By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu
Depending on the structure of the international system at different time periods, Turkish foreign policy interests, security definitions, alliance relationships, maneuvering capability and diplomatic practices evinced variations. The time period between 1923 and 1939 had a multipolar international and regional environment with none of the great powers having the ability to set the course of international developments, let alone imposing their will onto others through unilateral and coercive means. During this period, Turkey’s maneuvering capability was high and Turkey pursued a multi-directional foreign policy. Developing closer economic and strategic relations with the communist Soviet Union went hand in hand with establishing friendly cooperative relations with western European powers. Turkey’s regional activism was also noticeable in the Balkans and the Middle East. The formation of Balkan Entente in 1934 and the Saadabad Pact in 1937 became possible through Turkish diplomatic efforts. Despite the fact that Turkey had just left behind its war of independence and its material power capabilities were not match of key regional and global powers, the multipolar character of the international system presented Ankara with opportunities to muddle through its way. Turkey’s foreign policy choices during this period mostly reflected internal political concerns, of which completing the radical transformation process at home stands out. Many foreign policy initiatives undertaken during this era aimed at creating a conducive regional environment so that Turkish decision makers could focus their attention on domestic reforms.
During the Second World War, Turkey continued the multi-directional foreign policy stance of the interwar period and pursued the so-called active neutrality foreign policy. Rather than siding with one side of the warring parties, Turkey tried to benefit from the geopolitical rivalries between the axis powers on the one hand and the allied countries on the other. Turkish decision makers, particularly President Ismet Inonu, conducted tough negotiations with their counterparts in both camps and tried to do their best to keep Turkey outside the great war. The multipolar character of the time period allowed Turkey to play one power off against the other.
The time period between 1945 and 1960 corresponds to a bipolar international structure in which a high level confrontation existed between the US-led western liberal democratic countries on the one hand and the communist countries of the Soviet camp on the other. Turkey felt itself under Soviet threat and wanted to join the western international community in such a way to counterbalance the existential threat to the north. Following its admission to NATO in 1952 and given the increasing tension between the two power blocks, Turkey had to pursue a predominantly pro-western foreign policy course. The rigid atmosphere of the early Cold War years did not offer Turkey the ability to adopt neutrality and pursue an independent/non-aligned foreign policy course. Turkey’s maneuvering capability was extremely limited during this era. This era is considered in the literature as the most pro-American era in Turkish foreign policy.
For about twenty years between 1960 and 1980, Turkey shifted to a more multi-directional and multi-dimensional foreign policy stance as the so-called détente caused a softening of the bipolar confrontation between western and eastern blocks. Turkish rulers came to the conclusion that the pursuit of extremely pro-western foreign policy stance of the previous era did not yield expected benefits. As the United States and the Soviet Union began to search for ways to live in peaceful co-existence, Turkey felt more capable of charting its own ways through regional activism. It is within such an atmosphere that an internal debate on Turkey’s membership in NATO ensued. Critics of NATO argued that membership in Alliance carried the risk of turning Turkey into an American satellite as well as antagonizing the Soviet Union unnecessarily. Even Finlandianization was suggested as an alternative foreign policy course.
During the 1980s, Turkey had to discover the importance of the strategic relations with the Western world once again as the change of regime Iran and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan increased the tension between the two blocks. The second arrival of the Cold War era confrontation helped increase Turkey’s geopolitical significance in western eyes. During the 1980s Turkey predominantly followed a pro-western foreign policy stance despite the emergence of some problems in relations with western countries.
Turkey’s maneuvering capability in its foreign policy radically improved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. No longer feeling the pressure to the north, Turkey could pursue active and assertive policies in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East. Even though the evaporation of the Soviet threat contributed to the erosion of the strategic bond between Turkey and its western allies, membership in NATO and the prospective membership in European Union preserved their primacy in Turkey’s strategic thinking. The pro-western stance in Turkish foreign policy was also enabled by the US-led unipolar structure of the international system, the growing appeal of the constitutive norms of the western international community as well as the perception of Turkey in the west as a successful role model for the countries that regained their independence in the post-Soviet geography. The 1990s could be seen as a period in which Turkey tried to strike a balance between pursuing a more independent/multidirectional foreign policy stance on the one hand and increasing its efforts to solidify its presence in the western international community on the other. While the end of the Cold War seems to have increased Turkey’s maneuvering capability, the gradual erosion of Turkey’s strategic value in the eyes of western/European allies absent the common communism threat pushed Turkish leaders to help reassert Turkey’s western/European identity through NATO and the European Union. This time period between 1991 and 2008 attests to the global primacy of the United States as well as the growing appeal of the US-led globalization process. The appeal of the EU membership was also high in the eyes of Turkish decision makers. Hence, the golden years of Europeanization in Turkish domestic and foreign policies.
The shift to a more multipolar system over the last decade, particularly following the global financial crisis in 2008, and the spectacular increase in Turkey’s material power capabilities seem to have encouraged Turkish rulers to follow a more multi-directional and multi-dimensional foreign policy stance. During this era Turkey has been in search for more strategic autonomy. The relative decline of western powers, the questioning of the western model across the globe, the concomitant rise of non-western powers in global politics and the onset of the Arab Spring seem to have all caused a shift of axis in Turkish foreign policy away from the West to the East. Turkey acting as a ‘central country’ and pursuing a ‘Eurasianist’ foreign policy stance became quite visible during this era. The multipolar character of the emerging world order will likely continue in the post-Covid-19 era in which Turkey’s search for strategic autonomy and balancing foreign policy practices will strengthen.