Turkey Acting in the Emerging World

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
28 February 2013
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The world is transforming at an unprecedented speed and Turkey’s efforts to accommodate itself in the emerging geopolitical configuration are attracting growing attention across the globe. A prime characteristic of the emerging global order is that no country is in a hegemonic position to set the rules and expect others to abide by them.

A quite number of analysts are talking about the birth of a non-polar order in which states find themselves in competition with other states as well as non-state actors. The traditional western powers which had engineered the contemporary international order according to their interests in the wake of the Second World War are increasingly being challenged by ‘non-western powers’. The calls for a new international order that accommodates the interests of the so-called rising powers and reflects the multipolar and relativist character of the emerging geopolitical environment have been on the rise. Whether the new century will be a Chinese one or a post-American blend remains to be seen. Yet, what is certain is that a new order has already been in the making and the primacy of the West can no longer be taken for granted. 


The practice of ‘followership’ has long become an outdated course of action while long-term alliance relationships have lost a great part of their appeal. In today’s world, many sates enter pragmatic and selective engagements with other states and non-state actors depending on the subject matter under consideration. Simultaneously joining various multilateral organizations and establishing pragmatic bilateral relations with other actors seem to be the lingua franca of contemporary international relations. Not only have actors multiplied but also issues of global concern have become increasingly intermeshed with each other. That is to say there is both a widening of actors a deepening of issues. 


Unlike the Cold War era, the United States is not now in a position to secure the security cooperation of its allies within NATO. That the US could not muster an intra-alliance support to its military operation against Iraq in March 2003 should be seen as the harbinger of what has transpired in the following years in transatlantic relations. The allies have differed to a great extent concerning NATO’s expansion, NATO’s new strategic rationale, the logic of relations with Russia, the transformation of the Alliance into a global security organizations and so forth. The way how to define threats to security and the means to cope with them appear to vary across actors and power blocks.


A notable development in this context is the acceleration and intensification of the integration process in Europe so much so that the European Union has gone a long way to develop a distinctive international identity of its own, somehow independent of its links to the United States through NATO. Despite some conjectural institutional and economic crises engulfing the EU members, such as the latest one, it would not be an overestimation to argue that the EU is now a sui generis international actor defining its identity and interests somehow differently from other global actors.  


Given that the traditional lines between external and internal policy domains do no longer hold true, in today’s world foreign policy is domestic policy and vice versa. Foreign policy decisions are increasingly being taken with some domestic policy considerations in mind and some domestic policies are being adopted in line with national role conceptualizations against the background of external environment.


Growing degree of interdependency is another aspect of the emerging order in that non only actors of various kinds are becoming significantly dependent on each other but also issues of various nature seem to be very much intermingled with each other. The possibility of pursuing zero-sum oriented foreign policies is getting less and less given that the high degree of interdependency among states leads them to act cautiously and prudently. Either win-win or lose-lose trajectories appear possible.  


States are still considered to be sovereign in terms of international law, yet the notion of total independence is no longer valid. Besides, the notion of internal/empirical sovereignty is becoming more important than the notion of external/jurisdictional sovereignty with regard to the discussions held on states’ legitimacy across the globe. The way how states are ruled internally and to what extent rulers meet the fundamental concerns of the ruled is now becoming more important than being conferred external recognition in terms of measuring international legitimacy. States are no longer the sole referent of international law with human beings becoming more important each passing say. The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states is being eroded in the face of the emerging global consciousness that state leaders are not only accountable for their doings to the people they rule but also they need to pass the legitimacy test in the eyes of outsiders. Despite some fierce objections, mostly emanating from the sovereignty-sensitive rulers, the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ is gaining global salience. 


Turkey is not immune to such trends. The first point to underline in this context is that Turkey’s efforts to pursue a multi-dimensional and multi-directional foreign policy orientation should be seen as reflecting the desire of Turkish rules to help accommodate Turkey within the emerging non-polar world. The catchy phrase of the new Turkish foreign policy would be ‘Turkey is here and there’. For example, the membership in NATO is as valuable and useful as forming strategic and economic partnerships with non-western rising powers. Siding with the BRICS on some issues and trying to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are not attempts at overshadowing the importance of Turkey’s place in the western security organizations. Similarly, trying to become a member of the European Union and setting in motion a liberal-democratic transformation process at home in line with the norms held appropriate inside the EU does not contradict Turkey’s efforts to help bring into existence Turkey-friendly environments in  neighboring regions, most notably the Middle East.


Besides, Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union does not mean that Turkey fully sign off to the idea that the constitutive norms of the European Union are more legitimate than others and Turkey prioritizes looking abroad from the perspective of the European Union. On the contrary, it seems that Turkey transforms itself in line with the EU norms to the extent this contributes to Turkey’s national interests at home and abroad as well as provides Turkey with the capability of helping shape EU’s international identity from within. The accession process is important so long as it adds up to Turkey’s hard and soft power capabilities. That’s it.  


Similarly helping the West reach out to the East is as much noble a foreign policy course of action as acting to represent the East and the Islamic world inside the West. Turkish rulers seem to have adopted the view that Turkey would be well-advised to play a ‘connector role’ in the emerging non-polar world. Turkey’s success to find a legitimacy place in this new world appears to be closely linked to Turkey’s success to connect different nods to each other. Turkey had better feel itself at home simultaneously in the West, East, North and South, rather than acting to represent one at the expense of others. Turkey’s ability, though, to feel as such would be closely affected by Turkey’s success to bring these opposing directions closer to each other. That is why Turkish rules value that a Turk heads the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that Turkey co-chairs the UN-led Alliance of Civilization Initiative with Spain and that high-level Turkish diplomats occupy important positions in key western organizations.


Reflecting the trend towards further interdependence among states, Turkish foreign policy can be seen as the sum of attempts at navigating the ship of Turkey in uncharted waters as successfully as possible. That is to say that the practice of depicting certain countries as friends or enemies in advance does not yield payoffs. Experiencing rivalry and strategic competition with some countries on some issues is not seen as an obstacle before cooperating with them on others. For example, having some disagreements with the United States and some European countries does (should) not lead Turkish leaders to bury the bridges with NATO and the European Union. The degree of anti-American feelings might be extraordinarily high at home, particularly compared to Turkey’s allies within NATO, yet Turkey continues to cooperate with the United States on some issues of critical importance.


Similarly, despite fact that the accession process with the European Union seems to have being going nowhere over the last years and that the number of Turks who have grown skeptical about Turkey’s eventual membership has radically increased, Turkey still cooperates with the EU on many issues due to the main reason that the degree of interdependence between the two has increased so much so that neither has the luxury of turning its back against the other. A similar logic equally applies to Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran. Turkey has developed quite interdependent relationship with these countries, so that experiencing disagreement with them on some issues, such as the ongoing internal war in Syria, does not prevent Turkey from cooperating with them on other issues, such as energy and terrorism.


Turkish foreign policy, as it has unfolded in recent years, also suggests that Turkish leaders are not as much sensitive as they used to be on the issue of ‘absolute sovereignty and non-involvement in internal affairs’. In line with the increasing liberalization and pluralization at home, Turkish leaders seem to be more tolerant of external voices on internal issues. This also manifests itself in Turkey’s increasing efforts to have an impact on the internal policies of other states, most notably neighbors to the south. 


Last but not the least, Turkish foreign policy practices in recent years demonstrate the internalization of the idea that the lines between foreign and domestic policies become more blurred than ever. The most palpable indication of this mentality takes place in so far as Turkey’s efforts to get rid of the Kurdish problem are concerned. That is to say that Turkey’s increasing efforts to solve the Kurdish problem at home is as much a domestic political concern as a particular foreign policy action aimed at helping mitigate the negative consequences of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.


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