Is Turkey still in the West?

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
21 January 2013
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Since Justice and Development Party’s coming into power in 2002, a quite number of western observers have pointed out that Turkey has been shifting its orientation away from the West towards other locations, most notably the wider Middle East. The underlying motivation of Turkey’s apparent Middle Eastern orientation is supposed to have been the ideological underpinnings of

the ruling party. To this view, the JDP, coming from a political Islamist past, has been at odds with the core values of the western international society. The strategic depth doctrine of the current Turkish Foreign Minister has been interpreted in such a way to offer legitimacy to Turkey’s gradual Middle Easternization.


Turkey, among others, has been considered as a rising/emerging power that seriously challenges the core rules and norms of the western-led international order. Stated somewhat differently, Turkish rulers are assumed to have been uneasy with the configuration of the existing international order and have not hesitated to make use of each and every opportunity to help shaken the foundational roots of this order. To the western critics of Turkey’s foreign policy orientation under JDP’s rule, Turkey has begun to define itself more eastern than western and joined other powers to help bring into existence a post-western order across the globe as well as in its neighborhood. Turkey’s coming closer to the neighbors to the south, deteriorating relations with Israel, adoption of an ambiguous and critical attitude towards the European Union, growing support to Hamas, openings to Asia and Africa are considered to have been the footprints of Turkey’s non-westernization. 

However, looking closely it becomes clear that such characterizations of Turkey’s foreign policy understanding during the three consecutive terms of JDP rule would be unfair, if not totally wrong. Put simply, Turkey has not turned its face away from the West and Turkey’s increasing engagement in non-western geographies can be much better explained by the realpolitik-kind changes taking place at international and regional levels than the strategic depth doctrine itself.


Over the last decade tumultuous developments have taken place to Turkey’s south. The Saddam regime in Iraq was toppled and the United States became one of Turkey’s southern neighbors. The prospects for an independent Kurdish state dramatically increased with the Kurds of Iraq having found themselves under the American protection. The theocratic regime in Iran benefitted from the emerging power vacuum in Iraq. Iran has become the number one country in the Middle East to have increased its regional influence. The Middle East has also witnessed to a growing polarization between Sunni and Shiite regimes. The American efforts to contain the so-called axis of evil have intensified with the United States increasing its attempts at isolating Syrian and Iranian regimes. Other global actors, such as Russia, China and India, have also accelerated their efforts to penetrate into the region thereby pushing the global power competition to higher levels. Even though the Obama administration wanted to change the Bush-era policies, Israel appears to have been given carte blanch by Washington. This has emboldened Israel’s assertiveness and put the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the backburner of the global agenda.


The so-called Arab Spring has added fuel to the increasing instability in the Middle East by unleashing different political dynamics than the ones mentioned above. The region is now in flux as incumbent regimes in many countries have had to leave their places to new comers. As of today, no one seems to safely expect the future direction of developments in the region. To what extent liberal, democratic and representative regimes will take hold remains to be seen. The Arab Spring has also contributed to the strengthening of regional and global rivalries as important capitals have adopted diametrically opposing stances during the people uprisings. The Hobbesian character of the Middle East has been strengthened as the foundational stones of the regional order have turned upside-down. 


Against such a background, Turkey has had to adopt a proactive, assertive and energetic stance in the Middle East. Put another way, Turkey’s growing engagement in the region has mainly taken place out of necessity, rather than choice and will. It is now the case that Turkey’s security interests are very much affected by regional developments. Turkey’s territorial integrity, societal cohesion and economic modernization process are now closely related to political and economic conditions in the Middle East. For Turkey to continue its liberal-democratic transformation and become an economic powerhouse, the Middle East needs to transform into a stable and peaceful environment as soon as possible. This realpolitik requirement seems to convincingly account for why Turkey has recently become very much active in the region. For Turkey to remain aloof from the negative consequences of the regional developments, Turkish rulers have no other option but to help influence the future direction of the region. This suggests that growing Turkish assertiveness in the Middle East has nothing to do with a clearly-devised strategy of turning Turkey’s face away from the West.


Another realpolitik factor that also seems to explain Turkey’s increasing engagement in the Middle East is that two influential external powers have been mired in serious difficulties to shape the course of regional developments. The European Union is beset by its internal problems, whereas the United States is now downsizing its military presence in the region and pivoting to Asia. On the other hand, neither Russia nor China seems to have enough capability to replace the traditional western powers in the region. This suggests that Turkey’s maneuvering capability in the region has significantly increased in recent years.

One should also note that Turkey has not been in a position to devote much of its energy to the issue of EU membership, as the opposition to Turkey’s prospective membership has steady increased over the last decade. It is a paradox that while Turkey has institutionally come closer to the European Union than ever, the possibility of Turkey joining the EU as a member in the near future has radically decreased. When the institutional end economic problems of the EU combined with Turkey’s continuing economic development over the last years, the EU appears to have lost a great part of its power of attraction in Turkish eyes. When Turkey has begun to bridge the gap with the European Union in terms of economic capacity and level of democratization, the need to become an EU member has simultaneously decreased.   

The way Turkey’s Middle Eastern engagement has unfolded also demonstrates that Turkey has adopted a western/European outlook in the Middle East, rather than turning its face away from the West. This trend has become more conspicuous since the Arab Spring began two years ago. The messages Turkish rulers have been giving to their counterparts in the region are very much western/European in kind. According to Turkish rulers, legitimacy of regimes should first and foremost emanate from their ability to meet public demands and to make their people feel safe and affluent. Regimes should be accountable to the public for their actions and they should come to and go from power though elections. Turkey very much values soft power tools in its foreign relations and aspires to help bring into existence EU-like security communities in its neighborhood by paving the way for interdependent political, security, economic, social and cultural relationships.  


It is noteworthy that Turkey sided with the leading members of the western international community during the Arab Spring by supporting the protests movements in many countries across the region. The fact that Turkish rulers do not question the underlying logic of the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle also puts Turkey in a different category than other rising powers, most often associated with BRICS. While Brazil, Russia, India and China vehemently support the principles of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs of other states, Turkey seems to sympathize with the view that the international community can intervene in the internal affairs of a country where the rulers fail to stop mass killings, massacres and misery of their people. To this view, for a state to be considered sovereign and a legitimate member of the international community, the rulers of that state should meet the basic needs of their people, most importantly physical security, economic well-being and dignity.


Turkey seems to be of the view that the emerging order in the Middle East should be built on the principles of representative democracy, free-market oriented capitalism, respect for minorities, constitutionalism and societal pluralism. These are the very principles that constitute the gist of the western civilization. Similar to other rising powers, Turkey argues for the reconstitution of the international order in such a way to reflect the current power balances and configurations. Rising powers should be given more say in the shaping of the rules that characterize the international order. However, unlike them, Turkey’s approach towards the western-led international order is evolutionary and foresees the incorporation of the new rising powers into the existing system as responsible stake holders.


The Arab Spring has brought Turkey much closer to the West for two other reasons as well. The first relates to Turkey’s success in harmonizing western practices of secular democracy with Islam. The JDP-led Turkey is the ideal source of inspiration for the political Islamist parties across the region in terms of institutionalizing secular democratic regimes in predominantly Muslim societies. Second, the aftershocks of the Arab Spring, particularly in Syria and Iraq, have made it abundantly clear that Turkey is not well equipped with the tools to deal with the emerging challenges to its security. The decision to agree to the installment of NATO’s radar facilities in Malatya and surface-to-air missile defense systems on the Syrian border shows that Turkey still sees itself as part of the western security structures.


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