The End of the Cold War and Changes in Turkish Foreign Policy Behaviour – KEMAL KİRİŞÇİ

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The End of the Cold War and  Changes in Turkish Foreign Policy Behaviour – KEMAL KİRİŞÇİ

The End of the Cold War and

Changes in Turkish Foreign Policy Behaviour (*)

                                                       KEMAL KİRİŞÇİ

Turkey has responded  to this challenge  by introducing foreign policies that are considerably more activist and assertive,compared to the past.



The end of the Cold War has brought about major changes in international politics. The most easily recognizable change has been in the structure of the international political order. The center of activity in the previous order had been Europe, where the two oppos­ing ideological blocs faced each other armed with nuclear weapons. These nuclear weapons and the priorities of the leading two superpow­ers ensured a considerable degree of stability in the international poli­tics of East-West relations. However, this order has been completely overturned with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the col­lapse of communism. The ex-Eastern Bloc has been thrown into a pe­riod of rapid political transformation accompanied with an unprec­edented degree of instability. This situation has profoundly affected Turkish foreign policy behavior.

During most of the Cold War period Turkey remained in the back waters of international politics. Turkey, throughout this period, was a staunch ally of the Western Bloc. Basically, the parameters of its foreign policy behavior were determined by the strategic exigencies of its lead­ing NATO allies. The only few times that Turkey made it to the fore­front of international politics was usually in the context of crises in its relations with Greece or Cyprus. Yet, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey suddenly appears to have been propelled to the forefront of internatioal politics.


This new situation has manifested itself in a number of ways. First, Turkey’s subdued and passive foreign policy behavior has been replaced by an assertive one producing an impact upon the course of interna­tional political developments. A case in point would be Turkey’s active role in the formulation, adoption and the implementation of sanctions against Iraq after the latter’s invasion of Kuwait. Similarly the Turkish government’s ability to avoid direct involvement in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, coupled with its ability in getting various Euro­pean international political actors to condemn Armenian attempts to change frontiers by force are examples of Turkey’s active involvement in international diplomacy.

Similar activist Turkish foreign policy behaviour has manifested itself in respect to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Turkish gov­ernment has advocated strong measures against Serbia and the Serbian militias. In the face of the daily destruction inflicted on Sarajevo, the Turkish government has been very active in raising the issue not only with major Western political leaders but also in variety of fora rang­ing from the Islamic Conference Organization (ICO) to the Confer­ence on Security and Cooperation (CSCE). At these forums, the Turk­ish government has expressed its readiness to contribute troops to any international intervention force that would be formed. This has been the first time that Turkey was openly declaring its willingness to join an international force since 1950 when Turkey participated in the United Nations military force in Korea.

Secondly, for a brief period at the end of the Cold War, it seemed that Turkey’s strategic significance had diminished. Shortly after that a new Western consensus developed over Turkey’s increased importance in ­the search and eventual establishment of a stable order in the region. (1) This recognition is probably best demonstrated by the growing num­ber of diplomats and statesmen paying visits to Turkey. Ankara, for these leaders, has become a center for a wide range of diplomatic ac­tivities. The most significant of these visits obviously were those of Presi­dent George Bush in July 1991 and President Mitterrand in April 1992 The last time an American and a French President had visited Turkey was in 1952 and 1968, respectively.

Likewise, Turkish officials have been travelling to different politi­cal centers of the world. The Turkish Prime Minister, Süleyman Demirel who had a reputation during his past terms of office in the 1960s and 1970s for having never travelled abroad has already attended numerous meetings and paid official visits to a large number of countries includ­ing the United States and Russia. On the other hand, the Turkish For­eign Minister has already gained the reputation of Evliya Çelebi, the Turkish equivalent of Marco Polo, after having broken a record by cov­ering 100.000 kms. in just over half a year in Office. (2) This already makes him the most travelled Foreign Minister in Turkey. Just these visits in themselves are evidence of the fury of diplomatic activities in which Turkey has been involved during the first half of 1992.

Thirdly, there seems to be some consensus that this time Turkey’s importance for the West is not only because of its geo-strategic value but also because Turkey is seen as a suitable example or reference point for those countries that are emerging from the disintegration of the Soviet Union after the collapse of communism. (3) This is to some extent the result of a recognition that Turkey has covered a consider­able distance in liberalizing its economy and also has been improving its conditions for democracy since the early 1980s. (4) One manifesta­tion of the recognition of the economic policies of Turkey has been the support mustered for the Black Sea Economic-Cooperation Scheme (BSECS) from the neighboring countries. Similarly, there seems to be an expectation that Turkey should play an active role in encouraging Central Asian republics to follow its example. As expressed succinctly in the following sentence:

“Turkey’s chief value is to be an example to the region around it – a living demonstration of the proposition that a Muslim country can become a prosperous democracy, a full member of the modern world”.(5)

These developments have been reflected in a Turkish foreign policy behavior that is fundamentally different from the one during the Cold War. This article will examine in greater detail the nature of this change in Turkish foreign policy behavior. The article is divided into four sections. The first section will give a brief review of the essence of Turkish foreign policy during the Cold War. In the following section some of the more conspicuous manifestations of the changes in Turk­ish foreign policy behavior will be analyzed. It will be argued that the changes in Turkish foreign policy outputs are products of basically two processes.  One process aims at making an active contribution to the search and achievement of a stable order in a region covering an area ranging from Central Europe to the borders of China in Asia.   This,Turkish officials believe, is the only way to enhance Turkish security. The other process, which can best be seen as a short term derivative of the first one, aims at the management of a series of volatile political conflicts. This is done to prevent Turkey from being directly drawn into these conflicts in a manner that could undermine or disrupt the first process. The concluding section will argue that in spite of major changes in Turkish foreign policy behavior, there is a conspicuous con­tinuity in Turkish foreign policy goals. These goals primarily aim at ensuring the territorial integrity and unity of Turkey; the prevention of any interference with the regime’s efforts to realize and consolidate a secular-democratic domestic political order and lastly to develop a mar­ket oriented economy,

Turkish Foreign Policy and the Cold War

Turkey during the Second World War remained neutral and did not directly contribute to the efforts of the Allies to defeat Germany. The eventual Turkish Declaration of War against Germany, was a sym­bolic act aimed at becoming a founding member of the United Na­tions. (6) This decision must also be considered in the light of the then growing Turkish concerns about Soviet behavior towards Turkey. The demands put forward by Stalin included the granting of territorial con­cessions in Eastern Anatolia and along the Straits to the Soviet Union. This situation exacerbated Turkish fears of Soviet intentions. (7) These fears constituted the fundamental motive behind the Turkish foreign policy goal of seeking a security arrangement which would ensure its territorial integrity and neutralize Soviet demands. For Turkey the Cold War had started earlier than with the Western Allies. Turkey played a verv active role in attempts to define Soviet Union as an expansionist power. (8) This active diplomacy played an important role in the US recogni­tion of Turkish fears and the dispatch of the warship Missouri in April 1946. This symbolic act was then followed by the introduction of the substantive Truman Doctrine aimed at boosting Greek and Turkish de­fence capabilities accompanied with clear US commitment to support the security of these two countries.

By the time the Truman Doctrine was introduced there was general consensus in the West that the Soviet Union was indeed expansion­ist and that the Cold War had started. This manifested itself in Western efforts to form a military alliance against a possible Soviet aggression. The period between 1947 and 1952 was characterized by Turkish efforts aimed at persuading particularly the United States and Britain to admit Turkey in such an alliance. These efforts included political decisions which led Turkey, to be the first Muslim country in the region to recog­nize Israel and then send a brigade to fight the North Koreans on the side of the United Nations. This was, probably, the only occasion dur­ing the Cold War when Turkish foreign policy behavior took such a visible and active-form at the global political level. Furthermore, this behavior did enable Turkey to become a member of NATO in 1952.

Right throughout the 1950s Turkish foreign policy seemed very narrowly defined to include just defence and military related issues. The only exceptions to this was the part of Turkish foreign policy that dealt with the conflict in Cyprus and the European integration process. Even then, it is possible to argue that Turkish involvement in the pro­cess that culminated in the independence of Cyprus was considerably affected by defence and Cold War related issues. On the other hand, in Europe, Turkish foreign policy centered around efforts to participate in the European integration process. In this respect Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and then in 1963 signed an association agree­ment with the EEC. These too can mostly be seen as efforts to ensure a place for Turkey within not just military but also Western political insti­tutions. (9)

The period between the early days of the Cold War and early 1960s is frequently referred to as the tight bipolar era. An era, according to Kaplan, characterized by the dominance of super powers, in this case the United States and the Soviet Union, of international politics. Kaplan also argues that in such an international political order there is very little room of maneuver for small countries. This is essentially because the two Super Powers dominate the politics within each bloc they lead.(10) Hence, it is not surprising to find that Turkish foreign policy be­havior did not seem to go beyond the parameters set by the politics of the Cold War. The only time that it was active was in the very early years of the Cold War when the new order had not yet consolidated itself. However, the transition from a tight bipolar order to a loose bipolar one did precipitate some changes in Turkish foreign policy behavior.

Kaplan defines a loose bipolar international political order as one in which the Super Powers lose, to some extent, their monopoly over their respective blocs as well as over international political outcomes. This is primarily because the cohesion within each bloc diminishes un­derlining the absolute authority that Super Powers enjoy. This was par­ticularly evident in the case of the Western alliance as the leadership role of the US was challenged by France and growing economic inter­dependence made it increasingly difficult for the United States to be able to mobilize resources that once had enabled her to affect interna­tional political outcomes unilaterally. Furthermore, a loose bipolar or­der is also characterized by the emergence of a third center of interna­tional political activity able to operate, to some degree, independently of the two Super Powers. The Non-Aligned Movement with its own mem­bership and political agenda came to challenge a world political order dominated by the Super Powers and the East-West conflict.

It is during the period of transition from the tight bipolar to the loose bipolar order around early 1960s that we see a limited change in Turkish foreign policy behavior. While during the 1950s Turkey had remained an unquestioning ally of the US and NATO, two events in the early 1960s precipitated a search for a foreign policy approach that would be less dependent on the US and NATO. Turkish foreign policy makers perceived the manner in which the Cuban missile crisis was re-solved as an example of how a Super Power, when the need arose, could overlook the concerns and interests of a small ally. The decision to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey, even though it had been taken independently of the Cuban missile crisis, was seen as the outcome of a bargain between the two opposing Super Powers with little regard to Turkey’s security concerns. This, immediately, precipitated a debate in Turkey which seriously questioned the wisdom of a foreign policy that relied too much on United States goodwill for ensuring Turkish secu-rity. (11)

The second event occurred in June 1964 and is frequently referred to as the “Johnson letter” incident. The then Turkish government had been deeply offended and struck by the blunt way in which the United States had failed to appreciate the Turkish concern for the security of the Turkish community on Cyprus. The conflict on the island had escalated to a level where the Turkish government felt that it may have to mount a military intervention to protect the Turkish community there. Such an intervention was preempted by a letter sent to the Turkish Prime Minister, İsmet İnönü, from the American President, Lyndon Johnson, which threatened sanctions if Turkey resorted to military means for re­solving the conflict. The letter also reminded the Turkish government that American weapons in use by the Turkish military could only be used for NATO related operations.

The combined effect of these events had three consequences on Turkish foreign policy behavior. First, Turkey broke away from its tradi­tional foreign policy of cool relations with the Soviet Union in favor of a rapproachement.(12) Second, Turkey revised its security policy, espe­cially in respect to weapon procurement programmes, in a manner that eventually made it possible for Turkey to militarily intervene in Cyprus.(13) Third, Turkey recognized that it had failed to develop relations with the emerging Third World and particularly the Nonaligned Move­ment. This became particularly important because of the ability of Cyprus government to mobilize support for its cause among the non-aligned nations. In this context Turkey tried to expand its bilateral diplomatic relations with the Third World, especially with Arab and Is­lamic countries.(14) In 1969, Turkey joined the Islamic Conference Or­ganization primarily with the hope of bringing the cause of the Cypriot Turks to the attention of the membership.

It did not seem that these changes in Turkish foreign policy be­havior achieved its objectives fully. In 1974 in response to the bi-com-munal violence in Cyprus, aggravated by a coup d’etat mounted against the Cypriot government, Turkey militarily intervened separating the island into two zones. It is quite possible that had it not been for the “Johnson letter” Turkey may not have developed a capability to mount such a military operation. However, with regard to Turkey’s desire to cultivate the support of the Third World, not much was achieved. The Third World, including most of the Islamic countries, refrained from lending any political support to the Turkish position. For the Third World, Turkey was a member of the Western bloc and in their eyes this military intervention only served Western interests in spite of the fact that Turkey faced an American arms embargo until 1978.

On the other hand, better relations with the Soviet Union did gradually contribute to increased trade and political interactions. How­ever, this did not in any fundamental way alter Turkey’s pro-Western foreign and security policies.

At the end of the 1970s, three major developments affected Turkish foreign policy behavior. These were the coming to power of a theo­cratic regime in Iran based on islamic fundamentalism, the Soviet inva­sion of Afghanistan and the out break of war between Iran and Iraq. Particularly, the first and the last developments had a profound impact on Turkish foreign policy while the second one reinforced Turkey’s de­termination to remain committed to the Western alliance. It was the challenges mounted by the new Iranian regime to the secular nature of Turkish politics and the war waging along its southern border that led the Turkish foreign policy makers to search for new approaches. These challenges surfaced at a time when Turkey was itself going through near economic and political upheavals that culminated in a military inter­vention in September 1980.

The foreign policy that finally emerged was one that aimed at maintaining a balance in Turkey’s relations with Iran and Iraq. Both regimes were perceived as threatening to Turkey. However, these two countries’ dependence on Turkey as a transit country was utilized to expand Turkish exports to both countries and to make sure that nei­ther government threatened Turkish security in an outright manner. At the same time the realization that Turkey was perceived by particularly oil rich Arab countries “as a country that could balance the influence of Iran and Iraq in the region” enabled Turkey to expand its economic and political relations with these countries as well. In 1980 Turkey low­ered the level of its diplomatic relations with Israel while allowing PLO to maintain an office in Ankara.(15) Between 1979 and 1981 exports to the region increased twofold to constitute 44 percent of Turkey’s overall exports.(16)

It can be argued that these developments did bring a new dimen­sion to Turkish foreign policy. For the first time since the Second World War, Turkish foreign policy with its economic, political and security as­pects expanded to an area outside Europe. It is paradoxical that this should have happened at a time when the Cold War intensified because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the arms race between the two superpowers. A combination of factors contributed to the depar­ture from the traditional monotrack foreign policy. Economic factors such as the rise in oil prices and Turkey’s need to find export markets did have a substantial impact on the change of policy. (17) However, as important these factors may have been in influencing Turkish foreign policy behaviour, the role of the increased value of Turkey for the coun­tries of the Middle East, in particular oil rich Arab countries, must be taken into consideration as well. During the 1950s and 1960s Turkey’s prowestern image had mostly been offensive to the Arab countries of the Middle East. (18) The emergence of a revisionist regime in Iran, determined to export its revolution to the neighbouring countries had suddenly exposed the vulnerability of particularly the oil rich Arab coun­tries. Turkey, as a member of a powerful military alliance; and as the only country in the region that seemed to have the capability to ensure a balance between Iran and Iraq, became increasingly valuable in the region. These countries felt that better relations with Turkey would enhance their security.

A similar attitude to Turkey’s role in the Middle East was adopted by the West and particularly by the United States. There were two chal­lenges to the interests of the West, one from the Soviet Union and the ofher from Iran’s radicalism. Both challenges were fundamentally threat­ening to the established order in the region. Turkey, the tried and reli­able ally of the West, saw its importance being upgraded under these circumstances.(20) Now, Turkey’s function was not just to be a military obstacle in the way of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies pro­tecting Western strategic and economic interests; but also to fulfill a similar task in the Middle East against any challenge to the status-quo. To some extent it was this increased importance of Turkey that contrib­uted to the unusually muted Western criticisms of the interruption of Turkish democracy by the military between 1980 and 1983. (21) This was in some contrast to the suspension of the Greek membership to the Council of Europe, following the military coup d’etat in 1967.

Hence, the change in Turkish foreign policy behavior was to a large extent a product of the increased value of Turkey for the oil-rich Arab countries and the West rather than the outcome of Turkish initi­ated policies. If anything, Turkish foreign policy makers remained as cautious and as conservative as ever. They were highly reluctant to get involved in anything that went beyond Turkey’s commitments to NATO. They opposed involvement in US efforts to improve its capability of projecting militant power into the Gulf area in case of a crisis. Turkish officials disassociated themselves from the idea of supporting a Rapid Deployment Force, an “out of area” task for NATO as simply too radical and risky. (22) However, increased economic and military cooperation with the West, but particularly the United States was welcomed as long as it did not necessitate active involvement in the politics and security of the Middle East.

Shortly, Turkish foreign policy throughout the period starting from the early 1950s to the early 1980s remained primarily of a reactive kind. Once Turkey succeeded in getting itself accepted as a member of the Western alliance its foreign policy very quickly slipped to the back wa­ters of international politics. In other words, once the post world war order consolidated itself, Turkish foreign policy remained a function of it and failed to initiate any policies that had an independent and last­ing effect on international political outcomes. The only exception to this was in Cyprus where Turkey followed a policy which unilaterally created a new status quo. However this status quo, although it failed to receive any international legitimacy and support,  served Turkish na­tional interests as defined by the policy-makers.

The period from roughly the arrival of Gorbachev to power and the disintegration of the Soviet Union can be regarded as the period during which certain forces and processes which were kept under control till then were unleashed and in turn they ended the Cold War and the accompanying international order. In this respect, the early signs of a changing Turkish foreign policy behavior began to appear with the onset of this transition period.

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