Foreign policy perceptions, choices and orientations may strengthen a particular “order of things” at home. For decades, Turkish foreign policy not only reflected but also reinforced a “siege mentality” that portrayed its neighbors as enemies with territorial ambitions on Turkey. This created a tense relationship with neighbors with who not only the state but the people of Turkey developed a deep distrust.
Such a portrayal of the outside world made sense especially in the cold war years. Constant threats coming from the region justified the authoritarian power structure inside. Thus people at home had to be united against immediate threats in the region and be even aware of their internal extensions. Under such a continuous existential treat the idea of a fully functioning liberal democracy, human rights and pluralism were regarded as a luxury and even risky. The politics of survival laid the ground for an authoritarian politics supervised by the military, denial of the existence of the Kurds and Kurdish identity, delays in democratization and widespread-cross ideological nationalism. Survival and the security of the state were used as justification for authoritarian state formation. In short the threat perception that was exemplified through practical foreign policy issues served to tie down social demands, political actors and intellectual debates in Turkish politics. This mechanism started to change after the 1999 when Turkey was declared as a candidate country for EU membership. As democratization, economic development and good neighborly relations were required to be a full member in the EU the Turkish governments as well as social forces pushed hard to change this mechanism of foreign policy that served to securitization of Turkish political and social spaces. As a result of what I call the “liberal turn in Turkish foreign policy” foreign policy ceased to be a ground for the securitization of Turkish politics.
A paradigm shift occurred from pure power politics to a liberal foreign policy agenda seeing the countries of the region not as adversaries, but as partners prioritizing cooperation over conflict and soft power over military might and bullying. This opened the avenues of mutual understanding, trust and cooperation in the region elevating Turkey as a country of mediation, engagement and multilateralism. Out of this new paradigm of cooperation, Turkish companies, civil societal organizations, think tanks, individuals entered into a deep interaction in the neighborhood. Later these social and economic actors acted as driving forces for a continued political dialogue and good relationship in the region.
When the Arab revolutions occurred many expected Turkey’s cooperation and dialogue based soft power approach would continue. But the resistance of the Syrian regime to change last year and Turkey’s inability to persuade Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to introduce reforms has displayed the limits of Turkey’s soft power to influence change in Syria on which the Turkish leaders believed to have great leverage. Realizing that their very image in the “neighborhood” as a capable country is at stake the Turkish leaders have moved from persuasion to coercion against Syria.
Meanwhile after the total withdrawal of the US in Iraq, the central government under Nouri al-Maliki backed by Iran and driven by the Syrian crisis confronted Turkey. While Turkish business in Baghdad suffers from this change of wave in the bilateral relations the government in Ankara realizes again the limits of its soft power to persuade Maliki to mend the damage. The same goes with Iran which regards Turkey as a regional rival.
The Arab spring and the ensuing debate about “Turkey as a model” have added to the overconfidence of Turkish political actors. The Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs started to talk about “constructing a new order” and “a new Middle East” under the leadership of Turkey. This new language goes obviously beyond the liberal premises of the AK Party’s earlier stand of cooperation, engagement and dialogue. Questions are increasingly raised as to whether Turkey has abandoned “zero problem policy” and “soft power” approach, and embraced a policy of regional hegemony even domination.
My concern is that these indicators of yet another paradigm shift in Turkish foreign policy might be due to internal political developments like whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will run as the presidential candidate in 2014 and who will replace him in the ruling party. Internal power struggle may radicalize Turkish foreign policy in the near future.