Turkey’s Post–Arab Spring Foreign Policy

How Ankara Came to Embrace a Policy of Selective Engagement

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a signing ceremony in Minsk, Belarus, November 2016. Vasily Fedosenko / REUTERS

The question of what drives Turkish foreign policy is fraught with controversy. During Ahmet Davutoglu’s premiership, experts depicted Ankara as being driven by ideology, as expansionist and adventurous, and accordingly, as generating considerable tension with the country’s neighbors and international powers. When Binali Yildirim, the new prime minister, took over, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a more conciliatory tone. Erdogan famously declared in April 2016 that Turkey needed to make more friends and decrease the number of its enemies. Ankara was soon portrayed as cautious, pragmatic, and risk-averse. Turkey’s public détentes with Israel and Russia at this time gave credence to this reading. 

Yet this narrative, too, soon reached its limits. After the failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey began to publicly criticize what it saw as Western apathy toward Ankara’s challenges. And so, a long-running debate about Turkey’s true allegiance—this time, the country seems to be shipping away from the West and toward a putative alliance with Russia—has reemerged. On top of that, Turkey has been conducting its Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria, which is aimed at removing ISIS from the border regions and preventing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from bringing the territory under its control. It has also insisted on joining any operation to liberate Mosul from ISIS. Viewed together, these actions show that Turkey is neither downsizing its foreign policy ambitions nor striking a conciliatory tone in the region when it feels its national security interests are at risk. Erdogan’s declaration of a new preemptive security doctrine for both domestic and foreign threats continues this trend.

The reason the common narratives about Turkish foreign policy have missed the whole story is that each puts excessive emphasis on a single actor, whether it’s Erdogan or Davutoglu. In fact, it has been the demands of regional geopolitics, coupled with Ankara’s domestic political concerns

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