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Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest

Turkey redefined its geographical security environment over the last decade by deepening its engagement with neighboring regions, especially with the Middle East. The Arab spring, however, challenged not only the authoritarian regimes in the region but also Turkish foreign policy strategy. This strategy was based on cooperation with the existing regimes and did not prioritize the democracy promotion dimension of the issue. The upheavals in the Arab world, therefore, created a dilemma between ethics and self-interest in Turkish foreign policy. Amid the flux of geopolitical shifts in one of the world’s most unstable regions, Turkish foreign policy-making elites are attempting to reformulate their strategies to overcome this inherent dilemma. The central argument of the present paper is that Turkey could make a bigger and more constructive impact in the region by trying to take a more detached stand and through controlled activism. Thus, Turkey could take action through the formation of coalitions and in close alignments with the United States and Europe rather than basing its policies on a self-attributed unilateral pro-activism.

Turkey and the Arab Spring Between Ethics and Self-Interest
Egyptians greet Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan while holding a banner reading “Welcome dear leader of the free” before a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers at the League’s headquarters in Cairo.
 

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.

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