Soft power in Turkish foreign policy, part 5

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Turkish foreign policy and the hard power of temptation

Here one should point out to Turkey’s economy-based foreign policy understanding and the particular initiatives that have been taken in recent years with a primarily economic motivation. The most notable one is Turkey’s suggestion before the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests that a free-trade area be formed among Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Defining Turkey as a trading country, prioritizing Turkey’s establishment of free-trade relationships with some neighbors, including Turkish business sector as a driving force of Turkish diplomacy abroad, investing in mutually interdependent economic integration in the Middle East and diversifying Turkey’s external economic relations to keep pace with the globalization process are all examples of Turkey’s efforts to help produce a Turkey friendly regional/global order through the employment of economic tools. Both Turkey’s traditional business elites based in Istanbul and the emerging Anatolian tigers have been the driving forces of Turkey’s power of temptation. They hold the view that Turkey should define her national interests with a global mindset and on the basis of economic priorities and motivations. According to these economic elites, thinking globally and acting locally should be the maxim of Turkish foreign policy. The economic success stories with Syria, Russian Federation and the Kurdish region of Iraq demonstrate Turkey’s predisposition to improve relations with neighbors through economics. Transformation of Turkey’s approach towards the Iraqi Kurds from being realist exclusionary to liberal inclusionary stands out the best example in this regard. As of today, the two major Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq generally cooperate with Turkey because they see the continuation of economic cooperation with Turkey in their interests. Turkey’s opening to Africa has also very significant economic motivation in the background. Despite strong political disagreements in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Russia have established a functioning relationship in recent years and this owes its existence in part to mutual economic benefits.   

Turkish foreign policy and the hard power of coercion and imposition

Turkish foreign policy before the onset of the Arab Spring was primarily based on the idea that threat or use of brute force should be relinquished in Turkey’s relations with its neighbors.  Relying on military power instruments and coercing others to adopt pro-Turkish stances on some vital issues did not shape Turkey’s international relations during the first ten years of the JDP-led governments.  

The Imia crisis of 1996 in which Turkey and Greece almost came to the brink of war and the Ocalan crisis with Syria in late 1998 were somehow forgotten. The fact that Turkey continued to organize some limited military incursions into northern Iraq to chase after PKK terrorists does not negate the fact that Turkey’s foreign policy during the first decade of the new century was based more on the power of persuasion and temptation then power of coercion. During this period, Turkish rulers saw the use of force as a last resort and did their best to help convince the international community to the legitimacy of such occasions.  

Power of coercion has experienced a revival over the last decade due to some factors at systemic, regional and domestic levels. Turkey has undertaken three military operations in Syria, gotten involved in the civil war in Libya on the side the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, increased its efforts to develop its own military industry and stablished some military bases in Africa and the Gulf region. The growing activity of the Turkish naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, in line with the Blue Homeland doctrine, can also be seen as an example of militarization of Turkish foreign policy in recent years. 

The gradual erosion of the US-led western primacy in global politics and the concomitant rise of such non-western powers as Russia and China seems to have increased Turkey’s maneuvering capability in its international relations and emboldened Turkey’s rulers to undertake some military operations abroad. Evolution of the regional security environment in the Middle East in a profoundly Hobbesian manner has also led Turkish decision makers to put territorial integrity and survival instincts at the center of Turkey’s foreign policy engagements. Strengthening of Syrian Kurds and growing exposure to migration movements have undoubtedly contributed to the re-securitization of Turkish foreign policy in the post Arab Spring era. The planning and execution of a coup attempt, led by FETO terror organization, have also worsened the security anxieties of Turkey’s ruling elites. 


As a way of concluding the discussion on whether and to what extent Turkey has become a soft power oriented foreign policy actor since the advent of the JDP-led governments in 2002, one can safely say that even though there had been a soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy during the first ten years of JDP-led governments, the last decade has increasingly witnessed the return of hard power practices. Let alone the instruments employed abroad, Turkey has found it quite difficult to truly establish soft power relationships with external actors, most notably its neighbors. Turkey has increasingly adopted a realist foreign policy orientation in recent years and the liberal character of Turkey’s international relations has receded. At the systemic level, the structure of the international system has become more multipolar and the liberal democratic countries of the west have lost some ground against the autocratic countries of the non-western world. At the regional level, the greater Middle Eastern region has increasingly turned out to become more Hobbesian than Kantian. At the domestic level, the ruling JDP has put the survival logic at the center of its political calculations. Given such processes at systemic, regional and domestic levels, the years ahead will likely see hard power mentality strengthen.