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by Roman Muzalevsky

Like in the 16th century, which saw the rise of the Ottoman Balkans as the center of world politics, we will make the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future. This is the objective of Turkish foreign policy, and we will achieve this. We will reintegrate the Balkan region, the Middle East and the Caucasus, based on the principle of regional and global peace, for the future, not only for all of us but for all of humanity.
– Foreign Minster Ahmet Davutoglu

A New World Order and Turkey’s Multi-Level Repositioning

When Marxism and Leninism were left “on the ash heap of history” with the collapse of the Soviet Union, few doubted the emergence of a new world order. Yet far fewer were able to define it, let alone chart its evolution. By the same token, not all could foretell the transformation of Turkey after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, or discern its remarkable rise on the global stage in the early part of the 21st century. The evolution of the new world order and the emergence of Turkey as a regional power with global ambitions are closely intertwined developments worth exploring to understand not only the changing world but also the challenges and opportunities of Turkey’s newly discovered foreign policy.

The end of the Cold War is a good starting point to explore this connection. According to Francis Fukuyama, the defeat of Communism as a revolutionary ideology then raised prospects for “the end of history”–”the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But other conceptions of the new reality also emerged, most notably offered by Samuel Huntington, whose Clash of Civilizations envisaged that the “fundamental source of conflict in this new world” would be cultural and that “the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Globalization has merged elements of these two perspectives, producing a mutation of the international system, where integration within the EU, for instance, could proceed in parallel to disintegration of Yugoslavia. But the events on 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the global financial crisis in 2008 have further exposed the complexities of the global environment. A new world (dis)order – more multi-centric in structure and less predictable in nature – gained pace to account for the rise of emerging powers and relative decline of the West in global politics.

The Westphalian order, conceived four centuries ago to serve states as its primary units, today is in “systematic crisis,” while “an agreed alternative is yet to emerge.”1 Originating in the West, the global financial crisis underscored this reality. Not only did it demonstrate the role reversal whereby some emerging economies came to the rescue of the developed world, but it also exposed the discrepancies of the global order, resting on policies of the traditional powers yet increasingly redefined by the rapidly emerging economies as diverse as China, Brazil, India, and Turkey.2 A significant shift in global politics has become only more pronounced, marked by the gradual replacement of the Columbian epoch based on Western dominance for the last 500 years to the post-Columbian epoch propelled by the rapidly emerging powers.3 Driven by the US, the globalization wave has ensured that emerging countries have become real winners.

Indeed, the G-20 club, which includes the G-7 group of the 7 most industrialized economies plus the 13 largest emerging economies, generated 85% of global production in 2010, while the G-7’s share of global GDP is expected to fall considerably to less than 50% by 2012. The total GDP of the 12 emerging frontrunners – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Turkey, Russia, China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, India, South Africa and Brazil – is projected to reach a 38% share of global GDP by 2015, which is 2% more than the GDP likely to be attained by the G-7. These economies are expected to have an average GDP growth of 7.2% in 2015. The G-7 economies – 2.1%.

While the US supremacy is unlikely to end any time soon, a historic distribution of global power is underway, pressuring actors to adjust to new realities. Today’s world – call it “multi-centric”4 or “non-polar”5 – is now home to a multitude of diverse actors, with non-state actors in particular exercising enormous influence and even challenging states in some of their traditional roles. Power has become more dispersed, spurring new modes of actor interaction.6 It is also more fluid and varied today. Hence, maintaining solid associations with traditional partners is becoming increasingly difficult and at times even detrimental. Actors are instead often forced to pursue ad hoc relations to maximize their interests while remaining flexible to navigate the intricate interconnections of influence in the rapidly changing world. Pursuing policies of domination also becomes more impractical in the age of growing interdependence.7

As a rapidly emerging power, Turkey has positioned itself as a country capable of not only adjusting its modus operandi in the new world but also actively reshaping its own surroundings in the effort to become a truly global actor. Central to Turkey’s ongoing transformation has been a process of concurrent repositioning on the national, regional, and global levels in the first decade of the 21st century, facilitating its rise as a key regional power with global ambitions.

Nationally, Turkey’s economic capabilities grew considerably under the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the first decade of the 21st century, free of previous eras of crises and coups. However, secularists and military have accused the party of pursing an Islamist agenda. AKP proponents, in turn, have supported more checks and balances on the role of the military in the country’s political life and robust development of multi-faceted relations with countries in all directions and in a more autonomous fashion. They argue that, relying on the country’s multiple identities – historical, geographical, social, religious, and political – Turkey can position itself as a pivot state, capable of serving itself and the world in the rapidly changing realities of the international system.

Regionally, Turkey’s new policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia, and the Balkans has been pursued to do just that, proactively responding to power shifts in the first decade of the 21st century as well. This policy has sought a “strategic depth. Central to this task has been normalization of Turkey’s relations with countries in its environs under the banner of “zero problems with neighbors” policy and mediation efforts to resolve regional security issues impeding Turkey’s ambitions. Turkey has relied on “soft power” tools of trade, economic integration, conflict mediation, and appeal of its development model to achieve this.

Globally, power transitions away from the West to the “Rest,” accelerated in the first decade of the 21st century, have too spurred Turkey’s new policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia, and the Balkans, where shifting dynamics have been both the driving and resulting force of the changing paradigm of global affairs. The slow EU accession process, the decline of the West’s influence in global politics, and the regional crises have pushed Ankara to pursue active ties with neighbors and emerging powers. The fluidity of the international system has enabled Ankara to form new partnerships with its former adversaries to advance its interests. But it has also underscored the difficulty and questioned the utility of maintaining such ties. Turkey’s unsteady relations with Israel, Iran, and Syria, among other issues, attest to this reality.

Turkey: An Emerging Regional Power with Global Ambitions

Turkey boasts the world’s fifteenth largest economy, a population of 75 million, and the second largest military in NATO, making it a major rising regional power with global aspirations. But it has only recently emerged as a pro-active player on the world stage. Wars and conflicts around Turkey have long impeded its ambitions. The disintegration of Yugoslavia unleashed chaos in the Balkans. The conflicts in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh ravaged the Caucasus in the 1990s. The war in Iraq in 2003, the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, and the Cyprus issues have also constrained Turkey, encouraging it to resolve crises in the country’s own neighborhoods to unleash its potential as a rising power. The demands of Kurdish minorities for their own state have further dictated Turkey’s new regional policy, especially vis-à-vis the post-invasion Iraq.

Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy thus set on a course to promote trade and investment in the Middle East, friendly ties with Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, helping Ankara secure the non-permanent UN Security Council seat for 2009-2010. Its growing relations with emerging powers have ensured that neither the US, nor the EU alone hold a central place in its foreign policy today. As Davutoglu stated, “NATO is Turkey’s strongest alliance, and integration with Europe is the main objective of Turkish foreign policy,” but Turkey cannot ignore the Middle East, Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, or Africa. Advancing economic interdependence has become a way to prevent conflicts in its surrounding regions.

The “de-securitization” of its foreign policy, in part through emphasis on expanding business ties, has facilitated Turkey’s engagement with the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America.8 In the past decade, Turkey’s GDP has grown from U.S. $192 billion to $640 billion in 2009, with per capita incomes tripling from $3,000 to $9,000. The country’s exports grew from $28 billion in 2000 to $132 billion in 2008, while its FDI rose from $800 million in 1999 to $22 billion in 2007. Turkey’s trade with its neighbors grew from about $18 billion in 2000 to more than $53 billion in 2009. The Middle East accounted for a six-fold increase in the country’s FDI, reaching $6.7 billion over 2005-2010 timeline. The region became the second largest source of FDI, with the EU being on the top with $47 billion and the US coming third with $6.3 billion.9

Turkey’s private sector and “Anatolian tigers” have contributed and benefited from these successes, along with the AKP. The “de-securitization” of the foreign policy and the remarkable economic gains have affected the power balance in military-civilian relationship, especially in respect to foreign policy pursued by the now rapidly growing regional power.10 Turkey’s identity, AKP rule and Davutogul’s view of its new role are important determinants of the new policy.

Identity, AKP, and Davutoglu’s Vision of Turkey’s New Role in the New World

Turkey is home to multiple identities. It is one of the few countries with strongly entrenched secular traits in the state structures and deeply ingrained Muslim currents in the society. Add to this list the country’s imperial history under the Ottoman Empire, its Turkic origins, urban-rural divides, and its central geographic position at the crossroad of Eurasia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Euro-Atlantic area. In this context, neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism are two conceptions, often used and misused to define Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy under the AKP.

Neo-Ottomanism calls for some role for Islam and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire in the country’s life. Kemalism sees Turkey as a pro-Western country with secular orientation, at home and abroad. The rise of the AKP has ignited debates on the role of these identities.11 The AKP supporters have denied accusations that the party seeks an Islamic state, while opponents view the AKP’s ascent to power through the prism of the growing Muslim currents12 and rising Muslim middle class.13 Some even consider the AKP as a defender of Kemalism.14 Others argue the party actually seeks to appeal to diverse political groups and ideas.15

Yet the court case against the AKP and the Ergenekon investigation suggest profound identity schisms and power rifts in Turkey. Brought in 2008, the allegedly pro-secular court case attempted but failed to indict the party for trying to change the secular constitution by lifting a ban on women wearing headscarves at universities.16 Undertaken in 2007, the Ergenekon investigation, in turn, was reportedly launched by AKP supporters against secular opposition members, allegedly tied to a conspiracy responsible for political violence in Turkey.17

Turkey’s democracy is a work in progress. The issue of minorities – Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Greeks, and Christians – is highly charged given discrimination reports and plans for a model rooted in the “upper civic” identity based on Turkish citizenship and “lower,” ethnicity or religion-based identity.18 Meanwhile, nationalists point to the West’s “soft” position on the AKP despite the AKP’s alleged democratic gains,19 while opponents claim the party uses the democratic agenda to weaken the opposition rather than pursue genuine democratic change.20

The country’s economic record is more straightforward. Viewed as pursuing a pro-Islamist agenda in and with the business sector, the AKP-led government has still pushed for business ties with the West and the global economy.21 Since the AKP assumed power in 2002, and until around the end of 2008, the domestic economy had displayed an average growth rate of 7.5%, with the GNP reaching approximately $400 billion. The inflation rate declined from 70% to less than 10%, the net public debt ratio decreased by half, budget deficit shrank, and the FDI grew from $6 billion to $100 billion during this period. The reforms, compliance with the IMF and the EU membership requirements, and favorable external conditions led to these successes.22 This explains why 47% of voters supported the AKP in 2007 elections (34% did so in 2002).23 But the government has yet to improve macroeconomic conditions following a 14% decrease in GDP in 2009 and the unemployment rate of 15% observed during the global economic crisis.

The economic successes have provided a convenient platform for Turkey’s new, “zero problem policy with its neighbors” foreign policy under the AKP, which has rested on what Davutoglu called “strategic depth.” In his own words: “It is impossible for a country experiencing constant crises with neighboring states to produce a regional and global foreign policy…A comprehensive peace plan and a package to develop economic and cultural relations have to be put into place simultaneously to overcome security crises with the closest neighbors.” Turkey should pursue a pro-active policy and mediate conflicts in its environs. “Turkey is no longer a country which only reacts to crises,” but the one that “gives shape to the order of its surrounding regions,” Davutoglu said. He also calls on Turkey to “rediscover its historic and geographic identity” and pursue a “balanced approach towards all global and regional actors,” denying the view that the foreign policy has a place for neo-Ottomanism:24

Exploring this policy toward North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Eurasia, and the West amid Turkey’s multi-level repositioning and global power shifts is thus in order.

North Africa and the Middle East: Turkey’s Revived Frontiers

Turkey’s military has traditionally viewed North Africa and the Middle East as unstable areas, while its exclusive security ties with the West isolated Ankara in the region. But under the AKP, Turkey has pursued deeper regional engagement. The country’s location, strong economy, Islamic currents, and long-standing EU accession process have all ensured that “Turkey’s Middle East offensive” has assumed “something of the scale…of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.”25 Turkey set on a course to forge friendly ties with hitherto hostile neighbors, help with resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, enhance its presence in Iraq, break Syria’s isolation, and reach out to Iran. But despite an arguably successful start on some of these issues, the events in the latter half of the first decade would demonstrate the limits of Turkey’s ambitions. The Turkish “peace offensive” has ostensibly opened some doors but has also closed others.

Turkey has sought to create an inclusive regional security system based on economic interdependence and common security.26 To do that, it has relied on “soft power” tools of trade, economic integration, conflict mediation, and appeal of its development model. A staggering 75% of people surveyed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria view Turkey as a “model for the synthesis of Islam and democracy.”27 But this does not suggest that authoritarian regimes of regional countries, diverse and nationalistic as they are, will adopt Turkey’s experience. Nor is Turkey’s democracy a given, especially amid criticism that Ankara displayed lack of support to the popular revolts against regimes in Iran and Libya.

Turkey has pushed actively for a regional free trade zone, abolishing or relaxing visa regimes for many countries and boosting its tourism revenue from $8.5 billion to $22 billion, with most of the new revenue coming from Russia and the Middle East. Turkey’s trade with neighbors grew from $18 billion in 2000 to $53 billion in 2009. The Middle East accounted for a six-fold increase in the country’s FDI in 2005-2010, reaching $6.7 billion. The region became the second largest source of FDI for Turkey. Turkey exported $31 billion worth of products to the Middle East and North Africa in 2008 alone, which helped its economy cope with the global financial crisis.

Ankara’s expanding ties with Syria before the civil unrest flared up against President Assad’s regime also helped break Syria’s and Turkey’s own isolation in the Middle East.28 Turkey also boosted cooperation with Iran, with which trade grew from $2.3 billion in 2002 to $11 billion in 2008. Both sides now plan to triple the trade – largely based on energy products – over the next 5 years. Iran is the 2nd largest source of gas for Turkey, which sees it as a way to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. The issue of Kurdish minorities has driven cooperation between the two countries as well, explaining Turkey’s push for deeper engagement in the Middle East as part of its new policy. The Gulf and Iraq wars aggravated the Kurdish problem for Ankara, prompting Turkey to mend fences with neighbors, including Iraq, Iran and Syria.29 Critics, however, claim that Turkey’s embrace of Iran has distanced the West and appeal of Ankara’s policies in the Arab world.30 Saudi Arabia and Egypt, viewed as traditional voices of the Sunni Muslim world, in particular do not welcome Turkey’s engagements with Shia Iran or even Ankara’s general activism where it carries a potential to unsettle their regional positions.31

Turkey’s regional economic successes cannot overshadow the challenges confronting its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy in the complex realities of the Middle East. This is especially true vis-à-vis Israel, Syria, and even Iran – Turkey’s new regional partner.

Israel has viewed Ankara’s new foreign policy with concern and its mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one-sided. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza delivered a blow to Ankara’s mediation efforts, while Turkey’s cancellation of Israel’s participation in NATO exercises on its soil has weakened the bi-lateral cooperation further. But it was not until the Israel forces raided a Turkish aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in May of 2010 that the tensions between the two close military and political allies burst into open and their ties deteriorated significantly. The flotilla was reportedly carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials when the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip was being enforced. The relations between the two once very close allies have been strained ever since. This is when reportedly more deals were signed between Tel-Aviv and Ankara than during any other previous administration in Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with Syria were initially transforming rapidly as Turkey pushed hard to promote bilateral and intra-regional trade. This was helping mitigate Syria’s isolation and promote Turkey’s deeper regional engagement as part of its new foreign policy. Turkey viewed Syria as a bridge for Turkish goods to the Arab world, serving as one for Arab exports to the West.32 In 2009, its exports to Syria hit $1.4 billion, its imports – $328 million. Ankara has also sought to benefit from the Arab Gas Pipeline scheme involving Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. But the warming ties were not destined to survive the fall-out of the civil war between opposition forces and Assad’s regime, with Turkey supporting NATO and the opposition. Criticism of Turkey’s allegedly mute or inadequate support to Arab Spring events which unseated dictators in Egypt, Tunis, and Libya may has forced rethinking in Ankara.

It is yet to be seen if Ankara’s “zero problems” policy toward Iran will endure. Shia Iran and Sunni Turkey compete fiercely in the Middle East. Both are rising regional powers with grand imperial histories and ambitions. They battle head to head over influence in post-war Iraq, serving as its major trading partners. Each country exported around $6 billion to Iraq in 2009. As Davutoglu put it, Turkey is seeking “total economic integration” with northern Iraq.

The shifting security dynamics are central to Ankara’s deepening engagement in the broader region. The absence of a strong Iraq ensured that other actors, including Iran, have emerged to fill in the void in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran have also been at odds over Syria, where an estimated 9,000 people have died since the unrest began. Turkey calls for Assad’s ouster, while Iran backs his regime. The standoff between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program puts Turkey – a NATO ally and a partner to Tehran – in an uneasy position as well. The issue may prompt readjustment of Ankara’s policy to Iran, perhaps mirroring a change in policy to Syria.

Unlike in previous years, Turkey now increasingly views the Middle East not as a threat but as an opportunity, promoting zealously cross-regional trade and investment under the banner of “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. But this policy has not proved uniform, though it has contributed to realignments in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, it has led to the divorce between Israel and Turkey, temporary rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, deeper engagement between Turkey and Iraq, closing in between Ankara and Tehran. Addressing the power void resulting from the invasion of Iraq, Ankara has sought to position itself as a pivotal force in the region where its policies were constrained during the Cold War, but have now become activated under the AKP-led government amid global and regional power transitions. In Eurasia, the new foreign policy has brought its own challenges and opportunities.

From Status Quo to Proactive Engagement in Eurasia

Suspected of being a shadow of the West, Ankara found it hard to establish a foothold in post-Soviet Eurasia whose parts it controlled during the Ottoman Empire, but which Russia considers now lying within its “zone of privileged interests.” But Ankara’s push for stronger cooperation with Russia since 2000 has helped it pursue a more dynamic policy in Eurasia.

Trade, in many ways, is the policy. Turkey’s exports to the Caucasus, Russia, and Central Asia have grown from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $8.4 billion in 2007. As of 2009, these regions accounted for 10% of the country’s overall exports, with the EU and North America accounting for 46% and 4.6%. Ankara is now among the 6 largest trading partners for Central Asian states, providing 60% of its $702 million international development budget to Central Asia and the Caucasus in 2007 alone.33 Turkey has also eased visa regime for regional countries.

In Central Asia, Ankara has boosted ties with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Yet, relations with the Uzbek regime continue to be strained, despite an increase in the joint trade, totaling now around $1.4 billion, by 65% in 2010 compared to 2009. Uzbekistan accuses Turkey of harboring Uzbek opposition figures and engaging in Islamic propaganda activities.

The Turkic Parliamentary Assembly and Cooperation Council established in 2009 have allowed Turkey to promote its development model and deeper ties with Turkic countries. This is an important step for Turkey as it has placed a larger focus on the development of ties with the Middle East, where it relies more on the Islamic links.34 Perhaps this led some to criticize Ankara’s mute response to the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes in Kyrgyzstan, and argue that its presence in Central Asia is “nearly non-existent”35 – a misplaced statement given the above facts.

Most notably, Ankara’s ties with Moscow have improved drastically. Once an archenemy of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey during the Cold War, Russia has turned into Turkey’s largest trading partner, with joint trade reaching $36 billion in 2008 – more than double since 2005 ($15 bl.) and more than threefold since 2004 ($10 bl.). Turkey became the top destination for Russian tourists, with approximately 1.7 million Russians visiting the country in 2004.

The growing energy cooperation has ostensibly driven the rapprochement with Moscow and Turkey’s deepening engagement with Central Asia and the South Caucasus, which contain the world’s largest deposits of oil and gas after the Persian Gulf and Russia. Turkey imports two-thirds of its gas and a tenth of its oil from Russia, but it supports actively the planned Nabucco and existing Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines bypassing Russia.

Its cooperation with Russia has unnerved the West. Davutoglu expressed his views on the new paradigm of international affairs this way: “We are not involved in a bipolar world anymore. It means our good relations with Russia are not an alternative to the EU. Or our model partnership with the United States is not a new partnership against Russia.”36 Russia and Turkey clearly share a common sense of frustration with the EU and U.S. policies, either vis-à-vis Iran or the recent war in Iraq.37 While Moscow has supported Turkey’s observer role in the SCO, Ankara, a NATO ally, has chosen not to extend the NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Not only did Turkey fear undermining its growing ties with Russia but it also felt uneasy about being “encircled” by the US in the region.38

Yet, Ankara’s “overt friendship” with Moscow coexists with “restrained competition.”39 It has supported Eurasian states’ efforts to join Euro-Atlantic institutions and energy initiatives circumventing Russia. It has attempted to promote its Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSPC) initiative after the Russian-Georgian war, but has faced grim prospects because it competes with Moscow, lacks diplomatic ties with Armenia, and finds itself in the region where Russia is perceived as a security backer (Armenia) and an aggressor (Georgia).40 Turkey has further not ratified the 2009 Armenian-Turkish protocols for fear of alienating its Turkic ally Azerbaijan, the country Davutoglu calls “the most important strategic ally” in the Caspian.41

Turkey and Armenia signed the protocols on the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of their land border, which Ankara closed after Yerevan had occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and other surrounding areas claimed by Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Armenia, in turn, has long demanded Turkey recognize the massacre of over a million Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Butdelinking of these issues from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is proving impossible. After the protocols were signed Azerbaijan agreed to sell Russia 500 million cbm of gas annually. Amid Baku’s frustration, Davutoglu stated that “Azeri soil is as sacred for us as our own” and “liberating this soil from occupation” is one of the Ankara’s “primary national issues.”42 Turkey has still not ratified the protocols, and Ankara’s ties with Baku have since improved. But a seed of mistrust has been planted.

Overall, Ankara’s new policy has made Turkey a junior partner to Russia, albeit a hyperactive one, explaining slow progress on its CSPC plan. But it has facilitated Turkey’s non-status quo role, helping it improve its ties with Eurasian countries, more ostensibly with Russia. Trade, investment and energy have become priority areas of cooperation. Ankara’s policy toward the Balkans, once dominated by the Ottoman Empire, highlights its own challenges and successes.

Dealing With Imperial Legacy in the Balkans

Turkey has emerged to play an active role in the Balkans after the end of the Cold War. But the gravitational pull between the two has been there for ages, cemented by politics, economics, and culture. The Ottoman Empire dominated the Balkans for several centuries, while Turkey’s long fixation with the West has not subdued its nostalgia for grandeur in the region, which is home to significant numbers of Muslims and Turks. The Ottoman legacy haunts the Balkans, where regional countries have met Ankara’s new policy with both applause and suspicion.

The Balkan peoples fought the Ottoman Empire by invoking “a struggle between Islam and Christianity.”43 Christianity is widely practiced in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, while Islam – in Kosovo, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A fifth of Turkey’s population is allegedly of Balkan origin and about 2 million Turks live in the Balkans.44 Religious and ethnic factors are an integral part of the relations between emerging Turkey and the Balkan countries. Davutoglu thus hinted at Turkey’s regional role: “The history of more than 20 countries could be written only using Turkish archives. We have more Bosnians in Turkey than in Bosnia itself, more Albanians than in Albania…Because of these historic connections, all these countries have certain expectations from us.”

Historic connections aside, it is also economic opportunities that increasingly define intra-regional cooperation in the Balkans. Turkey’s regional engagement has deepened, with Turkish elites viewing the Balkans as a gateway for Turkey to the EU. “Either the Balkan region will be the center of everything or it will be the victim of everything,” Davutoglu once stated. Balkan countries, however, have viewed integration with the EU and NATO as a way to escape the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. But such integration is neither complete nor smooth. In this context, Turkey has sought to become an “indispensable geopolitical partner” to the EU, enhance its regional influence and remain on the path to EU integration.45 Turkey’s exports and imports from the Western Balkans alone make up about $6.9 billion and $3.4 billion. Ankara has invested heavily in the region’s telecommunication, transport, and banking infrastructure, turning Bosnia and Herzegovina into a top investment destination for its firms.46

Fragile stability in the former Yugoslavia, the Cyprus and Aegean Sea issues have further spurred Ankara’s activism, while the growing Russian and Israeli presence in the Balkans47 has added a new dimension to its perception of security in the region, where it pursues both a cooperative and competitive relationship with Greece and Bulgaria. The Aegean Sea and the Cyprus disputes have long undermined the Greek-Turkish ties, but the latter improved in the late 1990’s amid arms reductions and expanding economic cooperation. Turkey even backed UN plan to reunify Cyprus in 2004. Its ties with Bulgaria have also improved, in part due to confidence measures after Bulgaria’s deportation of 300,000 Turks in 1989.48 Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria have also supported one other in the quest for the EU and NATO memberships.

Ankara’s regional political and military engagement in the region it used to dominate has become notably more pro-active compared to the EU.49 Turkey opposed the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Kosovo’s independence but nonetheless recognized and expanded its ties with the new states. It has trained troops from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia, contributing to regional peacekeeping missions. In 2009-2010, amid the stalled West-sponsored Butmir Process, it mediated 5 rounds of negotiations to normalize Serbian-Bosnian relations. By facilitating the improvement of Croatian-Serbian-Bosnian ties, albeit still fragile, Turkey revived the stalled progress in the course of only few months – something the EU has allegedly failed to do in the last 15 years. This is despite Turkey’s imperial legacy, especially in respect to predominantly Christian Serbia, with which its ties have become much closer.50

And yet, the regional countries fear Turkey’s growing presence, relying on integration with the EU and NATO to balance Ankara’s inroads. Turkey itself has long aspired to join the EU, developing links to the Balkans so as not to be left behind the EU integration process. But Ankara’s frustration with the accession process, and policy disagreements with countries of the West in general, have made Ankara’s alliance with the West look more like a “paper tiger.”

Washington, Brussels, and Ankara: An Uneasy Alliance

Turkey’s relations with the West underwent a profound shift when the end of bi-polarity enabled Ankara to play a more autonomous role in global politics. But a radical transition in this relationship occurred under the AKP and amid global power shifts, prompting some, like President Gul, to suggest that Turkey now moves “simultaneously in every direction,” and others to question whether Ankara is actually “running West” but “heading East.”51

The reality of uneasy relations between Ankara, Washington and Brussels today is undeniable. As Davutoglu stated: “The psychological ground on which Turkish-American relations is now moving has been reconstituted….Turkey is no longer a sole alliance nation whose support is taken for granted, but a significant country with regional and global influence….” Some believe Turkey’s new policy is to blame. Others view Ankara’s “escape from America’s orbit” as an opportunity for Turkey to “go places, engage partners, and make deals that America cannot.”52 Still others argue that Turkey is no longer a “junior partner” and its alleged Islamist policies actually reflect a new global reality rather than a desire to turn its back on the West.53

As pillars of NATO, Washington, Brussels, and Ankara share an interest in strategic stability. The US has also long supported Ankara’s EU plans and energy transit hub efforts in Eurasia. It did not recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as “genocide” in 2010. Turkey, in turn, has supported US forces in Afghanistan and its stabilization efforts in Iraq. Turkey has also actively mediated in the standoff between the West and Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear program. It participated in the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on March 26-27, 2012, meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shortly afterwards amid speculations of a possible strike by Israeli and US forces on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Turkey has frequently pointed to other states possessing nuclear weapons, arguing that focusing solely on Iran will not solve nuclear proliferation problems. In 2010, Turkey, Brazil, and Iran reached a nuclear fuel exchange deal, which positioned Turkey as a major player on the global arena. Turkey now plans to hold yet another series of talks in Istanbul between Iran and the P5+1 states. Some view Ankara’s engagement with Iran as incompatible with Turkey’s NATO and democratization commitments. Others argue that it helps NATO resolve long-standing regional and global security issues.

The reality is that power decline of the West in global politics, US intervention in Iraq, challenges to Turkey’s EU accession, and Ankara’s rising clout are factors contributing to serious disagreements between the West and Ankara on policies involving Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Russia. A recent poll suggested that 43% of Turkish citizens surveyed perceive the US as the biggest threat, 23.7% believe it is Israel, 2.3% – Greece, 3% – Iran, 2.1% – Iraq, 1.7% – Russia.54

The U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 was a pivotal moment, partially explaining Ankara’s engagement with formerly hostile neighbors. With its rising regional clout and expanding role in the Muslim world, it simply could not ignore the disruption of the power balance in the region where Iraq ceased to be a bulwark against Iran’s expansion. It refused to be cornered by the “us vs them” rhetoric of the US administration, not allowing Washington to use its territory to invade Iraq. AKP also objected strongly to a NATO missile defense shield in Turkey, spurring fears of “Islamization” of NATO’s second largest military.55 After the Russian-Georgian war, Turkey did not allow the US navy with relief aid to reach Georgia via the Turkish Straits.

Turkey’s rapprochement with the Syrian regime (before the civil unrest) and Iran, differences with the US over the war in Iraq, and its allegedly mute or inadequate support to Arab Spring events have alarmed the West. Its damaged relations with Israel have further put the US in the uneasy position of choice between the two military and political allies known for their autonomous policies.56 Washington has also been pressured to choose between the need to support Turkey’s EU membership and the imperative to respect the EU’s position on Turkey’s prospects. The US has attempted to improve ties with Turkey following the Bush era, with President Obama saying that “Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership” for others. It remains to be seen how the U.S. strategic pivot to Asia will impact U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkey’s ties with the EU have too been uneasy, with issues of democratization, human rights, and EU accession continuing to be a point of contention and even mistrust. As US Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated, Turkey’s move eastward was in “no small part” driven by the EU’s refusal to respond to Ankara’s calls for the “organic link” with the West. This “link” is slim. About 55% of Turkish citizens feel Turkey is not Western, while 73% welcomed the EU membership in 2004 as opposed to 38% in 2010. Twice as many of them want cooperation with the Middle East (10% – in 2009, 20% – in 2010).57 Yet Turkey and the EU cooperate as well.

Consider the facts. The EU is home to 2.7 million Turks. The Middle East – to 110,000 Turks. The EU provides more than 50% of all tourists visiting Turkey, the Middle East – only 10%. The EU imports more than half of Turkey’s total exports and covers almost half of its total FDI, although the bilateral trade declined over the last 10 years, partially due to increased Turkey’s energy imports from Russia and Iran. In 2001-2008, Turkey’s trade with Asia (including the Middle East) rose from $18.7 billion to $131 billion, while the EU’s share decreased from 51.38% to 42%.

Energy interests also bind the policies of Turkey and the West in the Caspian and Middle East, although they keep them apart when it comes to some policies vis-à-vis Iran and Russia. Davutoglu is hopeful that Ankara’s role as an energy transit hub across Eurasia is an asset to the West and Turkey’s EU membership prospects. Whether Turkey joins the EU and whether the US and Turkey find a lasting common ground on regional and global issues is still a question mark, but one thing is clear: the West-Turkey alliance looks increasingly uneasy.

Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities

After decades of relative dormancy, Turkey has emerged to play a more dynamic role in international affairs since the 1990s, pursuing cooperation with countries in all directions – the process that became transformational under the AKP since 2002. No longer strained by political and economic upheavals, the country’s economy had grown to become the world’s fifteenth largest by 2010. This endowed the new government, viewed as pro-Islamic and neo-Ottoman, with legitimacy, enabling it to follow a “zero-problems with neighbors” policy in its environs. But this policy has been praised for its successes as much as it has been criticized for its failures.

The AKP’s rise and considerable expansion of Turkey’ economy have driven the new policy amid Turkey’s multi-level repositioning, with Ankara relying on trade, economic integration, and mediation to resolve regional crises in the effort to transform itself into a global power. The distribution of power away from the West to the “Rest,” pronounced after the global financial crisis, accompanied Turkey’s rise in the world, where aspiring contenders and emerging powers are seeking a global role and the US is still the most powerful but not always influential actor. Today’s world is therefore not bi-polar, as it was during the Cold War, or multi-polar, as was the case in the preceding eras. Nor is it a uni-polar one, if it ever was in the 1990s. The international system, resting on interdependence and fragmentation, is so complex that labeling it has become difficult at best and impossible at worst. “Non-polarity” or “multi-centricity” best describe the world of many power centers, where coalitions can often replace or complement alliances as policy tools in the fluid conditions of the international system.

Likewise, gauging Turkey’s new foreign policy is uneasy, in part because it reflects the equally fluid nature of the “multi-centric” world, defined by rapid power transitions. Turkey’s new foreign policy is thus the product and driving force of Turkey’s repositioning on the national, regional, and global levels in the first decade of the 21st century, manifesting itself in the rise of the AKP and domestic economy, regional shifts, and global power transitions. But “zero problems” as it may be, critics have portrayed Turkey’s new policy as naïve and irresponsible.

In North Africa and the Middle East, it has won Turkey new friends in Iran, Hamas, and until recently Syria, where Turkey supports opposition in the ongoing civil unrest. Breaking their isolation, Ankara has attempted to break that of its own. Ankara can now count on more energy imports from Iran, serve as a trade and energy bridge between the West and the Middle East, and position itself as a voice of the Muslim community. But its new partnerships are yet to withstand the fluid world conditions as it seeks to win the trust of diverse regional actors. The latter do not necessarily welcome Turkey’s development model, its alleged pro-democracy agenda or growing presence that nevertheless helps contain Persian Iran. The fluid conditions are also yet to undo the damage to Ankara’s relations with Tel-Aviv, Washington, and Brussels.

In Eurasia, Turkey’s cordial relations with Moscow have helped it promote its policies in the energy-rich South Caucasus and Central Asia, but the attempted rapprochement with Armenia and efforts to resolve “frozen conflicts” in the South Caucasus without jeopardizing its relations with others have proved unattainable. Its policies are still hostage to policies of small and great powers alike, particularly Russia, with which it has pursued expanding energy cooperation.

In the Balkans, Turkey has improved ties with Greece and Bulgaria but the Aegean Sea and Cyprus issues still complicate the relationship. Yet Turkey has boosted its presence in the states of the former Yugoslavia, where predominantly Muslim Bosnia now serves as a focal point of its activism. Ankara has also contributed to peacekeeping missions and mediation in disputes involving Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. By integrating itself with the Balkans, it has sought to expand its influence and affirm its importance for the EU. Yet, doing business in the region, once dominated by the Ottoman Empire, remains a challenge for Ankara.

And so is its intent to maintain allied relations with Western partners. Turkey now plays a more autonomous role in the Middle East after the war in Iraq; seeks closer ties with formerly hostile countries in North Africa, the Middle East, Eurasia, and the Balkans; and positions itself as a geopolitical pivot state. This has kept Turkey’s interest in joining the EU alive, though the slow progress on the way toward EU membership and the power decline of the West have prompted Turkey to pursue relations with diverse partners in its environs and emerging powers worldwide. Turkey’s disengagement from the Transatlantic community is not inconceivable, but is also hard to imagine given the economic interdependence and shared strategic interests.

Turkey will continue to be an asset and a liability to its partners and allies in the North, South, East, and West. How Turkey manages itself in the new world and whether its new foreign policy can help transform it into a global actor will depend on the national, regional, and global environment. Domestically, its economy and evolving identity will determine the long-term trajectory of Turkey’s foreign policy. And so will the evolutionary and revolutionary trends in the surrounding regions, where security hangs in the balance between forces of change and stagnation, integration and disintegration. The future of the international system as a whole will, too, affect its direction. The fluidity, unpredictability, and the pace of power transitions in the system suggest that various pulls and turns will not leave Turkey unscathed. Turkey’s efforts will show if it can weather the storm and become a global power that it aspires to be.End.


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2. Ian Bremmer, “A non-polar world,” Foreign Policy, June 18, 2010.
3. Dale Walton, Geopolitics and the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: Multipolarity and the Revolution in Strategic Perspective, 2007, p.23.
4. See Daniel Wolfish and Gordon Smith, “Governance and Policy in a Multicentric World,” Canadian Public Policy, 2000, Vol.26, No.2, pp.51-72.
5. Richard Haass, “The Age of Nonpolarity,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008.
6. Ibid., Richard Haass.
7. Ben Armstrong, “International relations in a nonpolar world,” North by Northwestern, May 6, 2009.
8. Sinan Ulgen, “Understanding Turkey’s New Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Papers, No.1, Dec. 2010, p.4.
9. Ibid., Sinan Ulgen, pp.10-1.
10. Ibid., p.9.
11. Ömer Taspinar, “Turkey’s Middle East Policies: Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism”, Carnegie Papers, No. 10, Sep. 2008, pp.3;14-5.
12. “Turkey’s future: Flags, veils and sharia,” The Economist, July 17, 2008.
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19. Ibid., Ömer Taspinar, pp.2;5.
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22. Baran, Zeyno and Lesser, Ian, ‘Turkey’s Identity and Strategy – A Game of Three-Dimensional Chess,’ Stanley Foundation, December 2008, p.18.
23. Ibid., “Turkey’s future: Flags, veils and sharia.” Ibid., Zeyno Baran, Ian Lesser, p.5.
24. Davutoglu, Ahmet, ‘Principles of Turkish Foreign Policy,’ Address at SETA, Dec. 8, 2009, p.9.
25. “Turkey and the Middle East. Looking east and south,” The Economist, Oct. 29, 2009.
26. Ibid., “Turkey and the Middle East. Looking east and south.”
27. Gökhan Çetinsaya, “The New Middle East, Turkey, and the Search for Regional Stability,” The Atlantic Council.
28. Bilal Saab, “Syria and Turkey Deepen Bilateral Relations,” Jane’s Foreign Report, May 6, 2009.
29. Ibid., Ahmet Evin, p.8. Weedah Hamzah, “Impact of Iraq war sees Iran’s influence rise in Middle East,” The China Post, Aug. 17, 2010.
30. M.K. Kaya, Halil Karaveli, “Turkey’s Position Between Iran and the West Is Proving Increasingly Difficult to Sustain,” Turkey Analyst, Vol.3, No.3, Feb. 15, 2010.
31. Ibid., Soner Cagaptay.
32. Ibid., Bilal Saab.
33. İştar Gözaydın, “Religion as Soft Power in the International Relations of Turkey,” PSA, 2010, p.8.
34. M.K. Kaya, “The Eastern Dimension in Turkish Foreign Policy Grows,” Turkey Analyst, Vol.2, No.8, Oct. 12, 2009.
35. Bracin Yinanch, “Turkey’s changing axis excludes Central Asia, experts say,” Hürriyet Daily News, June 15, 2010.
36. Ibid., Ahmet Davutoglu, “Principles of Turkish Foreign Policy,” p.12.
37. Ibid., Fiona Hill, pp.6-11.
38. Ibid., Zeyno Baran, Ian Lesser, pp.11-3. Ibid., Diba Goksel, pp.21-2.
39. Richard Weitz, “Russian-Turkish Relations: Steadfast and Changing,” Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol.21, No.3, 2010, pp.61-85.
40. Ibid., Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, pp.15-9.
41. Ibid., Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere, p.15.
42. Roman Muzalevsky, “Armenia-Turkey Protocols: Tactical Cooperation in the Shadow of Strategic Competition in Eurasia,” CACI Analyst, Nov. 11, 2009.
43. Sylvie Gangloff, “The Impact of the Ottoman Legacy on Turkish Policy in the Balkans,” CERI, Nov. 2005, pp.1-2.
44. Zehra Eroglu, “Turkish Foreign Policy Towards the Balkans in the Post-Cold War Era,” 2005, pp.9;22-5.
45. Anes Alic, “Turkey’s Growing Influence in the Balkans,” Oil Price, June 9, 2010.
46. Ibid., İştar Gözaydın.
47. Barak Ravid, “As Turkey front freezes, Israel looks to warming Balkan ties,” Haaretz, Nov. 26, 2010. “Could Current Conflicts Spark a New Balkan War?,” Atlantic Community, Aug. 3, 2009.
48. Ibid., Stephen Larrabee, Ian Lesser, pp.92-7.
49. Toby Vogel, “Turkey succeeds where the EU has consistently failed,” European Voice, June 17, 2010.
50. Ibid., Toby Vogel.
51. See Gareth Jenkins, “Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?,” Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
52. Ibid., Mustafa Akyol.
53. Interview with Stephen Larrabee, “Managing a More Assertive Turkey,” June 3, 2010.
54. Jen Alic, et al., “Assessing Turkey’s Foreign Policy Strategy and Missed Opportunities in the West,” Isa Intel, Jan. 11, 2011.
55. Ibid., Soner Cagaptay.
56. Ibid., Jean Paul Marthoz, p.5.
57. Ibid., Soner Cagaptay.


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I would like to thank Kunaim Suiunbaeva for her extensive and meticulous research, insightful comments, and much valuable feedback, which brought significant improvements to the entire draft and ultimately made this manuscript a reality.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Roman Muzalevsky
Roman Muzalevsky

Roman Muzalevsky works for iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, Inc., focusing on global security risk monitoring, threat analysis and crises management. He is also a contributing analyst on Eurasian affairs and security at Jamestown Foundation and a contributing analyst on the North America, Russia and Central Asia, and Globalization desks at the geopolitical and security consultancy Wikistrat. He has authored numerous articles on geopolitics, security, foreign affairs, grand strategy, and the international system. Previously, he worked for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, CSM Solutions Inc., National Democratic Institute, DFID Public Finance Reform Project, and the Center for Political and Military Analysis at Hudson Institute in the US and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. He received his MA in International Affairs with concentration in Security and Strategy Studies from Yale University.

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