from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Turkish Double Speak: Realism Trumps Idealism in The AKP Era

July 30, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The article below, about the AKP’s foreign policy in the Middle East, was written by my friend and colleague, Aaron Stein. I hope you find it interesting. 

In September 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being hailed from Marrakesh to Bangladesh for his country’s handling of the Arab revolts. Ankara was an adamant supporter of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and, after being presented with the equivalent of a diplomatic fait accompli from its Western allies, supported the military intervention in Libya. On the whole, Turkey’s rhetorical embrace of Arab democracy positioned Ankara as the natural “face” of the new Middle East and as a potential model for the three countries in transition. Yet, after a brief moment of Pax-Turkana in the region, Turkey’s transcendent foreign policy began a rapid decline. While Turkey’s democratic and economic progress were often cited as the reasons for Turkey’s growing regional role, Ankara has never included democracy promotion as a key pillar of its regional strategy.

In Egypt, after the electoral victory of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), many in Ankara had envisioned a close alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the overturning of the Cold War regional order. More specifically, there was a sense in Ankara that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, as well as other autocratic leaders in the Middle East, was a “natural transformation” and part of an “inevitable process.” The overthrow of authoritarian leaders in the Arab world, some believed, marked the end of the Western-imposed Camp David order, i.e., the American supported securitization of the region via undemocratic proxies to help ensure Israeli security and regional stability.

In Turkey, the start of the Arab revolts bookended a series of democratic reforms designed to deepen Turkish democracy. After surviving a Turkish judiciary led closure case in 2008, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in 2010, successfully proposed and passed a number of changes to the Turkish constitution via a national referendum. Shortly thereafter, in 2011, the AKP won the general election with 49.8% of votes – twice as much support as their closest competitor, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). The AKP, therefore, appeared to be at the height of its power, and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had no political equal.

Thus, for many Turkish academics and members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the collapse of the old order in the Arab world signaled the emergence of new regimes governed by popular will, rather than an autocratic and imposed ruling elite. Turkey’s transformation, therefore, positioned it as a natural leader of this new movement and a source of inspiration for others in the region to emulate.

According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “As the region was undergoing such a political earthquake, we aspired to position ourselves on the right side of the history and decided to make our humble contribution to this epic democratic struggle.” These contributions included the pursuit of a value-based foreign policy and “[unconditional] support [for] the demands of the Arab people wherever they are, and whatever the content of their demands are, because it was their right to demand the best for themselves.” Despite the lofty rhetoric, Turkey has not supported the demands of the “Arab people wherever they are,” and has instead thrown the bulk of its support behind democratic protest movements in states where a transition would benefit Turkish national interests.

For example, Turkey loudly proclaimed its support for the democratic transition in Egypt, but was largely silent when Saudi Arabia used troops to crush anti-government protests in Bahrain. In Iran, the AKP was one the first governments to recognize former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 election, even though thousands of protesters were calling for more democratic rights on the streets of Tehran. In Iraq, Turkey supports the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) right to negotiate independent oil contracts, but has responded with threats at the prospect of the establishment of an independent Kurdish enclave in Syria.

The differences are not relegated to a few states in the region, thus suggesting that the key driver of Turkish foreign policy decision-making has little to do with the uniform promotion of democratic liberalism abroad. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, for example, Turkey’s relationship with Hosni Mubarak was strained, owing to Egyptian concerns about Ankara’s relationship with Hamas and perceived Turkish meddling in the Israel-Palestine issue. Thus, Ankara had a strong incentive to tighten ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, considering Turkey’s previous icy relationship with the Mubarak regime, as well as the likelihood that the Brotherhood would emerge as the country’s most dominant political force. However, in the case of Bahrain, Turkey stood silent, largely because it had entered into an alliance of convenience with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which resisted change in Bahrain, to help overthrow Syria’s Bashar al Assad. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani represents a strong counterweight to imprisoned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, shares Turkey’s disdain for the PKK, and has been amenable to Turkey’s efforts to exploit the region’s oil and gas resources. In Syria’s Kurdish region, the dynamic is different, owing to the fact that main Kurdish party there is an offshoot of the PKK.

The practical application of Turkey’s foreign policy, therefore, suggests that when forced to choose between liberal idealism and realpolitik driven realism, policymakers often opt for the latter over the former. Hence, Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with autocratic governments when necessary, like in the case of illiberal Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria, while at the same time decrying the overthrow of the democratically elected Morsi. Moving forward, one should expect to see much of the same from Turkish policymakers. Ankara, therefore, is likely to continue its support for the KRG, to continue to condemn the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, albeit with some quiet engagement with Egypt’s new military appointed leadership, and, more generally, to pursue policies that benefit Turkey’s national interests. Ankara has pursued similar policies in the past and each time, the reasons for doing so had a lot to do with advancing Turkey’s economic and political interests in the region. It is unlikely that this will change all that much, even though the Middle East remains in turmoil.

Aaron Stein is an Istanbul-based PhD Candidate at King’s College London.

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