Between rhetoric and reality: Turkey’s foreign policy

Between rhetoric and reality: Turkey’s foreign policy

The uprisings in the Middle East have prompted both important questions and expectations about the role of Turkey in its region. Even though the mantra of “zero problems with neighbors” remains the official foreign policy doctrine of the Justice and Development (AK Party) government, the reality on the ground seems fundamentally different.

Relations between Turkey, its neighbors, and global players have experienced dynamism over the past 10 years. Although Turkey’s relations with Libya and Egypt are now stable, its popularity in Iraq and Syria has declined rapidly. And while Israel’s recent apology resulted in a rapprochement, it is fair to say that the relationship between the two countries remains strained.

Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. seems firmly cemented on the leadership level, but Turkey’s bid to join the EU is not flourishing. Today, relations between the EU and Turkey are more based on shared concerns in the Middle East than on shared values or on the accession negotiations. The EU agrees with Turkey on the overall vision for the Middle East to democratize. But occasional strong rhetoric and surprising actions lead to serious concerns about the ultimate ambition of the AK Party government.

Although Ankara has used strong words in accusing the Syrian regime of some of the recent, vicious attacks on its border towns, so far, even after one of its reconnaissance aircraft was shot down, the Turkish government has shown remarkable restraint. The government also has to consider a shift in public opinion, which is becoming increasingly critical of Turkey’s role vis-à-vis the war in Syria.

Besides sheltering refugees, the Free Syrian Army has had room to train and enter back into Syria through Turkey. However, like in Lebanon and Jordan, the initial openness to Syrian refugees is increasingly being criticized. Local communities see pressure on infrastructure and wages, and are worried about spillover effects of the war.

The Syrian war has brought a new mix of regional interests to the forefront. Underneath specific questions about how to end this bloodshed in the short term are the contours of a regional proxy war that could be determining the borders of the Middle East in a new way. If Iran is on one side of this proxy war, Turkey’s rhetoric suggests it is on the other, “Sunni” side. Ankara’s cooperation with Gulf States also suggests this alliance. So the question remains whether a strong Sunni ambition in foreign policy can go hand in hand with Turkey’s reliance on Western fortification of its borders. If seen as aligned with the Sunni half of the Middle East, Turkey’s credibility as an independent regional broker will effectively end.

Despite all the complex dynamics between Turkey and its neighboring countries, Turkey is seen as a key regional player and ally by both the EU and the U.S. The need for EU and NATO allies to tilt the balance of power in Syria has them relying on Turkey. Similarly, Turkey relies on Western allies.

It is time for Turkey’s government to define an explicit point on the horizon in terms of its role in the region. The initial “zero problems” doctrine may have sounded like a promising vision, but it also avoided pledging any specific allegiance.

In the absence of a clear vision, and amidst confusing speeches, we can only guess what Turkey’s role will end up being. This uncertainty stands in stark contrast with the self-confidence of the Turkish government. Sooner or later, the Turkish population or the international community will demand a stronger alignment of words and deeds. Either the international community, the Middle Eastern partners, or the Turkish population will push the AK Party government to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality.

* Marietje Schaake is a Member of the European Parliament representing the Democrats 66 Party from the Netherlands, and is a Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This abridged article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).