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Interview with Associate Professor Mehmet Bardakçı on Turkish Foreign Policy
The impact the AKP Party had over Turkey when it took over power is seen in this country's foreign policy. The decisions taken by the political party were significant, when it came to foreign relations, especially those involving major international players, such as the USA, Russia, the UN, NATO and the EU.

PhD Mehmet BARDAKCI

11/08/2021 Region: Black Sea Topic: Various

Mehmet Bardakçı is an associate professor of political science and international relations based in Istanbul. He provided his insight with regard to Turkey’s foreign relations in an interview he gave Geostrategic Pulse Magazine.

Geostrategic Pulse: What changed in Turkish foreign policy after the AKP (Justice and Development Party) took office in 2002?

Assoc. Prof. Mehmet Bardakçı: Significant changes took place in Turkish foreign policy after the AKP came to power in 2002. Needless to say, the architect of the foreign policy during the AKP era is Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former university professor of international relations. He first served as a chief foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Later on, he became minister of foreign affairs. Finally, he served as prime minister until his resignation in 2016. This new policy is based on the “strategic depth doctrine” devised by Davutoğlu, whereby Turkey has deep historical and cultural ties in the former Ottoman geography. These ties enable the modern Turkish state to cultivate strong relations with the states in its neighbourhood, turning it into a central state.

Moreover, the strategic depth doctrine emphasizes the multi-dimensional nature of Turkey’s foreign policy. It is stressed that since Turkey is at the intersection of various geographical regions, Turkey’s foreign policy identity cannot be solely based on one dimension. Turkey is at the same time a Black Sea, Caucasian, Middle Eastern, European, Balkan, Caspian, Asian, Aegean, and Mediterranean country. This new outlook brings about a radical change in Turkish foreign policy. That is, Europe is regarded as only one of the dimensions of Turkish foreign policy, albeit an important one. In other words, Europe lost its former privileged status in Turkish foreign policy.

Another important change in Turkish foreign policy under AKP’s rule is that the weight of the Western identity lost its significance. Unlike during the pre-AKP era, in which, for the Kemalist establishment, being part of the Western community of nations was a major driver in the conduct of Turkish foreign policy, the AKP looked at the foreign policy issues from the perspective of its own interests. This occasionally led to some crises with Europe. When the AKP believed that its foreign policy, economic, or security interests were not satisfied by the EU or NATO, it was more inclined to search for new alternatives. For instance, when the AKP government couldn’t receive an air defence system from its NATO partners against possible attacks from Syria and other regional threats, it didn’t hesitate to purchase the Russian S-400 surface to air defence system, causing a considerable amount of outrage among its Western partners.

Moreover, during AKP rule, Turkey turned into a trading state, whereby the role of the economy expanded in Turkish foreign policy. Economic growth played a key role in its success in the elections since it helped the AKP expand the support base domestically. The rise of the economy in foreign policy increased the role of private and semi-private economic organizations such as TOBB, TIM, and MUSIAD in the conduct of foreign policy. This was particularly the case until the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2010.

Turkey forged good relations with almost all of its neighbours under the motto “zero problems with its neighbours” until the outbreak of the Arab uprisings. During this time, Turkey employed soft power instruments in the conduct of foreign policy such as dialogue, economic interdependence, and negotiations. It also became a sought-after mediator in inter-state and intra-state conflicts and disagreements in its neighbourhood.

Last but not least, Turkey became an active player in foreign policy. Not only was it involved in regional issues but it was also active in areas beyond its neighbourhood such as Africa. Turkey’s active and benign foreign policy in various regions was instrumental in it winning UN Security Council non-permanent membership during the 2009-2010 term. At that time, it received 151 votes out of 192 UN member states.

Turkey has developed a close collaboration with Russia over the past few years. Will Turkey forge a strategic partnership with Russia at the expense of its ties with NATO and the EU?

Turkey forged a close partnership with Russia, in particular after the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The beginning of their close ties, dates back to the Mikhail Gorbachev era in the mid-1980s when Turkey signed a historic deal to purchase natural gas from its former Cold War opponent. The relations have since taken on a multi-dimensional form, encompassing energy, defence, investment, trade, and tourism. Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 defence system triggered the debate whether Turkey was drifting away from NATO and the EU and towards Russia. Indeed, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 was both a balancing act against the West and was due to the practical reason that its Western partners didn’t provide such an air defence system against missile attacks from the countries in the region.

The recent close collaboration between Moscow and Ankara notwithstanding, this cooperation is unlikely to transform into a real strategic partnership because of geostrategic, economic, and political reasons. From a geostrategic point of view, Turkey and Russia are at loggerheads over Syria, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Black Sea, and Cyprus. Economically, Russia isn’t a match to the EU, which is Turkey’s most important economic partner. In the foreseeable future, Russian-Turkish economic relations cannot develop drastically given the structure of the Russian economy based on the production of energy, raw materials, and weapons. Moreover, despite Turkey’s close partnership with Russia, Russia is also Turkey’s rival. When relations with Russia go downhill, Turkey feels threatened by it. Presently, Turkey has an asymmetric form of relationship with Russia. If Turkey were to develop a strategic partnership with Russia, this asymmetry would further deteriorate at Turkey’s expense. Furthermore, Turkey is gradually reducing its dependence on Russian energy as a result of natural gas finds in the Black Sea, the increase in LNG imports from the other countries, especially from Qatar, the growth of the share of energy imports from Azerbaijan, and the increasing use of renewables in the production of energy as well as the launch of the national energy efficiency plan.

How will Turkey’s relations with the European Union unfold over the coming years?

Following “the golden years” between 1999 and 2005, Turkish-European Union (EU) relations progressively declined after 2006 when eight negotiation chapters were suspended on the grounds that Turkey refused to open its airports and harbours to the Republic of Cyprus. After 2016, relations between Brussels and Ankara hit rock bottom since, from Ankara’s point of view, the support extended to the Turkish Government against the failed coup in July 2016 from Brussels and Washington was “too little, too late”. Ankara even aired doubts that the West, particularly the United States, might be behind the coup.

The EU officially froze the accession talks with Turkey in 2018 after they had already been de facto suspended on grounds of democratic backsliding in the country. However, Turkey launched a charm offensive towards the European Union at the start of 2021 to mend fences with the EU. However, it seems that the AKP government’s courting with the EU and the United States is just a transactional move and will not lead to any drastic change in Turkish-EU relations. The essence of the mutual fundamental criticisms hasn’t changed much. The EU is still critical of the fact that the presidential system in Turkey has few checks and balances, and there are shortcomings regarding the independence of the judiciary not to mention freedom of speech and the press. On the other hand, the problem of enlargement fatigue persists on the part of the EU. It appears that Turkish-EU relations will be business-like in which the parties will negotiate on various issues such as visa facilitation, the refugee issue, the updating of the Customs Union, etc. And the progress of relations will be dependent upon the “give-and-take” positions on these issues.

How will Turkey’s relations with the United States develop in the coming years?

Turkish-American relations went downhill after the botched coup in July 2016, behind which, the AKP government suspected to be Washington. The crisis of confidence continued with the United States’ refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt. These negative developments triggered the other crises between the two countries, including the US suspension of issuance of visas to Turkish citizens, Turkey’s arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, and the arrest of the deputy general manager of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank.

Turkish-American relations entered a new age, following the election of Joe Biden as US president. Even before coming to office, President Biden signalled that he would play hardball with the Turkish Government. Particularly, he raised the issue of human rights and democracy in Turkey. After President Biden assumed power, the Turkish Government sought to adjust its foreign policy to the new US government. By contrast, the outgoing President Donald Trump had been lenient towards Turkey, focusing on America’s domestic problems under the motto “America First”. President Biden said that the United States would return to global politics, from which it had retreated under President Trump. Moreover, President Biden indicated that he would revive transatlantic cooperation, which was neglected during President Trump’s tenure. All of these developments show that Turkey needs to coordinate its regional policies with the United States and the EU. Now, it will be inclined less to act unilaterally in foreign affairs.

What do you think about Turkey’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean crisis?

Turkey pursued gunboat diplomacy regarding its and Turkish Cypriots’ territorial rights and gas ownership claims in the Eastern Mediterranean during these recent years. Since the coup plot in July 2016, a siege mentality has dominated Turkish foreign policy, believing that Turkey is beset by enemies both inside and outside the country. Turkey’s assertive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean dispute was ideologically based on the Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, which granted Turkey a larger share of the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean than it currently has. The fact that a large coalition of countries, including the Eastern Mediterranean states, some Gulf Arab states, Egypt, the USA, and the EU states, confronted Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean further consolidated Turkish opposition and brinkmanship. However, Turkey’s brinkmanship reached its limits and Turkey finally shifted its confrontational policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and engaged in dialogue with the contestants.

How do you view Turkey’s Middle Eastern Policy?

During the AKP era, the Middle East occupied a special place in Turkish foreign policy because the AKP places a strong emphasis on Turkey’s Ottoman past and Islamic heritage. The fact that the leading cadre of the AKP came from an Islamic political background played a significant part in the increasing weight of the Middle East in Turkish foreign policy. A turning point in the AKP government’s turn towards the Middle East was the de facto suspension of Turkey’s EU accession talks after 2006. EU’s Eurozone crisis after 2009 further prompted the AKP government to intensify its ties with the Middle Eastern region as an alternative economic actor. Yet, the outbreak of the Arab uprisings after 2010 compelled Turkey to resort to hard power instruments to contain threats such as the rise of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Northern Syria, which has close ties with the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Turkey. As a result, the new geostrategic environment that emerged after the start of the Arab uprisings ended Turkey’s policy based on soft power, such as the “zero problems with the neighbours” policy, mediation efforts, and the settlement of the Kurdish issue through peaceful means. Moreover, Turkey entered fierce competition for influence with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt in the Middle East. It has also supported Muslim Brotherhood groups across the Middle East.