By Brianne Haight
In February of 2010 I decided to opt out of another Montana winter and instead to take the semester to intern at the US Embassy in Athens, Greece. During my internship I learned a lot of things; one facet I took considerable interest in actually had less to do with Greece, and more with its neighbor to the east, Turkey. As Greece and Turkey have had a very long and at times very tense relationship, I became quite familiar with Turkish foreign policy. One concept that I heard a lot referring to a new direction in Turkish foreign policy was ‘neo-Ottomanism.’ It was my sheer intrigue with this reference that would eventually lead me to the subject of my capstone paper.
For my capstone, I wanted to first look at the causation of the recent shift we are seeing in Turkish foreign policy, which is, by some, characterized as ‘neo-Ottomanism.’ Historically, Turkish foreign policy has been firmly based in Ataturk’s founding ideas of modernization through close ties with the West and acceptance of their norms and policies. Throughout the 20th century, this translated into Turkey joining NATO in the 1950s, backing the West against the Soviet Union, and aspiring to join the EU. It also meant that Turkey paid little attention to most of the countries located geographically close to it. However, in the last decade, I found that a unique combination of events, actors, and politics in Turkey all contributed to produce a more proactive shift in their foreign policy. Presently, the atmosphere in Turkey is one where religiosity is on the rise, economic success has encouraged a search for new Eurasian markets, as well as substantial disillusionment with the EU over the slow ascension process. Even more, with Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling AKP party having gathered considerable power over the traditionally strong pro-Western military, enough factors seem to be in place to produce an ideal backdrop for a shift in Turkish foreign policy. Add to that a new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who feels Turkey has made a mistake by ignoring its backyard for so long, and thus insists on a more thorough regional engagement, and the result is a much more proactive foreign policy than has historically been seen in Turkey.
After analyzing the reasons for this recent shift, I focused on what this shift meant for some of Turkey’s historical allies and beneficiaries of their traditional foreign policy directives. One of the most interesting cases I looked at was the US and the ramifications Turkey’s new more assertive foreign policy will have on the US’s relationship with Turkey.
Initially, President Obama had hopes of calling on Turkey in an effort to make US-Turkey relations the bedrock for the way in which he was going to reach out to the rest of the Muslim world. However, rather than simply being able to rely on Turkey to be an instrument of US power in its region, the Obama Administration is now facing a stronger and more assertive Turkish government that can and has been shown to disagree with it on key foreign policy issues, ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s Gaza offensive. The impact for US-Turkey relations is that the US is no longer going to be able to fully utilize Turkey as a proxy in its bid to assert US foreign policies to the degree it could in the past. Ultimately, this more assertive Turkish foreign policy will result in a relationship based more on ad hoc agreements than utter compliance.
Although there are, and have shown to be clear negative impacts for the US, which has historically capitalized on a weaker Turkey to follow its lead, such as during the Cold War, the US should not cast off the potential value in a stronger, more assertive Turkey in the post-Cold War era. A Turkey that is willing to take on greater responsibility for regional stability in the Middle East is something the US needs; the US cannot manage security in all regions of the globe. The US has long been looking for someone to take up responsibility in the region. A leaked 2010 US State Department Cable written by current US Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffery, asserted this when he suggested in a cable, “having regional heavyweights take on burdens, thereby relieving us, has long been a desired goal of US policy.” An appreciation of Turkey’s stabilizing role in the region and a willingness to allow Turkey to assume managerial responsibilities, although yes, without being able to dictate how Ankara should define its priorities, is something the US must be open to, and if so could reap possible benefits.
In my capstone I found that although a more proactive Turkey is requiring historical allies to readjust their relationships with the country, a more assertive Turkish foreign policy should be perceived not as a serious threat but a mixed bag where possible benefits could be realized. It is a mistake to embrace an alarmism that selectively concentrates on the dangers and fails to recognize the opportunities opened by a new Turkish direction. It is easy to argue that historical allies fear this change; however, although there will of course be some disruption in status quo relations, with some negative impacts, there are benefits from the evolution of this relationship. If it is going to happen- and it looks like it is- the US would be remiss to not acknowledge the shift and consequently miss gaining from the possible benefits.