Resetting Turkey’s Middle East policies will be a big challenge

Resetting Turkey’s Middle East policies will be a big challenge

International relations scholars would know better, but seasoned journalists could also attest to the fact that one very rarely sees a radical alteration in a country’s foreign policies after a change in government.

Obviously, there is a tremendous difference between Turkey’s foreign policy prior to and after the Cold War period. The whole world changed with the fall of the Iron Curtain and Turkey tried to adapt to the transformations in the world as well as in the surrounding region. But that change spread over time, and it came in the form of an evolution. 

That’s why Turkey’s foreign policy did not see radical policy shifts, despite different parties and coalitions coming to power in the 1990s. In fact, with the exception of the formation of a Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, which actually had internal repercussions, one would hardly call debates on foreign policy issues among political parties during electoral campaigns heated. Foreign policy was considered a national security issue, so political parties avoided harsh criticism that could be exploited by foreign actors.

The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decade-plus in office may prove an exception to this trend.

When the AKP came to power it took some radical steps in terms of foreign policy. Openings on Cyprus and Armenia were some of the initiatives that were very bold steps compared to the traditional stances of previous governments. Ironically, in time the AKP retreated to those traditional lines on certain issues; certainly on Cyprus as well as Armenia.

In the Middle East however, the AKP’s shift from previous governments got bigger and bigger. Behlül Özkan, a scholar from Marmara University, calls it a “break.” 

“Previous governments’ outlook on the Middle East was based on caution. ‘The Middle East is a region that is full of challenges, so we need to be cautious,’ thought previous governments. The AKP by contrast sees an opportunity in every crisis,” Özkan told me.

He disagrees with the sentence in the AKP’s election manifesto that says: “Turkey’s foreign policy has been successful in an incomparable way with those of previous governments.”

“I think this is an unfair evaluation of the 1991-2002 period,” said Özkan, who rightly pointed to the fact that this was a period when foreign policy was shaped by social democrats. Indeed, foreign ministerial seats were given to prominent names from social democratic parties or parties of the leftist tradition, such as Hikmet Çetin, İsmail Cem, Erdal İnönü, Murat Karayalçın, Mümtaz Soysal and Şükrü Sina Gürel.

“Opening up to distant geographies like opening to Africa started during the time of İsmail Cem [who was indeed one of the actors in reconciliation with Greece]. He was the one to use the term of making Turkey a ‘world state.’ Unlike the AKP’s vision, the social democratic vision of a ‘world state’ did not endorse an imperial vision based on hegemonic relations,” said Özkan.

At the end of the day, even the initial successes of the AKP, whether they be on the Western or the Eastern front, built upon the infrastructure laid by previous governments. But with the Arab Spring came the decisive break from the past and the big failures which accompanied it. 

There is no doubt that if opposition parties were to come to power, there would be a “reset” of policies on the Middle East. However, as underlined by Özkan, restoring Turkey’s policies to their traditional former codes, as pledged by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), will not be easy, as the mess they will inherit is gigantic.