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Home » EU - Turkey Relations, International

AKP and Axis Shift in Turkish Foreign Policy

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 15:49

By Professor Dr Cinar Ozen, Professor of International Relations, University of Ancara

Barry Buzan and Thomas Diez (1999), in their paper, observed that the “old game” that had been played out between Turkey and the wider West during the Cold War was over. This game entailed that Turkey would behave as if it was adjusting itself to Western values and the West would behave as if Turkey belonged to the West. According Buzan this game ended with the end of the Cold War. Turkey realized this only after decisions taken at Luxembourg Summit in 1997 where “real reforms” were stressed. Even these reforms did not guarantee membership for Turkey. The failure to adapt these reforms even risked the description of  “western” remaining current for Turkey.

The early post-Cold War period in Turkey witnessed the realization and adaptation of this change. Subsequently, it prompted huge debate within Turkey setting off both transformation and democratization in the country. In short, this change could be termed as successful. The process starting with Helsinki Summit of 1999 kicked off negotiations for Turkey’s membership in the European Union (EU). The result was a great transformation as numerous constitutional changes and various laws were adopted. This process of transformation was spearheaded by the legendary leftist leader Bülent Ecevit in 1999. Although he had taken several important steps in this direction, yet the political Islamists rode this wave of transformation.

Tayyip Erdoğan and his newly established Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 elections and formed the government on its own. AKP trod the path laid down by the EU yet it could bring in parallels between democratization and its own political ascension. AKP was able to garner support from the liberal circles both inside the country and in the West, which ensured forestalling any resistance to an Islamist government. Showcasing itself as liberal party, AKP guarded its Islamic identity at the same time. AKP’s Western-influenced democratization process in the path of EU integration helped develop the narrative of moderate Islamism and subsequently an acceptable new model for the Muslim world. The moderate Islamism that AKP created in the process of transformation found a base in the Middle East with the Arab Spring. Ironically while this model is becoming a source of inspiration for Sunni Arabs in the Middle East, AKP seems dissipating its interest towards EU.

How to understand and explain this contradictory situation? Does AKP’s policy towards the Sunni Islamic world, which is also dubbed as neo-Ottomanism, clash with its moderate Islamist model? The analysis should also explain the rise of Islamists into power in Turkey since 2002.

David Lake (2009) suggested the possibility of hierarchical political structures in the contemporary international political system. Why not  analyze the Cold War period against this backdrop? The US and Soviets could make sure of the existence of two parallel hierarchical political structures by alienating each other on ideological as well as security grounds. The Atlantic world could emerge as a hierarchical political structure due to the establishment of institutions like NATO and the EU. Initially the leadership was assumed by the US, but later it was balanced by the EU. A hierarchical political structure operating under the norms and institutions derived from common values. The end of the Cold War influenced deeply the Atlantic political order which was a hierarchical one. This structural change affected the Atlantic world and the harmony and unity of its institutions. This phenomenon could be observed in US-EU relations. But for Turkey the result was striking. Buzan and Diez had meant this change.

Turkey carved a place for itself in such a world in 1950s. In this “old game” Turkey seemed part of the Atlantic hierarchical political structure. The threat from the Soviets brought Turkey and the West closer to each other. Bipolarity shielded Turkey from several problems that could emerge as a result of joining the Atlantic world. Turkey participated in the Western institutions as a part of Atlantic community. Relations with the European Community developed against this backdrop. Nevertheless, the end of bipolarity triggered such problems which brought radical changes in Turkish politics and foreign policy. In other words the downward spiral in relations between Turkey and the EU is structural. Its symptoms were first displayed by the EU. The Luxembourg shock of 1997 is a case in point.

The Turkish public were also affected by this shock which rekindled their past apprehensions regarding the West. “Sevres Paranoia” or fear of the West was a sensitive affair which resulted in the loss of political power by the secular and liberal circles who were traditionally pro-Western and rather increased the power of Islamists. The rise of AKP to power in 2002 and its fiddling with the building blocks of political system in Turkey was the result of this public reaction. Even though AKP appears to be bracing for EU reforms, its Islamic identity sits well with the traditional voters who are now scared of the West.

Consequently, AKP’s initiated EU reforms did not scare the voters which paved the way for Turkey to march towards the EU. On the contrary, these reforms distressed the secularists and the center-left circles. They believe that such reforms would render the resistance embedded in the political system towards Islamists ineffective, and will make Islamism a permanent power in Turkish politics. In the previous decade, the formerly pro-Western circles of the Cold War took an anti-EU political stance while Islamists made peace with the West. Moreover, this peace did not produce conflict with the increasing tendencies of nationalism and conservatism in the Turkish people.

Another consequence of this drift towards the dissolution of hierarchical political structure resulted in the importance of regional geopolitical aspirations. Turkey started taking keen interest in Middle Eastern politics. In the Atlantic world, in the Cold War, Turkey had considered itself as distant from the Middle East or at least behaved in that way. Stable relations with Israel were established during this period. Syria, Iraq and Egypt stood with Soviets and, thanks to their Arab nationalism, behaved as adversaries and created a huge security risk for Turkey. Saudi Arabia was estranged because of its strict Salafi ideology. Turkey identified and established itself as non-Middle Eastern country.

The first rift in this policy occurred with the Kurdish problem. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Kurdish nationalism and PKK made sure that Turkey could not be detached from Middle Eastern politics. The Gulf War in 1990 and the constant rise of Kurdish political activism anchored Turkey in the Middle East. Interestingly, the Kurdish problem antagonized the secular and nationalist forces in Turkey while bringing a fertile political ground in Turkey for Islamists’ Middle Eastern opening. Thus, Turkey’s geopolitical attachment to the Middle East became inevitable. This attachment is not a source of conflict but rather an element of the power project which again belongs to the Islamists. Moderate Islamism became the spirit of this new project. This Middle Eastern expansion saw acceptance from the masses and set on its axis after a transitory hesitance (AKP’s resistance to the intervention in Libya). Support for Sunni Islamist opposition in Egypt and Syria exhibited the power of this policy. The leadership of the Sunni Islamists against Shiite Islamists is a new stance in Turkish Foreign Policy. We can describe it as a shift of axis in Turkish Foreign Policy and this is structural. This shift of axis bodes well with the post-Cold war concerns of the Turkish people and fills their perceived vacuum. This is a new kind of nationalism under the shades of Islamism called Neo-Ottomanism.

Barry Buzan, Thomas Diez, “The European Union and Turkey”, Survival, Vol:41, No:1, Spring 1999.

David A. Lake, Hierarchy in International Relations, Cornell University Press, 2009.