Turkey Looks East And West

One of the most surprising international developments over the past few years has been the emergence of Turkey as a major world player. It has reoriented its foreign policy; where traditionally it faced westward – toward Europe, NATO and the United States – and turned its back to the East, it has started to balance its relations by looking further afield toward the Middle East, the Caucasus, Africa and China. This majority Muslim country sees itself as playing a key role in world affairs in the years and decades to come.

For at least the past four decades, Turkish governments have consistently seen their country as a solid part of the West. The country has had longstanding European aspirations, beginning with an interest in having a formal link with the European Economic Community in 1959, and starting formal talks to become a full member of the European Union in 2005. It has been a NATO member since 1953 and has the second-biggest army in the alliance after the U.S., is a member of the G-20 – a group of leading rich and developing nations – and held a seat on the U.N. Security Council for the 2009-10 term.

But Turkey’s self-perception has begun to change. In 2001, Turkish international relations expert Ahmet Davutoglu published “Strategic Depth”, a book that argued that Turkey should begin to engage more with the Middle East and further afield. He became foreign policy adviser to the prime minister in 2002, and the foreign minister in 2009. He immediately began to reach out to the Middle East. Since then, Turkey has built new ties around the world and has asserted its interests more forcefully.

Turkey’s identity as a European, Middle Eastern, Asian, Balkan, Central-Asian, Mediterranean and Aegean country contributes to its active regional diplomacy. A tribal chief in Afghanistan, a mayor in Bosnia or a governor in Kosovo might feel close enough to Turkey based on historical ties to ask visiting Turkish officials to build a school, a library, a medical clinic or even a bridge connecting divided communities.

Its traditional allies in Europe, the United States, and Israel have all begun to notice the difference. Its negotiations with the EU have been a disappointment. EU membership negotiations were once considered a sure path to membership. Not anymore. Turkey has hit roadblocks. Leaders and publics in France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands oppose Turkish entry, and the unresolved Cyprus conflict has provided an excuse beyond implicit European Islamophobia.

While the government-to-government relationship between Turkey and the EU has cooled, Turkey has been growing less dependent on the people-to-people trading relationship. The EU’s share of trade with Turkey has declined in relative terms. The EU has been the main buyer of Turkish exports, but that share has gone down from 52 percent in 2002 to below 50 percent this year. Still, Turkey is finding markets elsewhere. Its share of exports going to the Middle East has doubled to 18 percent, with exports to Iran and Syria now worth twice the value of those going to the United States.

In the past 20 years, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has undergone a subtle change. The end of the Cold War ended Turkey’s security reliance on the superpower, but the Iraq War actively harmed that relationship. From U.S. perspective, it was because Turkey refused to allow the United States to use Turkish airspace. From the Turkish point of view, it was due to the destabilization of Iraq and allowing violent acts by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against Turkey to increase. Both were considered against Turkish interests and offended Turkish sensibilities.

Needless to say, Turkey’s traditionally comfortable relationship with Israel also took a blow from the Gaza War, the flotilla incident and Turkey’s anger and disappointment in seeing Turkish-mediated Israeli-Syrian proximity talks crumble due to recent Israeli actions. All these events occurred when the road to resolution was closer than it had been in recent years – if not ever before – and much closer than the world realized.

Although it would be naive to say that Turkey has turned away from the West, it has certainly begun to look beyond it to China, the Middle East and the Caucasus – motivated in part by energy concerns and national interests.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Turkey in October 2010, and the two countries signed deals to cooperate in a number of areas. Wen and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the countries’ relationship a “strategic partnership” – Chinese exports to Turkey were worth $12.7 billion in 2009, China has won contracts to build major infrastructure projects such as railways in Turkey, and both parties agreed to improve the infrastructure to ease the passage of goods to Turkey. They discussed cooperating against terrorism, and the Turkish and Chinese air forces held joint drills – the first such military exercise that China has conducted with a NATO member.

Since the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Turkey’s relationship with most Middle Eastern countries was as tentative as its relationship with European countries was keen. This was partly because for much of the period, Turkey defined itself by contrast to the Middle Eastern autocracies to its south and east. But in recent years, Foreign Minister Davutoglu has reoriented Turkey as an important regional player in the Middle East, mediating negotiations with Israel and Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, ethnic and sectarian groups throughout the Middle East, and improving relations with Arab countries and Iran.

Two trends in particular reinforce this dynamic. The first is Erdogan’s increased outspokenness about Israeli actions. This has increased his, and therefore Turkey’s, credibility on the Muslim, and particularly Arab, street. The second is the number of discussions Turkey has initiated about bilateral free trade agreements in the region with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and (still in progress) with Iraq and Libya. Turkey has also lifted visa requirements with Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Russia, Georgia and Libya to complement the existing one with Iran.

Moreover, Turkey has expanded its commercial and diplomatic interests in Iraq. It has persuaded Sunnis to participate in the Iraqi political process, is cooperating with regional and central governments to help stabilize northern Iraq, is heavily expanding investment in northern Iraq – supplying electricity and facilitating oil production – and is maintaining good relations with most of Iraq’s factions.

Turkey is also maintaining its historically good relations with Iran. Along with Brazil, Turkey helped broker a nuclear deal – which the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) were unable to manage the previous year – to allow Iran to continue to benefit from enriched uranium. U.S. President Barack Obama had asked Turkey and Brazil to assist with this deal a few weeks before the agreement was signed in May. When new sanctions were expediently pushed through the U.N. Security Council in June, Turkey and Brazil voted against them.

There are also increasingly strong ties between the Turkish and Iranian populations, with 1.5 million Iranians visiting Turkey every year. Journalist and author Hugh Pope argues that every decade, 10 to 15 million Iranians will visit Turkey and see what a relatively successful progressive, democratic and secular government can do. He says these ties are as likely to undermine popular Iranian support for the Iranian regime in the long term as they are to bolster it. Turkey says it has no choice but to advance diplomacy with Iran, as Tehran is the second-biggest Turkish speaking city in the world (due to Azerbaijani Turks) and Turkey’s border with Iran has not changed since 1639.

Turkey is also opening or planning to open 12 embassies in Africa and about 10 in Latin and South America. Further afield, it has been discussing a nuclear power plant with Japanese and South Korean companies.

But the final piece of Turkey’s diplomatic posture jigsaw puzzle is energy. In 2008, it consumed nearly four times as much gas as it produced. The demand is growing, but Turkey lacks the reserves to meet it. More than two-thirds of its gas comes from Russia, and most of the $36 billion trade between the two countries in 2008 was Russia selling oil and gas to Turkey. Ankara regards this dependence as a serious challenge, as does Western Europe after the 2008 gas shortages fueled by Russia’s dispute with Ukraine. Turkey, therefore, is opening up to Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Iraq and Egypt, and is unlikely to do anything in the near future to jeopardize its relationship with these countries. Turkey is also trying to diversify its routes and suppliers.

Energy gives Turkey a strong reason to remain on good terms with Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Turkish companies’ assets amounted to $621 million in July and Turkish businesses have been exploring opportunities for oil there. The Nabucco gas pipeline project – intended to offer a gas pipeline that bypasses Russia – is supported by Turkey, which is positioning itself to secure the energy supplies it needs to develop in the coming years and decades, to eventually become Europe’s energy hub.

This reinforces Turkey’s importance from the energy point of view, as Turkey’s western neighbors make up 50 percent of the world’s oil consumption. At the same time, its eastern and southern neighbors produce 70 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas.

Over the past year, the foreign policy debate over Turkey, particularly in the United States, has been between those who see Turkey’s new active foreign policy as a benign and natural development (citing for example, its attempts to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel and its opening of free trade with relatively stagnant Arab economies), and those who see it as a loss to the allies of the United States (citing for example its breaking ranks on Iran, and outspokenness regarding Israel’s policies). Perhaps some falsely attribute it to the Justice and Development Party’s “Islamism.” Arguably however, the two driving forces behind Turkey’s diplomatic development are its need for energy and the sense within the country that Turkey is politically and economically stable enough to play a more assertive role in world affairs.

And for those who may not realize it, Turkey’s geopolitical and economic standing coupled with its increased self-perception makes it more relevant than ever. If one were to look at a flat world map and draw a line with the northern borders constituting Russia, the eastern borders of India and China, and the western borders of Germany and Italy, Turkey is the largest economy in the vast territory remaining within the lines drawn, covering more than 100 countries.

Davutoglu once said, “You cannot change your history or geography, but you can certainly reinterpret them.” That has been Turkey’s vision in recent years.

In the next 10 years, Turkey can become a successful regional and potential world power with a majority Muslim population and a low-risk system that is secular, democratic and has a free market economy. Its power of example is not to be underestimated.

Mehmet Celebi is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a member of the Dean’s International Council at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor


    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed