Turkey’s Growing Foreign Policy Ambitions
Backgrounder

Turkey’s Growing Foreign Policy Ambitions

Turkey’s geography and membership in NATO have long given the country an influential voice in foreign policy, but the assertive policies of President Erdogan have complicated its role.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Justice and Development Party’s headquarters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Justice and Development Party’s headquarters. Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Founded in 1923 from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey pursued a secular, Western-aligned foreign policy by joining NATO and seeking closer ties with the EU.
  • In recent decades, Ankara has angered some neighbors with its territorial claims; refugee policies; and military interventions in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.
  • President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are seeking to renew Turkey’s Islamic roots and deepen its ties with China and Russia.

Introduction

Following its founding as a republic in 1923, Turkey forged close economic and military ties with the West as part of its vision of becoming a modern, secular nation. But in the two decades since the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to rebrand Turkey as a free agent and a world power in its own right.

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In recent years, Turkey has drawn the ire of its neighbors and allies due to Erdogan’s willingness to launch military interventions in Libya and Syria, press territorial claims in the Mediterranean, and court China and Russia. Such moves have isolated Turkey and cast uncertainty on its future in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its prospects for joining the European Union (EU). With Ankara now struggling to weather a financial crisis, Erdogan is trying to repair broken relationships, including by seeking rapprochement with major regional powers.

Why does Turkey matter?

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Turkey emerged from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, which endured for six hundred years, spanned three continents, and ruled the Islamic world as well as swaths of Europe. Its lands have witnessed millennia of conflict and comingling between powerful forces—East and West, Christianity and Islam, modernity and tradition. Today’s Turkey reflects these influences but also seeks to portray itself as an independent power with a unique national identity. The country has built a close partnership with the West through its membership in NATO and deepening trade relations with the EU. However, it has increasingly butted heads with them over its democratic backsliding, relations with Russia, and other issues.

Given its position straddling Asia and Europe, Turkey can heavily influence the Caucasus, Central Asia, the EU, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Ankara controls passage through the long-contested Turkish Straits (the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles), vital waterways that connect the Black and Aegean Seas and through which hundreds of millions of tons of cargo pass each year. It hosts U.S. and NATO military forces at several of its bases, with U.S. nuclear weapons housed at Incirlik Air Force Base, and it has played a role in many of the post–Cold War conflicts in the Middle East. As a result, it’s also been a major transit point during the migration crises that have stricken the region. President Erdogan now aims to project Turkey’s power further, especially in the Middle East, where a receding U.S. presence has left a vacuum Ankara hopes to fill.

How has Turkey’s foreign policy evolved?

Modern Turkey’s boundaries were formed after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. The victorious Allies, especially Britain and France, occupied the region and sought to divide much of the empire among Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds. Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rejected the proposal and waged a war of independence that culminated in the establishment of Turkey as an independent republic in 1923. As the founding president, Ataturk instituted sweeping reforms to secularize the public sphere and advance his vision of modernization based on the Western model. His “peace at home, peace in the world” foreign policy focused on defending Turkey’s sovereignty while building ties [PDF] with its former occupiers.

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For most of World War II, Turkey remained neutral but sympathetic to the Allies, and after the war, it further strengthened ties with the West. It joined NATO in 1952 and began receiving U.S. aid in line with Washington’s anti-communist Truman Doctrine. This helped produce an empowered military that saw its duty as safeguarding the Kemalist consensus, a governing ideology based on secularism, nationalism, and a strong government role in directing the economy.

However, after years of violence between far-left and far-right groups, the Turkish military intervened to repair the country’s political division. In 1980, the military launched Turkey’s third coup since its independence, and with it came efforts to re-Islamize society and restore traditional values, including by instituting mandatory religious education and opening state-controlled mosques.

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What role has Erdogan played?

Erdogan and his AKP, a conservative party with Islamist roots, came to power in 2002, following a decade marked by political instability and a financial crisis. The AKP advanced economic and political reforms to bring Turkey closer in line with EU standards, and the country’s economy grew by 7.5 percent on average annually between 2001 and 2011. On foreign policy, the AKP’s motto was “zero problems with neighbors,” and Ankara aimed to expand Turkey’s influence by building trade ties, encouraging democracy, and emphasizing its Islamic identity.

But by the late 2000s, the AKP had become more authoritarian. It consolidated control over media organizations, purged the military of perceived dissidents, prosecuted and jailed critics, and quashed protests. In 2016, Erdogan seized on an attempted military coup to crack down further on his perceived opponents, who he alleges are led by Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in exile in the United States who was once Erdogan’s ally. Through a referendum the following year, Erdogan replaced the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one; abolished the office of prime minister, among other major changes; and effectively rendered himself Turkey’s sole power holder.

Erdogan has engineered an assertive shift in foreign policy that focuses on expanding Turkey’s military and diplomatic footprint. To this end, Turkey has launched military interventions in countries including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; supplied partners such as Ethiopia and Ukraine with drones; and built Islamic schools abroad.

How has the conflict with Kurdish groups developed?

The Kurds, a primarily Muslim ethnic group spread across not only Turkey but also Iran, Iraq, and Syria, are Ankara’s “dominating security concern,” says CFR’s Henri J. Barkey. Making up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, the Kurds have long raised fears in Ankara over their demands for more autonomy or, in some cases, independence. Turkey has waged war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that aims to establish a Kurdish state, since the 1980s—a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. Still, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey during the first Gulf War, and Ankara has maintained amicable relations with the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq even while opposing its quest for independence.

Erdogan’s government initially supported greater social and political rights for Kurds, but it faced backlash, particularly from ultranationalists within the AKP’s coalition. Peace talks with the PKK that began in 2012 have collapsed, and Erdogan is now seeking to shut down the leading Kurdish opposition party ahead of 2023 elections. Some observers worry these trends will convince more Kurds to abandon political solutions and turn to violence instead.

Fears of Kurdish nationalism have also shaped Erdogan’s interventionism in the Syrian civil war. Since 2016, Turkey’s military has occupied parts of northern Syria to push Kurdish forces away from the countries’ shared border, prevent them from consolidating their territory, and pursue the PKK.

What are other regional flash points?

The AKP’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has been undermined by rising tensions in several areas.

Mediterranean. Relations with Greece and Cyprus are long-standing issues. Greece fought the Ottoman Empire for its independence, and Athens and Ankara have come close to war on a handful of occasions in recent decades. In 1974, Turkey invaded and occupied half of Cyprus, which is divided between Greek and Turkish populations, fearing Greece was poised to annex the island; a UN peacekeeping force is still stationed there. Turkey’s expanding territorial claims in Eastern Mediterranean waters, where it seeks to exploit oil and gas to reduce its dependence on imported energy, have angered the EU and fellow NATO members, such as France. Ankara’s pursuit of energy resources also led it to intervene in the Libyan civil war, after Libya’s internationally recognized government supported its claims.

Quartet. Turkey’s ties with Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an informal grouping known as the Quartet, frayed after Ankara supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 2011 Arab uprisings. Relations worsened further after Saudi agents assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 and Ankara deepened trade and energy ties with Tehran, Riyadh’s rival. But with the Turkish economy suffering, Erdogan has reversed policy by attempting to improve relations with these countries. The new rapprochement aims to shed Turkey’s isolation and to attract much-needed Emirati and Saudi investors.

Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority nation to recognize the Jewish state, and the two countries cooperated closely on intelligence matters in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But Erdogan has strained the relationship of late by positioning himself as a champion of Palestinian nationalism, including by hosting Hamas members, and by publicly advancing antisemitic views.

Armenia. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire killed more than 1.5 million Armenians, a mostly Christian minority many viewed as a threat to the state, and expelled many more. Turkey emphatically denies that this policy constituted genocide, and it has long lobbied the United States and others against using the designation. These tensions persist: Turkey has supported its ally Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region.

How have Turkey’s relations with Europe evolved?

Turkey formalized its Cold War–era alignment with the West by joining European institutions, such as the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, and the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the EU. EEC membership led to the creation of a Turkey-Europe customs union, which allowed for the free movement of goods. Millions of Turks also migrated to Europe, particularly Germany, as guest workers.

The hope of joining the EU, Turkey’s biggest trade and investment partner, has been a major driver of policy and spurred the AKP’s early reforms. Formal negotiations began in 2005, but talks have stalled for a range of reasons, including opposition from many EU members, Turkey’s democratic backsliding, and its growing repression of the press, dissidents, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. Also, Ankara is facing sanctions from the Council of Europe over the detention of pro-democracy activist and Kurdish rights advocate Osman Kavala.

Refugee crises have further strained Turkey-EU relations, as Ankara has wielded its refugee population—the largest in the world as of 2021—as leverage over Brussels. In 2016, after the number of asylum seekers entering Europe via Turkey surged, Ankara agreed to block migrants from journeying to EU countries in return for increased aid. However, Turkey has threatened to “open the gates” in response to European criticism on several occasions.

How have U.S.-Turkey relations fared?

During the Cold War, maintaining a united front against the Soviet Union overshadowed tensions between the NATO allies, which included Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and denial of the Armenian genocide. Without a common enemy, however, they’ve drifted apart. CFR’s Steven A. Cook says [PDF] that Washington now shares few interests with Ankara, and argues for reducing U.S. reliance on Turkey, including by seeking alternative military bases elsewhere.

Cook and others point to Ankara’s closeness to U.S. adversaries, including Iran: Washington says a Turkish state-owned bank, Halkbank, tried to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Tehran from 2012 to 2016. The Syrian war further tested relations. U.S. forces in Syria collaborated with Kurdish groups linked to the PKK, angering Erdogan. Perhaps chief among Turkey’s complaints is its accusation that the United States and NATO helped foster the 2016 coup attempt. Ankara cites Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen, the alleged mastermind, as evidence; most independent experts are skeptical.

In 2019, Turkey defied U.S. warnings not to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which is incompatible with NATO systems. Ankara argued that it needed to upgrade its air defenses but was refused access to the U.S.-made Patriot system. The move prompted sanctions against Turkey as well as the country’s removal from the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. Washington insisted that Russian technicians maintaining the S-400 could gain access to the jets’ stealth capabilities. Experts such as CFR’s Max Boot say the affair demonstrated Turkey’s unreliability as a U.S. and NATO partner.

Despite these strains, Erdogan enjoyed an amiable relationship with President Donald Trump, who de-emphasized human rights and rule-of-law issues. In comparison, President Joe Biden has mostly kept Ankara at a distance; he excluded Erdogan from his 2021 Summit for Democracy and has referred to the Armenian genocide officially. But Turkey’s support for Ukraine against Russia has shifted the calculus: the Biden administration is considering selling F-16 jets and other hardware to Ankara, which it says would serve U.S. interests and NATO unity. At the same time, however, Turkey’s opposition to Finland’s and Sweden’s bids to join NATO threatens to further strain its ties to others in the alliance.

How is Turkey expanding beyond its traditional alliances?

As tensions with the West persist, Turkey is exploring other relationships, particularly with China and Russia. It has bolstered ties with Beijing, which became Ankara’s largest import partner in 2021. In 2015, Turkey joined the Belt and Road Initiative, giving it access to non-Western financing for infrastructure projects, including nuclear- and coal-powered energy plants, and spurring foreign investment from China. China has provided Turkey with billions of dollars in loans and cash swaps since 2016, and it has delivered tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses. Meanwhile, Turkey mostly overlooks the repression of China’s Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority with members in Turkey. In 2009, Erdogan described China’s abuses of Uyghurs as “genocide,” but since then, Ankara has not publicly pressed the issue.

Relations with Russia are likewise complex. In addition to the S-400 missile systems, Ankara and Moscow collaborate on infrastructure projects such as the TurkStream natural gas pipeline and Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Additionally, Turkey depends heavily on Russian energy imports. However, the two countries have backed opposing sides in recent conflicts, including the civil wars in Libya and Syria and the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 2022, Turkey initially tried to remain impartial in the Russia-Ukraine war despite an agreement to supply Ukraine with drones, but it later supported a UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion, banned all combat ships from the Turkish Straits, and blocked Syria-bound Russian aircraft from its airspace. Still, Ankara has opposed Western sanctions on Russia due to its own energy needs.

Some experts say Turkey isn’t shunning the West by cultivating these relationships. “[Turkey’s] new foreign policy is best understood not as a drift toward Russia or China but as expressive of a desire to keep a foot in each camp and to manage great-power rivalry,” writes Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Barkey argues, Erdogan sees Turkey’s ties to its Western allies as central to its aspirations to become a world power.

How does Erdogan envision Turkey’s future?

With elections planned for 2023 and Turkey’s economy struggling, many observers expect that the AKP will further emphasize nationalist ideology to galvanize its base. Erdogan is also seeking to elevate Turkey’s international status by establishing it as the representative of the broader Muslim world and by pressing his “bigger than five” agenda, which would see international leadership expand beyond the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. As part of this vision, Turkey has pushed its favored approach to Islamic law, especially in Africa, in competition with Saudi Arabia.

Erdogan’s unchecked authority could be particularly dangerous for Turkey, Barkey argues. “Erdogan inhabits an echo chamber of sorts,” he writes. “In the near term, this will translate into policy making that is simultaneously fast moving yet prone to potentially serious errors in judgment as well as ordinary mistakes. Its long-term consequences are difficult to discern at this stage.”

Recommended Resources

CFR’s Steven A. Cook analyzes the future of U.S.-Turkey relations in this 2018 Council Special Report.

At this 2021 event, CFR’s Henri J. Barkey, the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Ian O. Lesser, and the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Merve Tahiroglu discuss Turkey’s fault lines with Europe and the Kurds.

For Foreign Affairs, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that Erdogan will do whatever it takes to remain in power.

This 2021 event from the German Marshall Fund of the United States lays out Turkey’s foreign policy priorities from the opposition’s perspective.

Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations warns in Foreign Affairs that an independent Turkey is no longer interested in aligning its foreign policy with the West.

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Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly states that Turkey began occupying northern Syria in 2019. The occupation began in 2016.

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