state of isolation and sowing excessive doubts over one’s place in the transatlantic alliance are risky propositions, especially as the war in Ukraine rages on and rivalry, rather than cooperation, defines the global order. Turkey must rebuild its circle of friends, and the effort needs to start in its region and with its allies. Turkey will, therefore, prioritize defusing tension over an escalation in its international dealings. This does not mean it will forfeit long-held positions on issues like its disagreements with Greece or its view on how to solve the Cyprus problem. But managing these challenges will become easier, and Turkey will not be the hasty spoiler in the event of a shared interest in making progress on any of them.

Turkey will continue to adjust to the realities of a multipolar world order and pursue its regional and global interests through multiple vectors. Yet, it will concurrently safeguard its legacy role within NATO by maintaining its contributions to the Alliance and readily assuming additional responsibilities in areas that overlap with its priorities. Ankara’s most recent decision to deploy reserve forces to Kosovo in support of NATO’s prudent planning can be seen as a concrete manifestation of this calculation. Turkey will maintain such a trajectory, with specific nuances of its own. While deepening defense cooperation with Russia will no longer be an idea it will flirt with, Ankara will carefully steer away from deliberate confrontation with Russia and China. It will continue to see merit in its ability to maintain open communication channels with Moscow and strive to preserve and, where possible, leverage its access. But at the end of the day, Turkey knows better than to irreversibly discredit its place in the Western security architecture. It will approach the issue of Sweden’s pending application for NATO membership in this light and be ready to move forward on the matter, assuming Sweden can display a reasonable degree of progress on Turkey’s expectations.

Second, Turkey’s economic interests also require new thinking, coupled with a foreign policy reset. The Turkish economy is overwhelmingly integrated with the West, particularly with the European Union (EU), which sources more than 50 percent of foreign direct investment in Turkey and is its largest trading partner. Meanwhile, Turkey’s trade relations with the United States have lately flourished, with a potential for further growth.

Turkey will have a strong incentive to nurture these ties, to attract more aid and investment, and, in the case of the EU, to start negotiations on upgrading its Customs Union. All of this will only be possible if the climate in relations with Turkey is positive.

The assertion by Turkey’s newly appointed finance minister, Mehmet Şimşek, that Turkey has no other choice than to return to a rational framework in the conduct of its economy leaves no room for doubt on that front. Rekindling the considerable capacity of the Turkish economy and emerging from the historical destruction of the February earthquakes will only be possible, and most certainly easier, if Turkey’s ties with its traditional partners and allies in the West are stable and robust.

This mutually reinforcing dynamic between foreign and economic policy interests will inevitably have to be factored into Turkey’s actions in the days ahead.

Conclusion: Continuity and change

Turkey has had a good taste of what unorthodox approaches to foreign and economic policies look like. The results brought more costs than benefits.

The experiment of totally rejecting Turkey’s traditional foreign policy playbook and casually rewriting it in more ways than one simply failed. Justifications have been argued on grounds of Western missteps in Syria, traumas associated with the failed coup attempt by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces in 2016, and a need for balanced approaches in a multipolar world. Yet each country’s foreign policy needs an organizing principle, and membership in the Western community of nations has a better track record in this regard than does the status of free agent, equidistant from all.

Turkey, under Erdoğan, has been trying to break out of a disruptive cycle of serial foreign policy crises for some time now. As the country enters a new era under Erdoğan, representing a remarkable period of uninterrupted rule, the post-election atmosphere lends itself well to such a recalibration, and the vast experience that Turkey’s new foreign minister carries under his belt will be very useful in this effort.

Alper Coşkun is a senior fellow within the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former director general for international-security affairs at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @iacoskun.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Bliken talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu during Secretary Bliken’s visit at Incirlik Air Base, Türkiye, Feb. 19, 2023. Secretary Blinken visited Incirlik AB to see firsthand ongoing relief efforts that support the Turkish authorities response to the Feb. 6, 2023 earthquakes. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden directed the heads of federal agencies across the government to rapidly mobilize to assist the government of Türkiye and humanitarian partners in Syria. As the president's chief foreign affairs adviser, Secretary Blinken carries out U.S. foreign policy through the Department of State including the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and U.S. Agency for International Development. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman David D. McLoney) (This photo has been altered for security purposes by masking out aircraft tail numbers)