FIIA Analizi: Turkey’s New Strategic Identity

“Looking for a New Strategic Identity: Is Turkey Emerging as an Independent Regional Power?”

Hanna Ojanen & Igor Torbakov
The Finish Institute of International Affairs

Briefing Paper 30, May 2009

Summary

The recent flurry of Turkish diplomatic activity appears to be projecting an image of a dynamic and assertive international actor. The various moves that the Turkish leadership has made of late in the international arena, however, seem to have created some confusion among Ankara’s partners and neighbours.

The perceptions of Turkish international behaviour vary. The spectrum of opinions appears to be exceptionally broad, ranging from seeing Turkey as turning its back on the West to viewing Ankara’s foreign policy as being well balanced toutes directions, to characterizing Turkey’s conduct as being essentially “directionless”.

In reality, Turkish behaviour is shaped by both domestic and external factors. It is being influenced by the shifts in the country’s international identity and the changes in Turkey’s vision of its new geopolitical role, which themselves are the result of the powerful forces that are bringing about deep transformations within Turkish society and politics.

At the heart of the current Turkish foreign policy is a quest for a new strategic outlook and action that would enable the country to pursue an independent path on key regional issues and maintain balanced interactions with all its neighbours.

Turkey’s increasingly independent course, while undoubtedly possessing a significant positive potential, is likely to encounter formidable challenges. Furthermore, Turkey’s ambitions might well be constrained by the lack of resources needed to pursue a genuinely independent and assertive foreign policy.

For Turkey’s Western allies, a still bigger question is whether Ankara is able to balance the nationalistic public attitude and the need to continue working closely with Europe and America.

Debating Turkey

Turkey is a country that appears destined to provoke debate. Ankara’s recent foreign policy activism is a case in point. For quite some time, the Turkish top leadership has been tirelessly criss-crossing the globe – from Algeria to Saudi Arabia and from Russia to Azerbaijan. Everywhere they go, the Turks tend to air new diplomatic initiatives, offer mediation, advance blueprints for new regional security regimes and, last but not least, seek to boost trade ties. There is one feature, though, that cannot fail to catch the eye: almost all of Turkey’s foreign policy moves over the last couple of years have a pronounced Eurasian and/or Middle Eastern bent.

This remarkable shift in the emphasis and orientation of Turkish foreign policy has generated a wary response on the part of Ankara’s traditional Western allies – the United States, the European Union and NATO. The Western attitude to what appears to be Turkey’s change of direction can be characterized as a mixture of cautious encouragement and serious concern. The key questions that trouble Western analysts would appear to be these: To what extent will Turkey’s new assertiveness and ambitions. remain compatible with the West’s strategic objectives? How independent is Ankara prepared to be in crafting good neighbourly relations with the countries that the West regards as “problematic”?…

New strategic identity taking shape

To be sure, it would be a gross oversimplification to believe that the shifts in Turkey’s strategic orientation are driven solely by the AKP elites’ religious affiliation, greed or the lust for power. The electoral victory of Turkey’s “moderate Islamists” back in 2002 and the steady popular support that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül – almost 39% of the vote in the local elections in March – has been enjoying since then are themselves the result of the powerful processes that are reshaping the socio-political life of the country. Among the historical forces driving change are:

a) the spectacular economic development in the Anatolian hinterland;

b) the broadening of the elite through the emergence of the new ambitious provincial social actors, who are economically dynamic and culturally conservative;

c) the increasing role of elected officials and thus also a stronger government.

These changes generate important shifts in national identity, leading (among other things) to the rise of religious sentiment, which paves the way for identification and affinity with Turkey’s Muslim neighbourhood.

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