Insight Turkey, Volume 14 No. 3
The Middle East, broadly defined,has emerged as one of the focal points of a new, more assertive, and pro-active style of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.1 The
unexpected and dramatic developments in the direction of political opening in the Arab world will have profound implications for the future course of Turkish foreign policy. In the longer term, one can be more optimistic. The trends towards political liberalization in the Arab world are likely to boost Turkey’s economic and diplomatic ties and will enhance the relevance of the “Turkish experience,” as a point of reference for the region. The attractiveness of the “Turkish experience” vis-à-vis the domestic political systems of competing regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, is likely to be enhanced in a more open and pluralistic environment. In the short and medium term, however, unexpected developments in the Middle East created serious uncertainties and dilemmas for Turkish foreign policy.
Turkish foreign policy towards the region prior to the onset of the Arab Spring during the Justice and Development Party (hereinafter, AKP) era was based on the principles of mutual gain through economic interdependence and close political ties based on cultural affinity and Muslim brotherhood, which Pinar Bilgin calls “civilizational geopolitics.”2 The, AKP government’s foreign policy was not based on the notion of democracy promotion. Rather it was based on the Westphalian logic of respecting the independence of nation states and the principle of non-intervention in the domestic politics of states. Perhaps this foreign policy logic was based on the implicit functionalist assumption that with growing economic interdependence and a flexible visa regime, which encouraged free flow of labor between neighboring states, authoritarian regimes would gradually crumble over time. Nevertheless, the AKP’s soft-power based foreign policy, popularized as “zero problems with neighbors” strategy, faced ethical dilemmas prior to the onset of the Arab Spring.3 The AKP’s foreign policy stance encountered criticisms in the context of the support for the brutal and authoritarian Iranian regime, which faced internal opposition. The ethics versus self-interest dilemma and the failure to emphasize democratic norms as the single-minded priority became clearly evident in Turkey’s relations with Iran and Sudan, in particular.
The ethics versus self-interest dilemma became especially profound with the onset of the Arab Spring. Turkish policy makers were confronted with this dilemma most notably in relation to Libya and Syria. The key problem that emerged was how to deal with internally polarized states such as Syria and Libya, given that serious economic interests in terms of trade and investment linkages had been built with such states especially as part of the pro-active foreign policy over the course of the last decade. A key dilemma confronting Turkish foreign policy elites was whether to encourage reform (especially in the Syrian case) by putting pressure on the ruling authoritarian elites or support rising opposition movements, which started to seriously challenge the existing regimes. To be fair, this ethics versus self-interest/stability dilemma was not unique to
Turkey. Western powers have had to face the very same conundrum in a region where they have serious and far-reaching economic interests. In this context, the major objective of this paper is to evaluate the performance of Turkish foreign
policy in the early phase of the “Arab Spring.” It highlights the limits of overactivism to engage in regional politics as well as illustrating the fact that Turkish foreign policy was able to display important elements of pragmatism at times when the conditions necessitated policy adaptation and reversals.
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