Turkey’s foreign policy focuses on push against West, Muslim unity – analyst

Turkish foreign policy is based on support for Muslim populations in Turkey’s region, outreach efforts to Africa and Asia that also influences the country’s vision to be a non-sectarian model for the Muslim world at large, and a general push against Western hegemony, Howard Eissenstat said on Monday.

Turkey has traditionally supported near abroad Muslim populations “viewed as culturally or ethnically related,” in Northern Cyprus, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, as well as Turkmen populations in Syria and Iraq, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) non-resident senior fellow said in an interview published by the think tank.

A long-standing component of this policy includes Turkey standing against the emergence of any Kurdish political structures, and a traditional aversion to a potential Kurdish state on its borders, Eissenstat said, adding, “In this sphere, Erdoğan is largely following fundamentals of traditional Turkish foreign policy.”

Turkey’s outreach in Africa and Asia, namely its military presence in Sudan, Libya, and Somalia, “represents long-standing Turkish ambitions predating the end of the Cold War,” he said, and the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “engagement with Africa has been particularly striking and represents one of (its) clearest successes.”

Overseas military expansion, in Northern Cyprus, Northern Iraq, Qatar and Syria, “represents a fairly radical shift for Turkey and brings us to the third sphere of its foreign policy, namely its efforts to play a leading role in the Middle East and, by extension, the Muslim world,” Eissenstat said. “I consider this attempt as heartfelt on the part of (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan).”

The Turkish president considers his AKP to be representing a new, “fully modern, populist, and devout” wave in the Muslim world, and has not given up on the idea of the country being a model for it, unlike the West, he added.

This understanding is present in Ankara’s choice of position related to the Arab world, as well as the recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and “even Erdoğan’s insertion of himself into the funeral of boxing great Muhammad Ali a few years ago.”

Erdoğan envisions Turkey leading a non-sectarian, populist Islamic wave against “the old powers of the West,” which constitutes the final focus of the country’s foreign policy under two decades of AKP governments, i.e., a broad stance against American and Western Hegemony.

Turkey’s support for Venezuela and efforts to expand the United Nations Security council to include non-Western entities are based on Erdoğan’s view that the West is “fundamentally hypocritical and declining in power,” the scholar said. “This view has shaped both the aggressive nature of Erdoğan’s foreign policy and his ambitions for a new leadership role for Turkey in an emerging multipolar system.”

The country is becoming more aggressive, partially due to its Western allies not taking its concerns and interests seriously, as exemplified in the current Eastern Mediterranean dispute with Cyprus, Greece, and France and the European Union.

“The Turkish government believes that regional and global power dynamics are shifting in fundamental ways,” Eissenstat said, “and that Turkey has no choice but to take a more aggressive stance in order to obtain its rightful place in the developing world order.”

However, Ankara is not rejecting the West – just negotiating a more equitable relationship, including with NATO, for true strategic independence, he added, and its current foreign policy is “a natural extension of foreign policy trends that were already evident before (Erdoğan) came to power.”

Turkey does not seek imperial power, but “to expand its influence and create markets for its industries,” as a middle power aiming at broader global influence, he said.

Significant changes from the pre-AKP era are that the military no longer holds any veto power over government policies, and public opinion now matters more, according to the scholar.

Meanwhile, the shift of decision-making power to Erdoğan has led to a hollowed-out state bureaucracy, making it harder for global powers to communicate effectively through official channels.

“Turkish foreign policy traditionally was remarkably risk averse. This is obviously no longer the case,” the analyst said.