The International Spectator
Turkeys Strategic Options
By Ian O. Lesse
Turkey has been profoundly affected by changes on the post-Cold War international scene. These changes have emphasized the countrys geopolitical importance, but have also sharpened long-standing questions concerning Turkeys identity and role. The Turkish debate on foreign and security policy has become more vigorous and more diverse. Public opinion now plays a far more important role, as do the media. The foreign policy agenda has also expanded. Turkish interests are now more global, and questions of direct concern to Ankara now stretch from western Europe to western China, quite apart from more traditional challenges stemming from troubled relations on Turkeys borders.
Turkey has long been part of the European system, but not, in the eyes of most Europeans, part of Europe. The deterioration of Turkeys relations with the European Union, and the worsening outlook for full membership has spurred an agonizing reappraisal of Turkeys aims and interests in relation to the West as a whole. At the same time, changes in Eurasia and the Middle East, as well as new political currents in Turkey, have raised interest in foreign policy opportunities to the east and the south. Do these non-Western orientations offer a valid alternative to Turkeys traditional foreign and security policy orientation? The following analysis explores this question in light of new realties in Turkeys domestic and external environment.
New internal realities
In the post-Özal era, Turkey has been influenced by the rise of political forces offering alternatives to the traditional Ataturkist ideology of secularism, statism, non-intervention, and Western orientation. Segments of Turkish society have become more overtly religious, and political Islam has emerged as a potent electoral force. A decade of high, if very uneven, economic growth has made the country more prosperous, but also deepened regional and income disparities. The former Refah partys electoral successes (and the continuing strength of its successor, the Virtue Party, in national polls) reflect the increased significance of the religious factor. Arguably, the Islamists owe as much or more of their appeal to other factors, including a populist economic agenda, widespread dissatisfaction with corruption and immobility among the traditional political class, and a more assertive Turkish nationalism always part of the Islamist message. Indeed, nationalism rather than Islamism may now be the most important factor in Turkish politics across the spectrum, including centrist and secular circles.
The political turmoil of the last few years has placed longstanding issues of Turkish identity in sharper relief. Growing prosperity has brought Turkey closer to the West in many respects. At the same time, chaotic politics, a very active illegal sector and difficult episodes in civil-military relations have confirmed important differences in democratic development. The Turkish state also has real and, in some cases, violent opponents, from Kurdish separatists to extreme leftists of a sort that Europe has not had to contend with since the early 1980s. The experience of a Refah-led government from 1995-9 and its subsequent demise confirmed the vitality of Turkeys secular and Western-oriented elites, but has also had a polarizing effect on society. At a time of tremendous change on the international scene, these developments have also diverted the attention of Turkish policymakers from some external opportunities, and caused others to be seen through the lens of Turkeys own domestic problems. 2
Turkeys international policy options are now debated in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. This is not simply a reflection of the more diverse political scene in which non-Western options are now openly voiced. The traditional foreign and security policy elites have been augmented by more active business and non-government circles. The economic elites are generally secular and Western-oriented, but not exclusively so. Refah had many Islamist-oriented supporters among small and medium sized enterprises, and generated a good deal of interest in more active Turkish cooperation with Turkic and Muslim states. Even within the secular elite, there is a growing capacity for analysis of international questions inside and outside the government, and new institutes devoted to the study of foreign and security policy. 3
Public opinion now plays a very significant role in the Turkish foreign policy equation, spurred by an extremely active electronic and print media. Indeed, the aggressive role of the media in recent experience has led some Turkish observers to worry about the implications for future crisis management in critical areas such as the Caucasus and the Aegean. 4 At the same time, Turkish public opinion has become more highly differentiated, with the rise of what might be termed ethnic lobbies. Turks are increasingly attuned to their ethnic and biographical identity, and this encourages attention to events in such places as Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Cyprus where many Turks have historical connections. Developments in the Balkans and the Caucasus resonate strongly in Turkish public opinion and interact with a more vigorous sense of nationalism across the board.
Political events of the last few years have also seen a reassertion of the militarys influence over many aspects of the countrys foreign and security policy. While strongly committed to the secular, Western-oriented tradition, Turkeys military leadership has not been unaffected by the changes in Turkeys internal and external situation. The Turkish General Staff has been particularly sensitive to the implications of Europes rebuff on the question of membership of the European Union, and has put commensurately greater energy into solidifying relations with the US and Israel. New resources are being devoted to the analysis of international issues within the National Security Council. External policy decisions are being taken with a more critical and sovereignty-conscious eye, a tendency that has become more pronounced since the Gulf War. The military establishment is very much in the mainstream in pursuing what may be described as a more assertive, independent and diversified foreign policy still broadly aligned with the West.
A complex crisis of identity
Turkey now faces a dual identity crisis. Internally, the challenges of political Islam and ethnic identification (centering on, but not limited to the Kurdish issue) raise important questions about what it means to be a Turk. Turkeys political leadership and, to an even greater extent, the military leadership, has come to place internal concerns safeguarding secularism and preserving the unitary character of the state, that is, the struggle against Kurdish separatism at the top of the policy agenda. Approaches to key external issues are, in large measure, derivative of these concerns. Thus, the EUs arms length relationship with Ankara is perceived as strengthening the hand of anti-secular, anti-Western elements inside the country. By contrast, it is argued that closer European and US engagement with Turkey will reinforce the countrys secular, Western orientation.
Externally, traditional assumptions about Turkeys international orientation can no longer be taken for granted. Modern understandings about what it means to be in the Western camp have come under pressure from a variety of quarters. The end of the Cold War has fundamentally changed the debate about Turkeys importance to the West (although concerns about Russian intentions continue to shape stakes in the relationship with the West, as seen from Ankara). Today, the measures of whether Turkish policy conforms to Western interests include not simply attitudes toward Russia, but toward an array of regional issues from the Balkans and the Aegean to the Middle East. In many cases Iran and Iraq provide examples it is no longer very easy to define Western policy in any meaningful sense.
The West, for its part, has become more, not less, sensitive to issues of religious and civilizational differences. Samuel Huntingtons arguments about the clash of civilizations may not have been very original or very revealing, but there can be little question that they have reshaped the intellectual and policy discourse concerning the Wests relations with the Muslim world, including Turkey. 5 Turkeys own debate about events in key regions such as the Balkans also reflects these Huntingtonian sensitivities (for example, concern over the rise of an Orthodox axis). On a more practical level, the end of the Cold War and the progressive reintegration of Central and Eastern Europe within European and Atlantic institutions has encouraged a good deal of geopolitical and cultural redefinition. The redefinition of the European space, in particular, has had the effect of reinforcing existing perceptions of Turkish otherness.
Following on the heels of crises in Bosnia and Chechnya, both of which sharpened popular Turkish concerns about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world, the EUs inability to offer Turkey a promising avenue to membership has shaken Turkish assumptions about the external scene and Turkeys place in it. To be sure, Europe has always been highly ambivalent about the integration of Turkey for economic, political and cultural reasons. 6 To these must be added an unease about Turkeys scale which makes the foregoing concerns more dramatic. Finally, there is an important strategic dimension to Europes ambivalence. Turkeys pivotal position in relation to Balkan, Middle Eastern and Eurasian developments, and potential to serve as a bridge, is often portrayed as a strategic asset for Europe in Turkish (and many American) circles. Although the European debate reflects this role for Turkey, proximity to extra-European flashpoints also has some additional and negative consequences for perceptions of Turkey. The country is often seen as more of a useful barrier, a defensive glacis in relation to problems on Europes periphery, a valuable Middle Eastern rather than European ally (as demonstrated in the Gulf War). Political turmoil within Turkey, human rights concerns, and tensions between Islamist and secular visions of Turkey as a society have also caused many Europeans to see Turkey as all too Middle Eastern.
Turkish-Western relations in flux
The deterioration in Turkish-EU relations after the December 1997 Luxembourg summit at which it was decided to exclude Turkey and include Cyprus from negotiations on EU membership is not irreversible. Even without progress on membership issues, both sides have important stakes in a positive relationship. Turkey is in many respects the EUs most important Mediterranean partner, and along with the US and Russia, a critical partner in geostrategic terms. For Turkey, relations with Europe will remain an overwhelmingly important factor in the countrys economic future. But these practical imperatives will be influenced by less tangible issues of confidence and affinity. Turkeys traditionally Western-oriented foreign policy elites have been badly shaken by the perceived European rebuff. Simply put, Europe is no longer seen as a reliable or even particularly attractive partner, although opportunities to bolster relations with the EU probably would not be ignored. Against this backdrop, other issues have taken on new significance in shaping the outlook for relations with the West and alternatives.
First, relations with Greece, always a part of the equation in relations with the EU, now represent one of Europes most dangerous flashpoints. The post-Luxembourg atmosphere, the apparent willingness of the EU to press ahead with accession negotiations on Cyprus, and security developments in the region, have heightened sensitivities on all sides. A serious clash in Cyprus or the Aegean, perhaps in connection with the delivery of Russian-supplied S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Cyprus, could well result in the open-ended estrangement of Turkey from European institutions. It might also seriously injure Turkeys relations with the US and NATO. In the absence of the Cold War imperatives that prevailed after the events of 1974, this estrangement could prove durable, even permanent.
Second, the relationship with NATO is becoming less predictable. Turks have rightly placed considerable importance on the NATO link. Given the poor outlook for full membership in the Europe Union, membership in the Alliance has emerged as the principal badge of Turkish membership in the Western club, and a critical source of deterrence and reassurance against the many tangible security risks facing Ankara. Yet this link could face new tests. Although Turkey has a strong stake in NATO adaptation to maintain the relevance and viability of the Alliance, Ankara will be troubled by any sign that NATO is neglecting conventional, Article 5 commitments to the defense of territory. Turks will also be wary of developments that might imply less automatic, more conditional security guarantees, or debates about gray area threats to which allies might or might not respond. Future crises on Turkeys borders frictions with Syria provide the best example will be seen as critical tests of NATOs commitment to Turkish security. Looking back to the tardiness of some Allied responses to Ankaras request for reinforcements during the Gulf War, many Turks are concerned that future crises may expose a tendency toward selective solidarity within the Alliance.
Third, Turkish relations with the US have become more important and more difficult in the wake of the Gulf War. Trends in US security thinking, not least the rediscovery of geopolitics on Europes periphery (especially in the Caspian) and growing emphasis on the challenges of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and missile proliferation and regional power projection, have reinforced interest in Turkey as a strategic partner. 7 Senior officials have come to view Turkey as the new front line state in NATO and a key actor in Balkan, Middle Eastern and Eurasian security. 8 The new strategic environment is characterized by a range of trans-regional issues, from terrorism to energy security, and Turkey is at the center of these concerns. Yet, Turkish and American approaches to some important policy questions, from the Aegean to the Gulf, differ substantially. Traditional patterns of security assistance have matured (that is, ended), and major commercial arms transfers have been plagued by Congressional opposition. Turkish cooperation in regional crises has become less predictable since the Gulf War (admittedly, a problem in transatlantic relations as a whole). Outside the security realm, some important avenues for cooperation exist, but relations with Europe will always loom larger in the economic realm. Turkeys troubled relations with Europe have inevitably placed greater pressure on the bilateral relationship with Washington. There is now considerable interest, on both sides, in redefining and reinvigorating this strategic relationship to make it more relevant to new concerns, and more predictable for Ankara and Washington. Overall, the balance in Turkish relations with the West has shifted markedly over the past few years, with Washington rather than Brussels now at the center of Turkish perspectives.
Fourth, Turkey has acquired some tangible strategic options new geometries rather than alternatives per se in its external policy, especially in the security sphere. Above all, Ankara is engaged in a burgeoning strategic relationship with Israel. To the extent that Israel can be seen as a Western (even an Atlantic) actor, this new relationship offers opportunities to reinforce Ankaras traditional alignments. But it is also a reflection of Turkeys changing international outlook. On a practical level, defense-industrial cooperation with Israel offers a degree of diversification away from reliance on US and European supply relationships, which Turkish policymakers are increasingly inclined to see as unreliable. Similar objectives may be seen in relation to intelligence sharing and military training, quite apart from any special advantages that Israel might provide in these areas. The steady rise of Turkish concern about proliferation risks also makes Israel a valuable partner, especially in relation to ballistic missile defenses.
Strategically, closer relations with Israel have given Ankara additional leverage in confronting Damsacus about Syrian support for the violent, separatist campaign of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), and in containing Syria, Iraq and Iran as longer-term geopolitical competitors. Jordan can be a politically significant part of this regional equation. Taken together, these new security geometries can also have a synergistic effect on Ankaras relationship with the US. This would certainly be the case in the event that Washington sought to diversify its own approach to maintaining security in the Gulf via a northern route, implying a greater role for Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
The new Turkish-Israeli alignment is a product of evolving Turkish security concerns, together with a degree of impatience and frustration with conventional geometries in relations with the West. Turkish policy also recognizes that deep-rooted Arab ambivalence about Turkey paralleling European ambivalence in many respects means there is little opportunity cost for Ankara in pursuing relations with Israel. Arguably, the relationship is more an extension of Turkeys Western orientation than a strategic alternative.
Some external options and their implications
Does Turkey have viable options to a Western-oriented foreign and security policy? Yes, it does, but only within certain important limits. A detailed discussion of Turkeys political future is beyond the scope of this article. But given recent experience, and despite important popular support for Refahs successors, an Islamist return to government must be considered unlikely in the face of strong secular and military opposition. Barring a fundamental change in leadership that could introduce wilder options (it is worth noting that even Erbakan was more ineffective than radical in foreign policy terms), or more chaotic developments that would effectively disable Turkey as an international actor (both unlikely scenarios) essential continuity can be expected. If the choice is described as Turkey looking West or elsewhere, Turkeys Western orientation will almost certainly hold. But Turkeys choices are complex, and may have more to do with activism than direction. That said, three broad options are worth considering in more detail, together with their implications.
1) Turkey looks West. Many elements, from a realistic calculus of power politics to the tradition and affinity of Turkeys secular elites, argue for a continued Western orientation. Ankara will need to reassure itself against the possibility of a resurgent Russia (a key Turkish concern). Energy security concerns and energy transport opportunities dictate cooperation and will provide additional incentives. Western, especially European, investment will be essential for continued high levels of economic growth. Turkey is most unlikely to abandon its role in NATO, much less its security ties to the US. Relations with Europe, while problematic, will continue to occupy a central place in economic terms. Whatever the tenor of relations between Ankara and Brussels, European and Turkish futures political, economic and military will be more, rather than less, closely interwoven as a consequences of common challenges and instability on Europes periphery.
Leaving aside radical developments in Turkish politics, three developments could undermine this tendency to look westward. First, a conflict between Greece and Turkey could result in the long-term estrangement of Turkey from the West. Even relationships in key institutions such as NATO could become dysfunctional. Second, a major conflict with a regional state (Syria is the most obvious candidate; Russia is another), in which the West fails to support Ankara, would be highly corrosive of Turkish-Western relations. Third, and most unlikely, Western criticism of Ankaras domestic policies, or the nature of Turkish policy itself could reach a point that precipitates a fundamental break in relations. Developments along these lines may be capable of disturbing, perhaps irreparably, Turkeys relations with the West, but they do not give any additional weight to alternatives. A Turkey that breaks with the West will not necessarily find common interests with Russia or Iran. Countries such as Azerbaijan will not be any more capable of supporting Turkish interests under these conditions. Syria will be just as competitive.
Variations on the Turkey looks West theme are possible, even likely. Turkey has already adjusted its policy toward the West to give primacy to relations with Washington and accommodate a more uncertain dialogue with the EU. The relationship with Israel introduces an element of diversification, and allows Turkey greater leverage in addressing issues at the top of the new security agenda terrorism, proliferation and Middle Eastern friction As noted earlier, there may also be opportunities to reinforce the overall relationship with the US and the West, as a whole, as a consequence of new geometries in the Middle East.
2) Turkey looks elsewhere. Turkey will look elsewhere indeed has been doing so since the 1980s but partners elsewhere are useful options, not alternatives in the strict sense. Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq was Turkeys leading trade partner, but hardly a real partner in strategic terms. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was considerable optimism about opportunities for Turkey in the Turkic republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia. 9 Important economic and political relationships have developed, but the re-discovery of these regions has not revolutionized Turkish foreign policy, and a more realistic attitude toward the Turkic republics now prevails. The key economic partner for Ankara in the former Soviet Union has turned out to be Russia itself. But relations with Russia, an historic competitor with numerous points of bilateral friction from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, can hardly constitute an alternative to the West. As in relations with Israel and Jordan, Turkish relations in Eurasia are more likely to be seen as a means of increasing Turkeys value to the West and bolstering Ankaras own freedom of action (diplomatically, and in economic terms, especially with regard to the countrys own energy needs).
Elsewhere might also imply the Arab and Muslim Middle East. Economically, there is much to be gained in this quarter. The loss of Turkeys vibrant pre-1990 trade with Iraq is deeply felt in Ankara. Turkish enterprises would be well positioned to expand in the region, especially under conditions of a durable Arab-Israeli peace. Politically, Turkey faces significant constraints. Within the Arab world, secularists and nationalists view Turkey with ambivalence as a former imperial power and a NATO ally. 10 The relationship with Israel has only reinforced these suspicions. Islamists, for their part, view secular Turkey with disdain. Turks themselves tend to prefer an arms length approach to the Arab Middle East (even Erbakan made a point of avoiding Arab states in his Islamic tour abroad). Syria is an outright source of risk. Iran is a potentially important economic partner, but in other respects a long-term geopolitical competitor. Relations with Iraq have great significance in economic terms, and as a vehicle for managing Kurdish separatism. In other respects Baghdad is a potentially serious source of military risk and regional instability hardly a viable strategic partner for Ankara.
Perhaps least appealing is the notion of Turkey looking south, aligning itself with key actors in the developing world. As Erbakan discovered with his brief foray in this direction, this concept holds little appeal for Turks used to engagement in leading Western institutions. The idea of Turkey as a leader in this sphere might possibly have had some appeal during a decade in which emerging markets and regional tigers captured the attention of investors and leaderships. In the wake of the Asian economic crisis and failing confidence elsewhere, this is a far less attractive club to join. More realistic and attractive is the notion of Turkey as a key interlocutor for the West in its relations with the south, above all Europes Mediterranean periphery. 11
3) Turkey looks to its own interests. As a general policy thrust, this is a viable and likely option for Ankara toward the 21st century. It is not incompatible with other approaches, and is most likely to coexist, if somewhat uncomfortably, with the enduring interest in broad alignment with the West. Several trends encourage a more independent and assertive Turkish stance toward key regions and institutions. First, social, political and economic changes within Turkey have given rise to a very much more active discourse on external policy. Turkish affinities, as well as interests are engaged in the Balkans, the Caucasus and elsewhere. Elite and public foreign and security policy horizons have expanded both regionally (from the Balkans to Western China) and functionally (the status of Turks abroad, terrorism, proliferation, energy security, territorial defense are all part of the equation). A more vigorous Turkish nationalism is apparent across the political spectrum and is central to Ankaras policy toward such key issues as Cyprus, the nationalist issue par excellence, and relations with Syria. Turkish security elites, although eager to engage in useful defense cooperation, are nonetheless highly sensitive to questions of Turkish sovereignty.
Second, Turkey is emerging as a more capable and confident regional actor. Turkey has been an active participant, and sometimes a leader, in multilateral initiatives from Bosnia to the Black Sea and the Middle East. But Turkey has also been willing to act unilaterally beyond its borders (e.g., northern Iraq), and is increasingly capable of projecting military power for this purpose. The confrontation with Syria over the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan provides a most recent example of this willingness to intervene in defense of perceived vital interests. The development of close relations with Israel, in the face of strong regional criticism, provides further evidence of a more assertive and independent approach. If multilateral options are unavailable for the management of risks on Turkeys borders, whether in the Balkans, the Aegean, the Caucasus or the Levant, Ankara may now be more inclined to approach these problems unilaterally, although not necessarily directly or militarily.
Third, disenchantment with Western policies, not only toward Turkey itself, but also toward problems that matter to Turks, will tend to reinforce a more independent and assertive approach. In some cases, strained relations with Europe or the West, as a whole, will reduce the apparent costs of an independent policy, especially where Turkish political or economic stakes are high (e.g., in relations with Greece or Iran). In other cases, lack of confidence in Western backing may make an assertive stance more difficult and risky (e.g., in disputes with Russia or in Balkan and Caucasian crises). But a Turkey that has lost confidence in the Western link will almost certainly look to safeguard its interests and seize opportunities in a more independent fashion.
Overall observations and conclusions
In sum, Turkey now has a broader range of options in its foreign and security policy, but no viable alternatives to alignment with the West on a strategic level. Many of the directions for Turkish policy that have been presented as alternatives, from opportunities in Central Asia to cooperation with Israel, are more properly understood as new geometries, most useful to bolster rather than circumvent ties to the West. Turkeys history and modern foreign policy tradition make it unsuited to radical, alternative conceptions of the countrys international role most Turks aspire to the G-7, not the leadership of the D-8. 12
Within these constraints, however, Turkey can, and most likely will, continue to pursue a more independent and assertive set of external policies, impelled by a more vigorous sense of Turkish nationalism. In a sense, Turkey has already chosen the independent option. The quality of Turkeys relations with the US, Europe and key Western institutions such as NATO and the EU, will be a leading determinant of how assertive and how divergent from Western approaches Ankaras policies will be. Turkey may not have any true strategic alternatives to the West, but this does not mean that Turkish-Western relations can be taken for granted. Turkish estrangement would introduce new risks and impose new limitations on Turkish policy. It would also deprive the West of a potentially critical strategic partner in addressing new challenges spanning Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia. Finally, the failure to reinvigorate Turkish relations with the West, especially with the EU, is likely to make the process of political and economic change in Turkey itself more difficult and crisis-prone.
Ian O. Lesser is Senior Analyst at RAND, Santa Monica.
Note 1. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the IAI conference on US-European Common Approaches to Turkey, held at Palazzo Rondinini, Rome, on 20-21 November 1998 and funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The opinions expressed in this paper are the authors and do not represent those of RAND or its research sponsors. Back
Note 2. One of the casualties may well be the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline scheme which has suffered from a lack of funding from the Turkish side. Back
Note 3. For example, the Center for Strategic Research in Ankara, and the Strategic Studies Center of the University of Galatasaray in Istanbul. Back
Note 4. Examples include the direct role of Turkish television journalists in negotiating an end to the hijacking of a Black Sea ferry by Chechen sympathizers, and the Imia-Kardak crisis in which Greek and Turkish media served as active and provocative participants. Back
Note 5. For a discussion of the historical context and contemporary implications, see B. Lewis, Islam and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and G. E. Fuller and I. O. Lesser, A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West (Boulder: Westview/RAND, 1995). Back
Note 6. There is also an important history of Turkish ambivalence on this score. See H. Inalcik, Turkey Between Europe and the Middle East, Perceptions (Ankara), March-May 1998. Back
Note 7. The fate of Turkey itself can also have serious regional implications, as discussed in R. Chase, E. Hill and P. Kennedy, The Pivotal States, Foreign Affairs, January-February 1996. Back
Note 8. See F. S. Larrabee, US and European Policy Toward Turkey and the Caspian Basin, in R. D. Blackwill and M. Sturmer (eds) Allies Divided: Transatlantic Policies for the Greater Middle East (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). Back
Note 9. See, for example, G. E. Fuller, Turkeys New Eastern Orientation, in Fuller, Lesser, et al., Turkeys New Geopolitics: From the Balkans to Western China (Boulder: Westview, 1993). Back
Note 10. See P. Robins, Turkey and the Middle East (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1991). Back
Note 11. By this measure, Turkey should have a special stake in NATOs Mediterranean Initiative aimed at promoting dialogue and cooperation with select Mediterranean, non-member partners. For an analysis placing Turkish perceptions of the Mediterranean in strategic perspective, see I. Turan, Mediterranean Security in the Light of Turkish Concerns, Perceptions (Ankara), June-August 1998. Back
Note 12. While in power, Erbakan proposed the creation of an alternative D-8 grouping of major developing countries, led by Turkey. Back