Realism Should Shape Turkish Foreign Policy

Realism Should Shape Turkish Foreign Policy

By: THO Contributor, Professor Tarik Oguzlu




Recent attacks on Turkish military units in Idlib region of Syria show that Turkey is a midsize country and achieving her foreign and security policy goals requires a vigilant realist approach to international relations. Turkey’s military power capability does not allow her to fulfill her geopolitical desires in Syria let alone protect her homeland against air assaults. Turkey cannot fly her military jets over Syrian airspace without Russia’s permission and Turkey’s missile defense capability is still at an infant stage. 

Noteworthy in the latest saga is that Turkish decision makers turned to NATO as security insurance and activated Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which stipulates that NATO allies can ask for a NATO meeting in which political consultations are held with a view to addressing a potential threat directed to any NATO member.

Turkey’s efforts to enlist French and German support to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis in northern Syria do also matter. Rather than Turkey using the migration card as leverage in her relations with the European Union, more important here is that Turkey wants to ensure European support before talking to Russia. Turkish assumption is that meeting with the Russian President Putin in a multilateral setting in which German Prime Minister Merkel and French President Macron are also present might help increase Turkish President Erdogan’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the Russian President Putin. Given that the consequences of the humanitarian tragedy in northern Syria would affect Europe as severely as Turkey and it is in the interest of the European Union to find a sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Turkey’s efforts to ensure the European support in finding a solution to her latest crisis with Russia and the Syrian regime does make perfect sense from a strategic perspective.      

Given the recent Eurasianist turn in Turkish foreign policy, particularly in the aftermath of the failed coup-attempt in July 2016, Turkey’s recourse to NATO’s help in the wake of the latest Syrian attacks on Turkish military, which appears to have caused the death of more than thirty soldiers, merits a closer attention. Are we now on the threshold of Turkey rediscovering the importance of NATO as well as taking steps to help ameliorate her relations with traditional western allies? A growing number of pundits are also asking whether Turkey could really develop a strategic partnership with Russia given strong disagreements between the two countries in Syria, Libya and Eastern Mediterranean and how close Turkey should come towards Russia in the name of establishing her strategic autonomy and find a sustainable balance in her relations with the United States. Another question that is equally important is where Turkey would/should situate herself in the emerging Cold War-like confrontation between the liberal democratic countries of the West on the one hand and authoritarian countries of the non-western world on the other.

Even though the constitutive norms of the so-called liberal international order have been in life-support over the last decade and the rifts between the two shores of the Transatlantic Ocean have widened following President Trump’s coming to power in early 2017, the growing Chinese assertiveness in political, security, technology and economic fields as well as Russia’s never-ending assaults on the fabric of the western security order across the globe appear to have caused a soul-searching process within the European Union and NATO. It cannot be a coincidence that important EU and NATO documents adopted in the last two years evince a more critical attitude towards China and Russia than an accommodating one.  

As the dynamics of global politics have been fast changing with the emergence of a multipolar order, expecting Turkey to one-sidedly place itself in the western block and continue to act as the local agent of western powers in the greater Middle East and wider Eurasian regions would be impossible to think of. Similar to many other countries across the globe, including western powers, Turkey has been following a multi-directional and multi-dimensional foreign policy for some time. This will likely continue no matter Turkey rediscovers the value of its western connections in the face of strategic disagreement with Russia, Iran and maybe China. 

Turkey’s quest for strategic autonomy is irreversible given that the shift towards multi-polarity appears not only to have increased Turkey’s maneuvering capability in her external relations but also strengthened the Hobbesian dynamics of international political and security environment. As the self-help security thinking gets stronger than ever each passing day and frenemy-like relations drive states to increasingly develop short-term oriented/interest-based strategic engagements with each other rather than investing in rock-solid durable alliance commitments, Turkey will continue to pursue a balance of power policy by trying to strike the right balance between its traditional commitments to the West and the increasing needs to be on good terms with rising non-western powers. Vital to Turkey’s security interest is how to manage this process in the emerging world order.

Being a middle power, Turkey does not have the luxury of misinterpreting developments outside her borders and putting extremely normative and value-laden considerations at the center of her foreign policy. The number one priority of Turkish foreign policy should be to ensure that outside developments do not put Turkey’s territorial integrity, societal cohesion and economic development at risk. 

The foreign policy perspective of the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic during the interwar years should inspire Turkey’s current rulers as to how to pursue strategic autonomy in the face of systemic multi-polarity and growing security anxieties in Turkey’s neighborhood.  Just as Turkish decision makers shied away from adventurist policies abroad and tried to improve Turkey’s relations with both the Soviet Union on the one hand and imperial European nations on the other in the name of channeling Turkey’s limited capabilities to internal modernization and developmental goals, a similar mentality is urgently needed now.

Speaking to all local, regional and external actors and trying to obtain as much benefit as possible from discord among external powers had been vital to Turkey’s achievements during the interwar years. This practice should come back. Relying on one great power at the expense of others and adopting an ideational stance in relations with outsiders should be avoided. A pure rational approach should shape Turkey’s interactions with the United States and Russia, as we are now in the midst of a transitional process in global politics and the normative foundations of the emerging world order are still under construction. 

Turkish decision makers would do well to realize that both the United States and Russia are in competition with each other and look to other countries from an instrumental perspective. Relations with Turkey matter to them so long as they score goals against each other. They tend to see Turkey as a pawn in their bilateral relations. Reconciling her aspiration to become a strategically autonomous actor with the reality that neither Russia nor the United States would let this happen in full should lie at the center of Turkey’s relations with these global powers. Put differently, the gap between Turkey’s expectations and capabilities should be defined as narrowly as possible.   

There are two risks Turkish decision-makers should be aware of in conducting their relations with Americans and Russians. The first arises if both of them strike a deal with one another and play the time-tested game of "good cop, bad cop" with Turkey. In such a case, Turkey would be hard-pressed to accept fait accomplices in its neighborhood. Second, if the United States and Russia are not on the same page and Turkey feels isolated abroad, then Turkey’s dependence on any of them would dangerously increase. In such a case Turkey would be intolerably dependent on either Russia or the United States. 

Turkey’s major difficulty in her relations with the United States and Russia arises from the fact that the feeling of loneliness has dramatically increased in recent years. Realism suggests the best way to decrease Turkey’s feeling of loneliness abroad is to improve relations with major European powers bilaterally and revive the dormant accession process with the EU institutionally.  Absent the European connection and given the Hobbesian transformation of wider Middle East, Turkey may not be able to stave off Russian or American pressure on her own.

Turkey's traditional strategic orientation is towards Europe and its hard and soft power peaked whenever Ankara had good relations with European nations. Turkey is a middle power and her ability to survive and realize her national interests in the anarchical multipolar era would increase if global politics relied on multilateralism, intersubjectively shared values, norms, rules and regimes rather than on the whims of traditional great powers that value coercive power strategies and adopt "sphere of influence" mentality across the globe.

Turkey's relations with European powers are historical and institutional. They live in the same geographical location and their security priorities are mostly identical. Neither Turkey nor leading European countries would like to live in a world of bullies and tough guys. However, one needs to admit that neither Turkish rulers are now wholeheartedly pursuing EU membership goal nor is the EU in a mood to offer Turkey credible membership prospects in a time of growing concerns over its future. The appeal of EU model has been in decline and the European Union is now trying salvage what has been left from its decades-old deepening and widening processes. Nor does the wider Middle East region provide a fertile ground for EU-like regional transformation. Therefore, improving strategic cooperation with major European powers while cherishing European values at home stands out the most viable strategy to follow in these heady days. This will not only improve Turkey’s resilience against realpolitik global powers but also help cure the feeling of fragility and vulnerability in internal politics.