Foreign Policy Activism in Turkey During the AKP

“Between Europeanization and Euro-Asianism: Foreign Policy Activism in Turkey During the AKP”


Ziya Öniş & Şuhnaz Yılmaz
Koç University (İstanbul)

Note: A slight different version of this paper is published in Turkish Studies.
March 2009, Vol: 10, No: 1, pp.7-24 (Special Issue: Turkey as a Trans-Regional Actor)

While Turkey pursued a relatively passive or reactive foreign policy stance during the Cold War era, its post-Cold war foreign policy has been marked by subsequent waves of foreign policy activisim.1 This article argues that Turkish foreign policy in the post-Cold War period may be conceptualized in terms of three distinct phases: (a) an initial wave of foreign policy activism in the immediate post-Cold War context; (b) a new or second wave of foreign policy activism during the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government with a strong emphasis on Europeanization; (c) the current tension between Europeanization and Eurasianism. The roots of the second wave of activism can, in fact, be traced to the pre-AKP era to the crucial Helsinki Decision on Turkey’s EU candidacy and the reforms undertaken by the coalition government of 1999-2002 particularly in the aftermath of the deep financial crisis of 2001. However, the AKP era itself has not been homogenous in terms of foreign policy behavior.2 Our central contention is that there is considerable continuity in terms of foreign policy activism and a multilateral approach to policy making during the AKP era. Yet, at the same time a certain discontinuity or rupture may be identified towards the middle of the first AKP government signifying shift from a commitment to deep Europeanization to loose Europeanization and a parallel shift to what may be classified as soft Euro-asianism.

The prominent strategist Brzezinski portrayed Eurasia as a “grand chessboard,” where both regional and global actors compete arduously to enhance their geo-strategic and economic interests.3 Turkey is clearly a pivotal country in this grand chess board, which tries to reconcile its long-lasting European orientation with a countervailing trend towards Euro-asianism. Moreover, there are significant tensions on the domestic front in trying to balance different components of its identity, cultural, geographical, historical, and strategic factors, as well as in struggling to consolidate democracy, while preserving secularism in a predominantly Muslim society. The critical equilibrium, which will emerge on both fronts and the interaction of these domestic and international factors will also ultimately determine the path of the new wave of activism in Turkish Foreign policy.

Foreign Policy Activism during the AKP Era: The Distinguishing Elements
The AKP’s emphasis on democratization and the use of soft power is all the more striking in the post 9/11 context, during which there has been a significant shift away from democratization to “securitization” at the global level. This process has been expedited by the rise of new challenges including international terror and religious extremism, proliferation of threats coming from non-state actors and intensification of globalization. From a comparative perspective, the following elements render AKP style policy activism quite distinct from the earlier wave of foreign policy activism during the 1990s.

The Europeanization process whose roots can be traced to the mid-1990s is pursued with a far greater degree of consistency and vigor especially in the so-called golden years of the AKP, the period from November 2002 to the opening of accession negotiations (December 2004/ October 2005). The positive effects of the deep Europeanization process manifested itself in three interrelated and mutually supporting areas. First, this was one of the successful periods of economic growth in recent Turkish economic history. Turkey experienced significant economic growth. The EU anchor together with the IMF induced reforms were instrumental in generating monetary and fiscal discipline, as well as important regulatory reforms which in turn contributed to the achievement of single digit inflation and high rates of economic growth. Indeed, Turkey managed to attract significant amounts of foreign direct investment, for the first time, during this particular period.4 Second, the golden age was characterized by major reforms on the democratization front. Turkey took giant steps in the direction of democratic consolidation by a series of major reforms building upon the initiatives of the earlier administration (which involved such key steps as eliminating the death penalty) and dealing with its perennial Kurdish problems through a series of democratic openings that involved the extension of cultural and language rights to its citizens of Kurdish origin.5 The third area affected Europeanization is conduct of foreign policy.6

AKP’s foreign policy style is characterized by greater emphasis on the use of soft power and developing friendly relations with all neighbors. One significant policy initiative has been targeting “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors signaling a deviation from the classical fixed positions of Turkish foreign policy. This divergence is particularly evident in the context of the Cyprus dispute. The AKP government has displayed considerable willingness in resolving the Cyprus dispute along the lines of the UN/Annan Plan as part of an attempt to find an internationally acceptable solution to the Cyprus issue. Moreover, in the conducive environment ensuing Öcalan’s capture in 1999 and Beşir al-Asad’s ascendance to power, there has been a striking improvement in both the political and economic relations with Syria. There is now even a free trade agreement further integrating the economies of these avid adversaries of the 1990s, during which Syria played the “terror card” backing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against “the water card” of Turkey.7 Another good example is relations with Georgia, which displays a substantial increase in economic interdependence as clearly revealed by the use of Batum airport as a domestic one by Turkey and the growth of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project.

This multi-dimensional approach to foreign policy was very much influenced by Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “strategic depth” perspective.8 Foreign policy is perceived no longer as a series of bilateral relations or foreign policy moves, but as a series of mutually reinforcing and interlocking processes. In this respect, Davutoğlu argues that in order to formulate a long-lasting strategic perspective, one needs to take into account “historical depth” which provides a sound assessment of the links between the past, present and the future, as well as a “geographical depth” penetrating into the intricate dynamics of the relations between domestic, regional and global factors.9 The geo-cultural, geo-political and geo-economic factors that contribute to the strategic depth of a country could only be genuinely interpreted at the intersection of these historical and geographic paradigms. Moreover, making an analogy of a bow and an arrow, he argues that the further Turkey strains its bow in Asia, the more distant and precise would its arrow extend into Europe. Hence, he states that “If Turkey does not have a solid stance in Asia, it would have very limited chances with the EU.”10


Loss of Momentum of the Europeanization Drive: Retreat to “Soft-Euro-Asianism”?

Turkey’s Pivotal Role as a Benign Regional Power: The AKP’s Foreign Policy in the Light of the Previous Wave of Foreign Policy Activism

Concluding Remarks
The new wave of foreign policy activism during the AKP era has started out with a strong emphasis on Europeanization. However, the AKP era itself displays elements of continuity and change in terms of foreign policy behavior. Our central thesis is that there is significant continuity in terms of a pro-active and a multilateral approach to policy making. Yet, one is able to detect a certain rupture after the early years of the AKP government. The discontinuity is marked by a shift from a commitment to deep Europeanization to loose Europeanization and a simultaneous shift to soft Euro-asianism.

What we increasingly observe in the current era is the emergence of an implicit broad and mutually reinforcing coalition for “special partnership”, which seems to be deeply rooted both in the European and Turkish contexts. This constitutes a significant danger from the point of Turkey’s full-membership prospects. The proponents of Turkish membership both at home and abroad appear to be increasingly less vocal and enthusiastic compared to their Turko-skeptic and Euro-skeptic counterparts. The retreat to soft Euro-asianism certainly does not signify the abandonment of the Europeanization project altogether. What it means, however, is that the EU will no longer be at the center-stage of Turkey’s external relations or foreign policy efforts. This, in turn, is likely to have dramatic repercussions for the depth and intensity of the democratization process in Turkey especially in key areas such as a complete reordering of military-civilian relations, an extension of minority rights and a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem, as well as counteracting the deeply embedded problem of gender inequality. There is no doubt that there exists key elements within the Turkish state and Turkish society, which would be quite content with the loose Europeanization solution given the perceived threats posed by a combination of deep Europeanization and deep democratization for national sovereignty and political stability. The fears of deep Europeanization are not simply confined to the defensive nationalist camp. There also exists considerable conservatism even in the much more globally oriented AKP circles, when it comes to deep democratization agenda, as it is clearly evident from the resistance to the repealing of the article 301 of the penal code.

A final question to raise in this context is whether the retreat to loose Europeanization/soft Euro-asianism is likely to be reversed. The likelihood of a major reversal in the immediate term appears to be rather low. There are developments, however, which create room for optimism. For instance, the change of government in the Republic of Cyprus, followed by the decision taken on the part of the leaders of both communities in the North and the South to restart negotiations in the direction of re-unification, suggest that there is a possibility of a peaceful resolution of the Cyprus conflict. Such progress may help to clear away perhaps the major hurdle on the path of Turkey’s EU membership. Moreover, the recent decision of the Constitutional Court not to close the AKP might have a positive impact in terms of creating incentives for the party leadership to reactivate its commitment to deep Europeanization and the associated reform process. From a longer-term perspective, two possibly mutually reinforcing developments may facilitate a renewed impetus to the deep Europeanization agenda. The first element of such a scenario would involve a new enlargement wave in Europe, which would incorporate the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Turkey as a country, which has already reached the point of accession negotiations will not be immune to such a process. The second element of such a scenario would involve the emergence of a strong counter-movement from the more liberal and Western-oriented segments of the Turkish society, who will place Europeanization and reform firmly on its political agenda.

Turkey will continue to be an important regional power even if its foreign policy stance is characterized by soft Euro-asianism. However, the first-best choice for Turkish foreign policy would be a commitment to deep Europeanization; in other words, making the EU membership the pivotal element or the central axis of its multi-dimensional foreign policy. The benefits of deep Europeanization have already manifested themselves in terms of (a) strong economic performance (b) major steps towards democratic consolidation and (c) foreign policy based on soft power. These three elements are clearly interdependent and tend to create a kind of virtuous cycle, which would be very difficult to sustain under the second best choice of a loose Europeanization agenda. Following the recent Constitutional Court decision, one may feel somewhat more optimistic about the future and hope that the AKP will be able to revitalize its commitment to deep Europeanization and reform which had been a hallmark of its policy in the early years of its tenure in government.

Turkey has a critical role to play for the enhancement of peace and stability in its volatile region as a pivotal power with substantial influence and capabilities. However, it can play a more constructive and effective role, as a benign rather than a coercive power, if it successfully fulfills four challenging tasks by (1) consolidating its democracy; (2) maintaining good neighborly relations; (3) achieving a balance in its troublesome EU-Turkey-US triangle and (4) operating within a predominantly European framework while pursuing a multilateral foreign policy with extensive Eurasian ties. On all fronts, Turkey has a challenging period ahead, during which it needs to overcome numerous domestic and international obstacles, which will not only determine the future path of Turkish foreign policy, but will have very significant regional implications.

Full-text of the paper is available; click here.

Many thanks to the authors for their kind permission to publish this paper at Düşünce Kahvesi.
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