Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty

Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty

by Stephen F. Larrabee, Ian O. Lesser

Turkey is facing strategic and security issues in the international enviroment during a time of extraordinary flux.  See more details below


Turkey is facing strategic and security issues in the international enviroment during a time of extraordinary flux.

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
In a competent and compact survey of contemporary Turkish foreign policy that gives due emphasis to its multilateral dimensions, both domestic and foreign, Larrabee and Lesser treat separately Turkish foreign relations with the European Union, Greece and the Balkans, Eurasia, the Middle East, and the United States while managing to interrelate these separate subjects. They have taken recent studies (including their own) and effectively updated accounts of several aspects of Turkish foreign policy, including the slow and by no means assured Turkish effort to join the EU, the tentatively better relations with Greece, the still unresolved issue of Cyprus, the on-balance slight Turkish advances into Central Asia since the end of the Cold War, Turkish-Israeli ties, the serious Turkish concern about the Kurds in Turkey and beyond, and Turkey's complex relations with the United States.

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Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty

By F. Stephen Larrabee Ian O. Lesser

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2003 Rand Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One


Turkey faces a troubled environment, domestically and internationally. Uncertainties regarding the country's future and its external policies have increased significantly as a result of Turkey's own economic crises and political turmoil, troubling developments in nearby regions, and challenges further afield. The opening of the 21st century has seen a multiplication of variables influencing Turkey's foreign and security policy. As a consequence, the task of understanding and assessing Turkey's international role has become more complex and far more difficult.

During the Cold War, Turkey was a key part of the Western defense system. Ankara acted as a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence into the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. It tied down some 24 Soviet divisions that might otherwise have been deployed on the Central front. It also supplied important bases and facilities for the forward deployment of nuclear weapons and the monitoring of Soviet compliance with arms control agreements. With the end of the Cold War, many in Turkey and the West assumed a much reduced role for Turkey as a regional actor and as an ally of the West. These assumptions, however, proved unfounded. Rather than declining, Turkey's strategic importance has increased.

At the same time, Ankara's policy horizons have expanded and Turkey has become a more assertive and independent actor on the international stage. Where once Turkey primarily looked West, today Turkey is increasingly being pulled East and South as well. As a result, Turkey has been forced to redefine its foreign and security policy interests and to rethink its international relationships.

At the same time, Turkey has faced new domestic challenges from Kurdish separatists and Islamists. Economic changes, especially the growth of a dynamic private sector, have eroded the role of the state and created new political and economic forces that have challenged the power of the old Kemalist bureaucratic elite. These forces have increasingly influenced both the style and substance of Turkish foreign and security policy. Indeed, the debate between state-centered conservatives and reformers-a debate that cuts across private and public circles in Turkish society-has been greatly sharpened by the economic crisis of 2000-2002. Looking ahead, the crisis and its political consequences could have important implications for the composition and orientation of Turkey's foreign policy elite.


If Turkey were a small state located in Antarctica or the South Sea Islands, these changes might matter little. But Turkey stands at the nexus of three areas of increasing strategic importance to the United States and Europe: the Balkans, the Caspian region, and the Middle East. Thus, how Turkey evolves is important both to the United States and to Europe.

Indeed, in many ways, Turkey is a "pivot" state par excellence. Population, location, and economic and military potential are key requirements for pivot states. But the defining quality of a pivot state is, above all, the capacity to affect regional and international stability. By this measure, Turkey clearly qualifies, along with such states as Mexico, Brazil, Algeria, Egypt, India, and Indonesia. This disparate list of states is tied together by their capacity to promote regional stability-or disorder. A prosperous, stable Turkey would be a factor for stability in a number of different areas: the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Europe. But an impoverished, unstable Turkey wracked by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil would be a source of instability and concern in all four regions.

What sets Turkey apart from other developing pivot states is its membership in the Western strategic club, principally through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but also through its evolving relations with the European Union (EU). Thus, developments in Turkey are directly linked to U.S. and Western interests. A reorientation of Turkey's foreign policy or serious threat to its democratic order would have important political and security consequences for both the United States and Europe.

Turkey's sheer size, moreover, gives it important geostrategic weight. Turkey's population is currently nearly 67.8 million-the second largest in Europe behind Germany-and may be close to 100 million by the middle of the 21st century. This would make Turkey the most populous country in Europe. Integrating a country and economy of this size will place significant burdens on an EU already reeling from the demands posed by admitting much smaller countries from Central and Eastern Europe. The challenges for Turkey and Europe will be daunting. How each side responds to these challenges will have an important effect not only on Turkey's evolution but on Europe's political and strategic evolution as well.


In the past decade, moreover, Turkey has emerged as an increasingly important regional actor, wielding substantial military as well as diplomatic weight. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Middle East. This growing involvement in Middle Eastern affairs represents an important shift in Turkish policy. Under Atatürk-and for several decades after his death-Turkey eschewed involvement in the Middle East, but in recent years Turkey has been heavily engaged in the region. The Gulf War was an important turning point in this process. Against the counsel of his security advisors, President Özal opted squarely to allow the United States to fly sorties against Iraq from Turkish bases. Turkey also shut down the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik oil pipeline as part of the effort to impose economic sanctions against Iraq.

Özal's action was an important departure from Turkey's traditional policy of avoiding deep involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. At the same time, it opened a new period of greater activism in Turkish policy toward the Middle East, which has intensified visibly since the mid-1990s. This more active policy contrasts markedly with the more passive approach that characterized Turkish policy before the Gulf War.

The most dramatic example of this new approach to the Middle East has been Turkey's growing relationship with Israel. The Israeli connection has strengthened Turkey's diplomatic leverage in the region and was a factor in Ankara's decision to force a showdown with Syria in the Fall of 1998 over Syria's support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The renewal of Arab-Israeli tensions, however, could put new strains on Turkey's relations with Israel.

Deeper involvement in the Middle East has not been cost free. The burgeoning security relationship with Israel has complicated Turkey's already mixed relations with its Arab neighbors. Turkey also faces new threats, including from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) deployed on or near its borders. Turkey is already within range of ballistic missiles that could be launched from Iran, Iraq, and Syria and this exposure is likely to grow in the future as more countries in the region acquire ballistic missile technology and the capability to deploy weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear-armed Iran or Iraq could dramatically change the security equation for Turkey and could have broader consequences for military balances elsewhere on Turkey's borders. The renewed confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere, and the potential for conflict with Iraq place all these issues in sharper relief.

At the same time, Turkey's greater involvement in the Middle East has complicated relations with Europe. Many Europeans are wary of Turkish membership in the EU not only because of the political, economic, and cultural problems it would present, but because they fear it will extend Europe's borders into the Middle East and drag Europe more deeply into the vortex of Middle Eastern politics. Thus, Turkey's Middle Eastern involvement has raised new dilemmas about its European or Western identity. The deeper its involvement in the Middle East, the more problems this poses for Turkey's Western orientation and identity.

The end of the Cold War also opened up new horizons for Turkish policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia-areas that were previously closed to Turkish policy. Although Turkey has been cautious about exploiting these possibilities, the emergence of the Caucasus and Central Asia has given a new dimension to Turkish policy. Turkey now has interests in the region that it did not have during the Cold War. This inevitably affects its security perceptions and relations with its Western allies.

At the same time, Turkey's interest and involvement in the Caucasus and Central Asia have complicated relations with Russia and given the historical rivalry between the two countries new impetus. Increasingly, Russia has come to see Turkey as a major rival for influence in the region and has sought to stem Turkey's efforts to establish a geostrategic foothold there. But Russia also remains an increasingly important trade partner. This gives Turkey a strong incentive to keep relations with Russia on an even keel. Indeed, the growing economic interaction between Russia and Turkey is one of the most important developments in Turkish policy toward Eurasia and could have a significant effect on Turkey's relations with Moscow over the long run.

Turkey's relations with Europe are also undergoing important and stressful change. The EU's decision at the December 1999 Helsinki summit to accept Turkey as a candidate for membership, after years of keeping Turkey at arm's length, helped to ease strains in Turkey's relations with Europe. But membership would require major changes in Turkey's internal policies and practices. Turkey would have to cede a degree of sovereignty that many Turks may find difficult to accept. Membership could also require Turkey to open up its internal practices to outside scrutiny to an unprecedented degree, and the military will have to accept a less prominent role in Turkish politics. Several years after Helsinki, Europeans still have reservations about the pace of Turkish reform, and Turkish opinion about the EU has become more ambivalent and critical. Moreover, the prospects for Turkish progress on EU-related reforms are now closely tied to the outcome of Turkey's efforts to emerge from its economic and political crisis.

In short, Turkish membership is by no means assured. Many Europeans are still not convinced that Turkey should be admitted, both for cultural as well as economic reasons-reservations that are compounded by the sheer scale of Turkey as a society. At the same time, the EU's decision to create a distinct European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) creates new security dilemmas for Turkey. Turkey is not a member of the EU and is not likely to be one in the near future. Thus, it continues to see NATO as the main vehicle for managing its security and defense problems. This sets it apart from many of its European allies who favor a stronger European and defense identity and complicates its relationship with Europe. As the EU develops a stronger security and defense component, the tensions between Turkey's strong attachment to NATO and its desire for EU membership could intensify.

Perhaps the area where Turkey's relations have witnessed the most dramatic change, however, is with Greece. After years of hostility, Greek-Turkish relations have slowly begun to improve, bolstered in part by "earthquake diplomacy." The key question, however, is whether the recent rapprochement is durable. Does the thaw represent a qualitative change in relations that will lead to a lasting détente or is it just the lull before a new storm? So far, the thaw has been limited largely to nonstrategic areas such as trade, the environment, tourism, and a variety of nontraditional security matters. However, if it is to be durable, it will need to address the core issues of the Aegean and Cyprus.

Cyprus, in particular, remains a major obstacle to a more far-reaching rapprochement. Indeed, if anything, Turkish views on Cyprus have hardened in recent years. Turkey has increasingly come to see Cyprus as a wider strategic issue, going beyond the protection of Turkish brethren on the island. This security dimension is likely to continue to color Turkish views on Cyprus and make any settlement of the issue difficult. With the EU's decision to admit Green Cyprus at its Copenhagen summit in December 2002 a near certainty, the Cyprus problem could become a flashpoint in relations between Ankara and Brussels.

In the Balkans, too, Turkish policy is in flux. After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, Turkey effectively withdrew from the Balkans. But the end of Cold War has witnessed renewed Turkish interest in the Introduction: Turkish Foreign Policy in Transition 7 region. Turkey's relations with Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria have visibly improved. Turkey has actively participated in the Implementation Force (IFOR), the Stabilization Force (SFOR), and the Kosovo Peacekeeping Force (KFOR) and would likely contribute to any Western peacekeeping operation in Macedonia. But Turkey's sympathy for the Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere worries many Europeans-especially Greeks-who fear that at some point Turkey might be tempted "to play the Muslim card." So far, Ankara's approach to the region has been moderate and multilateral. But a more nationalist government in Ankara might not be as restrained.

Finally, Turkey's relations with the United States have witnessed important changes. The United States has come to see Turkey as a key strategic ally and a more capable actor in these regions. Turkey's increasing involvement in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, in addition to the war on terrorism, and the U.S. desire to bolster moderate voices in the Muslim world, have reinforced Turkey's strategic importance in Washington's eyes.

But U.S.-Turkish perspectives differ on many issues, especially in the Gulf. Turkey has strong reservations about U.S. policy toward Iraq, which it fears will lead to the creation of a separate Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. A U.S. invasion of Iraq could put new strains on U.S.-Turkish relations. Ankara also does not share Washington's view about the need to isolate Iran, which is an important trading partner and source of natural gas for Turkey. These differences hinder the development of a true "strategic partnership" between Turkey and the United States.

Moreover, in recent years Turkey has become increasingly sensitive about issues of national sovereignty and has imposed tight restrictions on the use of its bases to monitor the no-fly zone over Northern Iraq. A more assertive Turkey-especially one more deeply involved in the Middle East-is likely to be even more sensitive about the use of its facilities in operations that directly affect its regional interests.

At the same time, Turkey's strategic environment will be strongly influenced by the evolution of America's regional and defense policies beyond the Gulf-including the new focus on counterterrorism worldwide. Washington has supported financial assistance to Ankara, as Turkey struggles to recover from its economic crisis, but 8 Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty tolerance for Turkey's renewed demands on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may be reaching a limit. The character of U.S.-Russian relations will also have important implications for Ankara's own planning, and Turkey will have a strong stake in the evolution of U.S.-led missile defense efforts. More broadly, the evolution of U.S.-European relations will influence "where Turkey fits" in Western interests and strategy.


Turkey's interests and policy are also shaped by a number of crosscutting transnational-and transregional-issues, especially the spread of WMD and the proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Turkey's increased exposure to WMD is bound to influence its security perceptions in the future. At the same time, this exposure gives Turkey a much stronger interest in missile defense than many of its European allies, which do not (yet) face the same degree of vulnerability to these threats.


Excerpted from Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty by F. Stephen Larrabee Ian O. Lesser Copyright © 2003 by Rand Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
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