Dış Politika-Foreign Polıcy (Vol. XXXXIII – No.1, 2016) An Essay on the Factors Impacting Turkish Foreign Policy-Seyfi Taşhan

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Dış Politika-Foreign Polıcy (Vol. XXXXIII – No.1, 2016) An Essay on the Factors Impacting Turkish Foreign Policy-Seyfi Taşhan

An Essay on the Factors Impacting Turkish Foreign Policy

                                                                                  Seyfi Taşhan

There are a number of factors that impact the foreign policies of a country including that of Turkey. These factors may be summarized as history, geography, security, economy, culture, including religion, tradition, and ideologies. One should not say that these factors are determinants of a policy. They carry different weight at different times in consideration of international conditions and inclinations of major powers. In this essay, we would like to discuss how these factors, international conditions, and major power policies have influenced the formation and execution of the foreign policy of Turkey.

The Weight of History

In its history the vast Ottoman Empire was comprised of different ethnic and religious groups. People from the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Arab world were dominated by the Turkish, Arab and Persian cultures. What we call the Ottoman language (Osmanlıca) was basically Turkish with a significant number of important words acquired from Persian and Arabic. Anatolia and Thrace, the heartland of the modern Turkish Republic founded after the First World War by Kemal Atatürk adopted a largely unified Turkish as its official language. Yet, some of the ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire like non-Muslim Turks and Kurds continued to use their mother tongues in private. With the establishment of the Republic the non-Muslims were in a privileged position as they were conferred a minority status with the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923.

Modern Turkey being the primary inheritor of the Ottoman Empire both geographically and strategically, faced similar problems as far as its political geography is concerned. For example, the position of the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, the position of Turkish speaking minorities left outside the present borders of Turkey, and the people who adopted Islam in the Balkans during the Ottoman era: The foreign policy-makers of Turkey had to deal with these problems as was the case in Cyprus, which led to a military intervention. Turks’ nationalistic feelings, in the face of occasional oppressive treatment of Turkish minorities in the neighboring countries, had to be harnessed and Turkey always advised them to be loyal citizens of the countries where they lived. From time to time such oppressive measures by Greece and Bulgaria led to serious political disputes. In each of these case of such oppressions and Turkish attitudes towards them can fill volumes to explain.

Additionally, Turkish diplomacy faced irredentist claims from such neighbors as Armenia and Syria. All these issues are derivatives of the historical and geographical context of Turkey. In fact, some of the geographic borders of Turkey in the Aegean are still the subject of political hackling and sometimes can lead to dog-fighting of Greek and Turkish aircraft. The situation is similar in Cyprus where the Turks of the Island have established their own Republic, yet they have failed to secure recognition from Western Powers. As a result, other countries have also refused to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus despite the fact that the UN sponsored solution for a united Cyprus has been rejected by the Greek Cypriots in the referendum, while it was accepted by the Turks of the Island. As negotiations still continue between the two communities on the Island to find a lasting solution, Turkey must continue to provide security for Northern Cyprus.

International Conjuncture

The changes in international conditions continue to influence Turkish foreign policy. One major example is the end of the Cold War and the breaking down of the Soviet Union.  Until then, Turkey’s diplomatic activities towards the Soviet sphere, including the Middle East, which was a contested arena during the Cold War, were limited. Yet beginning with the Détente Turkey began to open its economy to the world economy by abandoning its autarchic implementations. Diplomatic and economic possibilities, and practices, began to flourish with Eastern Europe, Russia, Caucasia and Central Asia. So successful was this opening was that Turkey not only began to expand its economic and political visions to these areas, but also to Africa, Latin America, and the Far East.

Security dynamics are also of great significance. In this respect, we can consider not only Turkey’s security interests, but those of other countries as well. For example, the transforming security perspectives in Europe and US led to auspicious occasions such as Turkey’s acceptance as a NATO member as well all other European institutions, including a partnership with the EU. These conditions also increased Turkish influence in the Arab World, which was albeit short lived as political Islam took over or destabilized regimes in most of the Arab countries. Among other things, this led to coups d’etat in Egypt, turmoil in Libya and Syria, as well as divisions within Iraq. Arab Sheikdoms in the Gulf still firmly grasp their power. In contrast, Syria has invited Russia to help against Islamic revolution and to restore its territories, thereby inviting Russia to become an immediate neighbor of Turkey, which was pushed from its borders with the end of the Cold War, thus creating problems between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey’s own understanding of what constitutes security is also very important. Ever since German troops occupied Bulgaria during the Second World War security concerns became the dominant concern of Turkish foreign policy. During this period Turkey became a neutral country, inviting the ire of the Soviet Union despite its alliance with Britain and France, even though this was a benevolent neutrality towards the West. Despite serious pressures from Allied powers Turkey was successful in postponing its entry into the war against Germany practically until the end of the War. This dampened the spirits of the Soviet regime, which had high hopes of ‘liberating’ (!) Turkey from a possible Fascist German occupation and attaining access to ‘warm waters’; a dream of the Russian Czars since Peter the Great. Meanwhile, the Soviets also expressed demands to join the control of the Turkish Straits and territory in the East of the country for Armenia. Refusal of these demands by Turkey caused the Soviets to refuse the renewal of the non- aggression pact that was signed in 1925. For Turkey this constituted a major threat from the biggest military power in Europe and Turkey was not in a position to counter this threat with its insufficiently equipped army and First World War vintage weapons.

Therefore, Turkey needed the support of, and therefore an alliance with, Western Powers. More specifically, Turkey needed an alliance with the United States as Britain had abandoned its responsibilities for Greece and Turkey. Tremendous diplomatic effort was spent by Turkey to obtain US involvement in Turkey’s defense. The Truman Doctrine in 1947 was an important step in this direction, but it was a non-committal support for Turkey in the form of military-economic assistance. This was followed by Turkey’s membership in several European organizations such as the Council of Europe. NATO had refused to have Turkey as a member despite demands of membership by Turkey in 1950. Possibly this was one of the leading factors for Turkey to send a military brigade to the war in Korea to become a comrade-in-arms with the US. The US had begun to change its position towards Turkey and bore enough pressure on NATO countries to make Turkey an equal member in 1952. And this was a significant diplomatic and military achievement for Turkey. Stalin’s death provided a slight change of Soviet attitude towards Turkey. Even though Cold War continued, the détente process with the Soviet Union began in early 1960’s. Yet from the military point of view the Soviets continued to increase their military expenditure until the end of the Cold War. Against the Turkish attitude, Western European members of NATO began to reduce their military spending extensively after the official beginning of the détente process in 1965. In that sense, Turkey’s interpretation of Détente was different from that of its West European partners. Consequently, Turkish foreign policy continued to regard security as the most important factor in the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy until the end of the Cold War.

Occasional military interventions in its political life led to increase the role of the National Security Council in the formulation of Turkey’s foreign policy. It was only after the end of the Cold War that this role of the military in the guidance of the Turkish foreign policy was gradually reduced to an advisor status, as military came more under the political authority. Hence, the responsibilities of the Turkish diplomacy grew towards enlarged area of the world.

However, in recent years, security concerns were revived both because of Russian military interventions in Georgia, as well as the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s increasing military presence in Syria, under the pretext of being partners in the fight against Islamic terrorism, has disturbing omens for Turkey. With the exception of five small countries, the great majority of the European Union are also members of NATO. Different conceptual attitudes of NATO and EU have reduced Turkey’s dependence on West European allies in NATO and their role in NATO has also created suspicions regarding the effectiveness of the Alliance for Turkey’s security and defense.

In the worst years of the Cold War the value of NATO was a strong alliance. This served as a deterrence against Soviet threats until the end of the Cold War. Since then, for Western Powers, Russia is no longer perceived as a source of military threat and NATO’s deterrent value is highly reduced against aggression of Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union.

The revival of expansionism in Russian foreign and military policies, together with the rise of China, which is developing as the biggest military power in the world, have led NATO strategists to rethink the nature of the post-Cold War climate. Added to this, the increasingly transnational nature of terrorism has forced Europe and the US to rethink the role of NATO for defense against rising new threats. The Russian attitude towards Turkey has prevented Turkey’s effective participation in the alliance combating the turmoil in Syria because of a minor border incident that seriously damaged economic and political relations between the two countries. However, both counties have realized how much harm this friction has negatively impacted their economies and decided to repair relations. However, this is hardly reassuring for Turkey and the NATO alliance’s concerns over Russian expansionism.


As noted above, economics is another significant contributor to Turkish foreign policy. In the 1980’s Turkey engaged itself in a major economic reform process by reducing its autarkic economic practices and opening the country’s economy to the world; paving the way for Turkey’s full participation in the global economic system and the prevailing market economy. The developments of the end of the Cold War became a boon for Turkey as the improving economic climate and the strengthening position of Turkey led to new openings in Africa, Latin America and the Far East. For example, today Turkey has diplomatic representations in most countries in the world (more than 200 representatives in 136 countries).

The boon in the economy resulted mainly from increased foreign trade and tourism, privatization of state property, as well as the rapid growth in real-estate investments and construction industry. The lack of industrial reforms and meager investments in high-tech industries made the overall economy fragile, as we have seen during the recent friction with Russia and the crisis in the Middle East.


There is a tendency to assess Turkish foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics by highlighting the immanence of domestic factors such as the ideology of decision-makers and public opinion that underscore historical and cultural discourse. While mindful of the significance of these determinants, Turkey has often conducted a Realpolitik foreign policy wherein the international conjuncture, especially Turkey’s security and economic priorities, have played a greater role in shaping Turkey’s foreign policy. Moreover, Turkish foreign policy has been most successful when it has acted in a manner consistent with the principles of Realpolitik, and conversely unsuccessful when it pursued ideological policies.

We see the examples of such utterances from describing Turkey as a most important country influencing the affairs of the countries between the Adriatic and Pacific, and sometimes their utterances made Turkey not only a central-power in its region, justifiably, but extended its desired, but not substantiated leadership role in the world. Sometimes there is a divergence between the Realpolitik requirements and ideological utterings of leaders for political purposes. Such utterings have time again created difficulties for Turkish diplomacy, which has occasionally waivered from its Realpolitik course and supporting the utterances of leaders and public opinion. These ideological, or political, utterances have caused serious damage to Turkey’s Realpolitik practices, and could sometimes hardly correct it by diplomacy.

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