Is Turkey Turning its Face from Europe in the post-Cold War Era?

29 January 2010
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In the post-Cold War era, parallel to the changes in the international affairs, Turkey had to modify its foreign policy to the needs of the new world order. In the sense of this new strategy the question became how to undertake the problems of European Union and Cyprus. Turkey proved its good intentions about the EU. Accepting the Annan Plan was the biggest proof of the good deeds. However the EU keeps presenting the issue of Cyprus as a barrier in front of Turkey’s path. Conditions like opening the ports, recognizing Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus are all indicators of double standardization. In regard of this it might be right to say not Turkey but the EU is changing its axis.


Furthermore since Turkey has a multiregional strategic importance it would be noteworthy to underline that Europe has some drawbacks about Turkey’s potential in the political platform. It is visible that as long as the EU and Turkey keep their relations alive, this also means that the EU has to keep in touch with Middle East and Asia. Furthermore the end of Cold War entails to scrutinize Turkey’s geostrategic role because since the post-war era Turkey has become a much more active international player. As a result after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for newly independent and ethnically Turkish states, Turkey became a role model which was also crucial in terms of its role in Caucasus and Central Asia. Also Turkey’s place in the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts and 1991 Gulf War was considerable. Gulf War was also the first time that Turkey had a saying in the Middle East.


In the Europe front, the EU’s contradictory attitudes about the Cyprus issue strongly recall negative senses among the Turkish elites and general public. Turkish people generally think that Cyprus is used as a cover of Turkey’s exclusion from the EU. The reason that the EU keeps positing Cyprus as an obstacle and does not negotiate might be because the member states do not want to share the power. According to Rubin, Turkey had been generally known as an “inward-looking” country in the foreign arena. Rubin indicates that, Turkey, “avoided foreign entanglements whenever possible, though the country’s main goals were oriented toward gaining acceptance in the West, and especially to be seen as part of Europe” (1).


Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that there is no change in the axis, instead Turkey commits establishing global and regional peace around its very own axis. According to him, our axis is so robust that we look to the whole world around this axis (2). Also this statement was an example of the rough discourse that the Turkish government adopts in the last few years. It is a fact that these kinds of rebukes show that Turkey chose to follow a more independent path in the foreign arena. The way of declamation can be argued in the diplomatic platform but strictly speaking, Turkey gained respect in the region with this discourse.


Regarding to the EU front’s self-contradictory approach, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined that, although Turkish side voted for “yes” to Annan Plan, Republic of North Cyprus was punished by the EU and what is more puzzling that Greek Cyprus is now an EU member. According to his statement, the situation in Cyprus is not fair and what EU does is just to obstruct the Turkish accession (3). Moreover evidently the conjuncture allows the Greek administration to use the relationship between Turkey and the EU in its own benefit. Turkish politicians are all agree on the idea that the EU ignores the conciliatory attempts of Turkey and puts the blame of Cyprus conflict on Turkey. This view might be one of the reasons that Turkey lost its motivation about accession to the EU and tends toward to the Middle East. Tarık Oğuzlu also agrees on the idea that, the West should accept the reality that most of the Turkish people share a strong disillusionment with the West” (4). Oğuzlu continues that the EU’s reluctant approach towards Turkey’s membership caused, “the AKP government, despite all its pro-EU inclinations, might find it difficult to justify the ongoing Europeanization process [so] all political parties in parliament adopt more nationalistic and Western-sceptic discourses than the AKP does”.


In other words, the reluctance of the EU accepting Turkish accession caused Turkey to lean towards the Middle East. Rubin highlights that, this reluctance shaped Turkish responses on the foreign arena: “Turkey, historically a pacifist power, sent troops to Northern Iraq to fight separatist Kurds and threatened all-out war with Syria during the 1990s”. As a result of these acts, the theory of axis changing has appeared.


It would be more precise to say that, this is not a complete change of axis, but might be a deceleration in the membership process. Furthermore within Turkey there is an upheaval going on. The transgressions and regressions in democracy like Kurdish opening and Constitutional amendment debates, rumours around the army, and the problem of PKK keeps Turkey away from moving ahead in foreign politics. Öniş and Yılmaz call Turkey’s political orientation in the last few years as Euro-Asianism. According Öniş and Yılmaz there are transition periods in Turkey’s foreign strategies and they separate these phases into three: “an initial wave of foreign policy activism in the immediate post-Cold War context; a new or second wave of foreign policy activism during the Justice and Development Party government era with a strong emphasis on Europeanization; and the more recent tension between Europeanization and Euro-Asianism” (5).


Nevertheless it would be inexpedient that if Turkey, such a geopolitically important country, would not play one of the leading roles both in the Middle East and in Europe. Following a one-way foreign policy rather than a multidimensional one and sticking just with the European values would be inappropriate in terms of world politics. The indicator of world politics shows versatile political relations. With the end of Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Bloc a security gap opened and this shaped the characteristics of world affairs for almost 50 years.  Turkey’s advantage of being on the prevailed Western side became a kind of disadvantage in later years. A theory underlines that there is a group of secular elites who have the fear of axis changing and they are still acting with the Cold War mentality. In other words, they are acting around the axis of the West. However in today’s politics, organizing around the values of just one side can be valid only if the country at stake is Switzerland or another welfare democracy.


Theoretically speaking there is a clash of generations. Oğuzlu draws attention to the point that, “Turkey’s further disengagement from the West might intensify its fear of growing Kurdish assertiveness in the Middle East and lead her to adopt a more hawkish approach towards northern Iraq”.


It has been 20 years since the Cold War has ended. Today Turkey is still not a welfare country but it seems that EU member states disrelish Turkey’s potential of becoming more and more respectful in world politics. Turkey’s foreign politics has been transformed more than any other non-communist country during post-Cold War era. This fact brought Turkey to a much more important place in world politics. Furthermore, as Rubin mentions, except the US, no other countries than Turkey “plays a part in some many different geographical regions”.


During Cold War, while Turkey was following a reactive or passive foreign policy path, on the contrary, activism became the fundamental characteristic of its post-Cold War strategy. With Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign strategy started to restructure and adapt into the new era. It is now less romantic and ideational but more pragmatic and rational. While preserving its active communication with the US and Europe, it is orienting towards to Middle East and Caucasus to balance the power relations. There is no change in the axis; instead Turkey is becoming more Westernized. As Oğuzlu underlines, “acting as a European country in the non-European Middle East testifies to the Europeanization of Turkey’s foreign policy”.


Apparently the EU failed to solve the Cyprus issue and having conflicts within itself. The negative attitude of the EU towards the Northern Cyprus despite the cooperative decision has been taken about the Annan Plan is one of the crucial breaking points between Turkey and Europe. This intransigent attitude of the EU was perceived even among the most rigid supporters of the EU and the reforms as an unfair practice. Consequently changing of axis cannot be mentioned with regard to long lasting problems of Cyprus and the EU. Turkey supports the solution of the problem on the base of United Nations parameters. If changing axis means that turning its back onto Europe and facing to Middle East than the same claim can be made for France because of the negotiator role that it undertook between Syria and Israel. Besides Sarkozy’s project named Union for Mediterranean brings Syria, Israel, and Palestine together so this can also be named as changing in axis.


These are all diplomatic strategies of countries that want to become the regional power. It is a fact that the EU could not develop an operative policy in the Mediterranean region and Turkey fills this space with all of its geographic, economic, political, militaristic energy. It is clear that Turkey does not turn away from the West. However to satisfy the needs of modern politics it has to develop a foreign policy that targets other fronts too. Turkey’s foreign policy is to get along with all the countries that it is in relation with. That is to say AKP’s understanding of foreign affairs is developing good relations with the world and emphasizing the use of soft power. The difference of this newly constructed foreign policy can be seen especially in the serious endeavours about solving the Cyprus problem and finding a solution which can reach to an international settlement. As a conclusion it would be wrong to take this strategy as change in the axis. As mentioned above the important thing is establishing a peace and stability atmosphere around this axis.




1-Rubin, B. (2001): ‘A Transformed International Role’ in B. Rubin and K. Kirişçi (Eds) Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multiregional Power. USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers.






4-Oğuzlu, T. (2008): ‘Middle Easternization of Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Does Turkey Dissociate from the West?’ in Turkish Studies. Vol: 9, No:1, p: 3-20.


5-Öniş, Z. and Yılmaz, Ş. (2009): ‘Between Europeanization and Euro-Asianism: Foreign Policy Activism in Turkey During the AKP Era’ in Turkish Studies.  Vol: 10, No: 7, p: 7-24.

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