Quest for strategic autonomy continues, or how to make sense of Turkey’s “new wave”

December 08, 2011, Thursday/ 10:57:00

Turkey’s pursuit of foreign policy activism in the midst of the Arab Spring continues unabated and the transformation of the content of Turkey’s regional policies is remarkable.

There is growing intellectual and analytical curiosity to define this new phase of the apparent deviations from Ankara’s positions a year ago.

A welcome contribution is offered by Ian Lesser in a recent On Turkey piece, “Turkey’s Third Wave — And the Coming Quest for Strategic Reassurance,” where he identifies a structural transformation, or what he calls the coming of the “third wave,” in Turkish foreign policy. As the permissive external environment, which had enabled the ambitious second wave — i.e., the erosion of security-centered worldview and rise of a liberal neighborhood policy — eclipses, Lesser expects Turkey to face a more risk-prone, unstable, and unpredictable environment. With the return of security questions in this third wave, Turkey is advised to make a meta choice and pursue reassurance and deterrence through closer cooperation with its traditional partners in the West, with which it increasingly has overlapping security concerns, and avoid unilateralism or nationalism.

This brief advances Lesser’s analysis one step further by asking what the extent to which Turkish leaders will seize the moment in the manner he advises them to do might be.

Getting the drivers of the “waves” right: Beware the structural determinism

Explaining foreign policy behavior by using structural factors, for instance whether states operate in peaceful or conflict-ridden neighborhoods, is a well-established tradition in international relations scholarship. Subscribing to that structuralist premise, Lesser asserts that what made possible Turkey’s abandoning of a security-centric worldview and pursuit of liberal policies such as zero problems with neighbors was the benign regional environment Turkish leaders found themselves in. The changing security environment, the argument goes, is driving the recent redefinition of Turkey’s foreign policy.

As someone who also believes in the analytical value of the structural perspective, I understand how the external security environment was a major causal force influencing the making of Turkey’s recent regional policies under the AK Party. Nonetheless, it was not the only causal variable at work. As other competing schools of thought on international relations argue when asserting the effect of external environment on state behavior, one has to be careful to avoid falling into the trap of structural determinism and downplaying the role of agency. Political actors are not tragic prisoners of their external environment, nor are they the switchmen who mechanically translate systemic effects into foreign policy decisions. They actively seek to shape their strategic environment and enact policies reflecting the worldviews to which they subscribe.

Agency of the ruling elite was an equally and perhaps more effective variable as the benign security environment driving Turkey’s regional policies when the country embraced liberal policies and an independent posturing towards the West during the second wave. In addition to the benign external environment, Lesser indeed cites other causal factors such as Turkey’s economic growth, the spread of a less hawkish security culture within the Turkish public opinion, and the decline of PKK’s terror campaign, yet mentions personality only in passing.

None of those factors, however, emerged coincidentally, nor were they independent from the way the AK Party perceived Turkey’s identity, interests, and international positioning, and conducted foreign and domestic policies. For instance, it is unclear if a different party in government would have achieved the same degree of economic success, nurtured a liberal security culture within Turkish body politic, and perceived the regional environment as benign, even if it was operating under the same structural conditions.

Let’s not forget that while the AK Party was aggressively pursuing normalization of relations with Armenia, Syria, or northern Iraq, it had to confront and take political risks against almost all political actors — including the opposition parties — and at times its own political constituency that were advocating the continuation of the security-centric foreign policy understanding of the first wave. Even the argument that the PKK-related security threats were contained begs to acknowledge that this was partly because of the specific nonmilitary policy the AK Party pursued to resolve the Kurdish question.

Quest for Strategic Autonomy: Now and Then To expand on Lesser’s analysis with insights from an alternative theoretical perspective considering personality and a sense of active agency as critical variables, we need to look at the driving motive behind Turkey’s regional policies during the AK Party’s term in office. At the core of Turkey’s regional policy has been its leaders’ ceaseless search for strategic autonomy. While this quest is common to many ascendant regional powers, in the Turkish context, it is nicely captured in Ahmet Davutoglu’s concept of “central country.” This concept is particularly relevant in this context, as we are dealing with actors that are equipped with a sense of mission and responsibility to redesign the destiny of their country after their own worldview.

Before the Arab Spring, Turkey’s assertion of strategic autonomy was expressed through increasing convergence with other regional powers, coupled with search for building various global partnerships. Ankara’s efforts to develop a nascent multi-dimensional partnership with Russia, bolster economic and security ties with Tehran, create cooperation schemes in the surrounding regions, and normalize political relations with neighbors were the most indicative manifestations of the new thinking. Overall, Turkey professed a dualistic attitude of declaring a commitment to the country’s Western orientation on one hand, and acting independently from its Western partners, accompanied by occasional rhetorical criticism of the West, on the other.

Thus, a distinguishing element of the second wave, which made Ankara’s new orientation a subject of intense debate, was Turkish leaders’ daring attitude, as at times they risked confrontation with the United States in pursuit of strategic autonomy in their region. Theirs was not confrontation for its own sake, however, for the United States more often than not was perceived as a potential hindrance to Turkey’s autonomy and a source of threat to its security. While Lesser aptly describes the role of the benign security environment in inducing autonomous action, we need to add to this picture how the United States conjecturally emerged as the element of instability and risk against which Turkey sought assurance and deterrence. The case of the Iraq war and its aftermath bear witness to the strategic rationale behind Turkey’s simultaneous quests for convergence with neighbors and divergence with the United States.

In recent months, Turkish leaders have definitely taken note of the changing geopolitical environment and recalibrated their foreign policy. Turkey’s relations with Iran have been going through a phase of more distance and even run the risk of creating friction over the deployment of NATO’s early warning radars or over opposing positions undertaken towards the Arab Spring. In shared neighborhoods with Russia, a similar cooling down of the passion for cooperation might be observed. The risks and threats, as well as geopolitical realignments likely to ensue in the wake of regional turmoil, raise the stakes for Turkey’s security. Consequently, while Turkey’s foreign policy lacked a strong defense and security policy component in the security environment in the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring, rising risk in the region has prompted Turkey to pay greater attention to security and defense policy, and hence come to reassess the value of NATO in the toolkit of Turkish foreign policy as a reliable force projection instrument and agenda-setting platform. Likewise, Turkey’s handling of the Arab Spring resonates well with Western positions and is increasingly undertaken in tandem.

Just as in the old days, however, Turkey’s behavior is driven by the same objective as ever. Partnership with the West, at this current juncture, is a valuable instrument as long as it enhances Ankara’s ability to meet the new challenges and expands the room to maneuver, not because of its inherent value. The quest for strategic autonomy still instructs Turkish leaders’ thinking on international affairs, and is unlikely to disappear.

Expect the continuation of the dualistic approach toward the West

A more nuanced analysis taking into account the role of political actors and personalities in the making of Turkey’s regional policies suggests that even in this current risk-prone security environment, which clearly led to Turkey revaluing partnership and coordinated actions with the West, the country will still cling to the pre-Arab world behavioral traits of self-confidence, assertiveness, and coolness

towards the West. This will be so, at least as long as the AK Party’s currently unchallenged reign lasts.

The voices coming from Turkey’s leaders as they respond to Syria clearly attest to this. Despite the failure of the underlying tenets of their policy in the case of Libya, they still continue to operate from a similar mindset and advocate policies based on the same conceptual framework. The policy convergence with the West on Damascus’ ongoing violent crackdown has not altered the political discourse of Turkish leaders on questions pertaining to the issues crosscutting the West and their Middle Eastern neighborhood.

Illustratively, despite his being hailed by U.S. leaders and media outlets, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan continues the same rhetoric questioning the West’s moral credentials.

One can debate whether this discussion of an independent foreign policy might be political posturing for domestic consumption or is a reflection of actual policy preferences. What is clear is that despite their adaptation to the transformations in their strategic environment and the emerging new geopolitical reality in the Middle East, Turkish leaders’ West-skeptic rhetoric will persist along with an enhanced strategic partnership with the United States. Such a dualistic attitude might remain as an interesting pattern in the Turkish-U.S. relationship in the years to come.

There are reasons to expect this dualistic attitude to persist. For their part, Turkish leaders realize that they have not paid any significant price for their confrontation with Washington over either the Iranian nuclear program or Russia’s reassertion of influence in the Black Sea and Caucasus. There appeared to be no strategic restraint presenting disincentives against this controversial dualistic path. Even in this new phase in the post-Arab Spring era, when Turkish leaders receive ample amount of applause from their U.S. counterparts, they see no reason to abandon the same dualistic attitude. The Questions to Ponder Lesser rightly posits that Turkey might need greater strategic reassurance and deterrence in the days ahead. Indeed, the partnership with the United States can serve as one significant strategic asset for such tasks in these turbulent times. To complete Lesser’s thought exercise, we need to addresses several questions about the other side of the coin.

First, it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at the limits to U.S. power and credibility. Turkish decision-makers are also following the debate on the transition to a post-American world closely. For them, it is increasingly far from certain that the United States can make credible commitments to Turkey, or that it commands the wherewithal to act as a strategic anchor to reassure Turkey and deter threats to its security in the volatile Middle East. They also increasingly realize that the United States need reliable allies such as Turkey to protect its interests or achieve its objectives in strategically important regions, and advise the world’s superpower to avoid unilateralism. If it wanted to reassure Turkey, the United States would be well advised to avoid reckless behavior that may trigger Turkey’s anxiety and prompt it to seek strategic autonomy through realignments with other powers.

Short of a more serious debate on those questions, it will be incomplete to talk about a new wave of Turkey’s regional policies or, at the very least, its contents. The quest for strategic autonomy might provide a clue for those seeking to make sense of the new era. Even without a crystal ball, it can be safely assumed that Turkey will not trade its strategic autonomy for reassurance and deterrence. Be prepared to see some of the same old wine in a new bottle: policy convergence with the West accompanied by desire for autonomous action and rhetorical criticism of the West.

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