Turkish Foreign Policy

By August 1, 1999

With the exception of Germany, surely no other state in the world has been as much affected by the recent changes in the international system as Turkey. After all, in the mid 1980s everything seemed relatively set and straightforward: a strategic enemy in the Soviet Union; a strong Western alliance with Turkey as a valued, four-decade-old member; a European aspiration that dare not be rejected outright in Brussels; domestic consensus among those who mattered as to national values and foreign policy priorities. Then came the change: state collapse on three sides; a rash of adjacent ethnic conflicts; the devaluation of NATO; and the vision of an expanded and united Europe, though one in which Turkey appeared not to feature. Turkey’s experience of 1989 was the same as Western Europe’s, absent the Ode to Joy.

Of course that is not to say that Turkey is no longer of strategic importance. Quite to the contrary. The think-tank discussions of the early 1990s, when experts tried to decide whether Turkey was of greater or lesser strategic importance than before, are now redundant. Turkey has gone from being a peripheral player in a global, bipolar conflict to being a central actor in a raft of actual or potential regional conflicts; as a state, it has literally gone from flank to front. The reality then is that Turkey is simultaneously both of less and of more strategic importance than it was before 1989. The US in particular understands the enduring though changing geo-strategic value of Turkey very well. Indeed, at times during the 1990s Turkish-US relations have often appeared to have been reduced to the level of geo-strategy. For those located closer by, such as the Western Europeans, Turkey’s importance is also palpable, but not necessarily palatable. For the growing truth is that, without the Cold War to bind them together, Euro-Turkish relations are becoming as frequently defined by confrontation as by co-operation.

All of this is very unfair on Turkey. Prior to 1989, Turkey was a status quo power par excellence. It neither wanted change nor did it seek it. If anything, Turkey, with its efforts to liberalise its economy and to move from an import-substitution to an export-led economy in the early 1980s, could plausibly have claimed that it was anticipating effectively the changes in the international system. Nevertheless, Turkey had systemic change thrust upon it at the end of the 1980s.

Turkey’s experiences of trying to cope with these changes have been mixed. Ankara has navigated effectively through some of the regional conflicts close to its borders. It has coped much less well with the rapid normative changes which have accompanied the end of the Cold War. On big concept issues, such as the diminution of the state, the emergence of civil society, and the centrality of human rights, Turkey has not only failed to change but has even appeared to fail to understand the dynamics of the new milieu. Increasingly Europeans have felt Turkey to be ‘not like us’, not for reasons of religion and culture, but because of the growing normative gap on issues of liberal values and institutions.

What I want to do in this lecture is to explore some of these dynamics and the way in which Turkey has attempted to deal with them, showing how such a foreign policy approach has changed over time. I intend to illustrate this discussion by reference to three substantive cases: the Iran-Iraq war; Bosnia, which so closely resembles Turkey’s current policy over Kosovo; and the opening to the Islamic world in 1996-97. But do not worry. I have not forgotten where I come from. Neither have I forgotten the raison d’être of the Feher scholar programme. I will therefore close my remarks with some observations on the conduct of relations towards Turkey, and, of hardy perennial interest, Turkey’s relations with Europe.


Three Phases in Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkey has experienced three distinct phases in terms of foreign policymaking since the beginning of the end of the Cold War.[1] The first phase may be called the overriding personal approach, and was closely associated with the figure of Turgut Ozal, who dominated Turkish politics from the ebb of military power in the mid-1980s through to the ousting of his protégé Yilderim Akbulut as premier in 1991. The second phase was the collegiate, bureaucratic approach, for most of which time foreign minister Hikmet Cetin worked closely with the staff of the foreign ministry to produce carefully crafted and well coordinated foreign policy. The third phase has been one of a weak, fragmented and competitive approach, with foreign policymaking since 1994 reflecting the clutter and confusion of domestic party politics.

I) Overriding Personal Approach, 1986 -1991

The period of the pursuit of an enhanced, personalised foreign policy is most closely identified with Turgut Ozal, who was Turkish prime minister between 1983 and 1989 and president of the republic between 1989 and his death in 1993. During such a period of great upheavals in the international system, Turkey was fortunate to have a man of vision and quick wits as its leader. After a careful start, in the wake of rule by the generals, Ozal came increasingly to dominate civilian politics. From his sweeping election victory in 1983, in which he outwitted the military, until the ousting of Akbulut in 1991, Ozal is widely regarded as having transformed the policymaking context in Turkey. ‘For a one-line guide to current Turkish affairs,’ it was written in The Economist survey of Turkey in June 1988, ‘you can do worse than this: for Thatcher, read Ozal’.[2]

However, it was in the areas of strategic thinking and the broad contours of policy, rather than in the detail or execution of that policy, that Ozal’s influence was most felt. From the Gorbachev accession, through the new thinking in the Kremlin and the transformation of the politics of Eastern Europe, virtually to the dismantling of the USSR itself, Ozal was the key figure in charting Turkey’s future direction in a turbulent and changing world.

During this time, Ozal was particularly adept at being able to spot good opportunities and, in moving quickly and with purpose, well able to exploit them. Cases abound of Ozal’s dynamism in foreign policy, especially in the field of foreign economic relations. No case better typifies the man and his style than his conduct of foreign policy and foreign economic policy towards Iran and Iraq during their eight year war.

The Iran-Iraq War

Ozal developed a policy of ‘positive neutrality’ towards the two protagonists during the 1980-88 conflict. So successful was this approach that when bilateral diplomatic ties were eventually severed the two combatants sought representation in one another’s capitals through the respective Turkish missions. The strategy also yielded secondary benefits to Turkey outside the region. In the wake of the US’ difficult relations with both Iran and Iraq, Turkey’s successful diplomacy brought it a certain cache in both US and NATO circles.[3]

Through the adoption of the positive neutrality approach, Ozal not only stabilised relations with both Iran and Iraq at a time of potentially great volatility, but also managed to exploit good ties with Baghdad and Tehran to the benefit of the Turkish exchequer. As in his conduct of policy towards the Soviet Union from 1987 onwards, Ozal pursued a strategy of economic inter-dependence as a way of stabilising and softening what had been difficult bilateral relationships in the recent past. Such was the effectiveness of the policy of positive neutrality and the consequently advantageous impact on Turkey’s balance of payments, that even opposition political leaders like Bulent Ecevit were happy to commend Ozal for such skill.[4]

For Iran, the positive Turkish stance was a welcome relief, contrasting with the varying degrees of antipathy shown towards it by the Arab states, Syria excepted. For Iraq, Turkey offered the strategic advantage of a secure route for trade, and especially for its oil exports, its existing routes across Syria and through the Gulf having proved to be extremely vulnerable to political and military pressure respectively.

Consequently, Turkey rapidly emerged as both a source of manufacturing imports for Iran and Iraq and as a conduit for imports from third countries, notably European suppliers. As with supplies of natural gas from the Soviet Union, again a primary commodity, in this case oil, was the motor for trade. In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq dominated Turkey’s Middle East import profile. Over the duration of the eight year war Turkish imports from Iran and Iraq, overwhelmingly oil, came to $7.1 bn and $9.1 bn respectively. In turn, Turkish exports to Iran and Iraq totaled $5.4 bn and $6.3 bn.[5]

The commercial benefits of this positive neutrality were not confined to trade. Iraq increased its strategic dependence on Turkey in the 1980s through the construction and expansion of two oil pipelines, with a combined capacity of 1.5 mn b/d. Additional volumes of oil moved through Turkey by tanker truck in a ‘moving pipeline’. As well as the indirect benefits of such traffic, Turkey also received some $250 mn a year in pipeline transit fees. Such was the success of this relationship that Iraq and Turkey agreed to the integration of their electricity grids, as part of a wider creation of economic inter-dependencies also involving Syria and Jordan. Turkish companies also received lucrative contracts in construction and heavy engineering in Iraq, with some $2.5 bn worth of work being completed between 1974 and 1990, and more than $1 bn worth of work outstanding at the time of the Gulf crisis.[6] It took a contingency of the dimensions of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the global consensus in support of the introduction of economic sanctions under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter to undo a decade’s worth of growing inter-dependency.

Iran’s integration with Turkey was buttressed in other, less conventional areas. In addition to trade, migration and human interaction emerged as important components of interaction. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians settled in Turkey, especially in parts of Istanbul, after the Iranian revolution. They became a magnet for tourism and commerce between the two countries.

In spite of the advantages of this period of overriding personal influence, it was an approach that was far from being cost free. In the domain of foreign policy there were two main drawbacks. First, Ozal’s judgment was not perfect. His intuitive and sometimes impulsive decisions, unleaven by bureaucratic checks and balances, meant that when he was wrong the consequences were often more serious than if Turkey had been pursuing a more traditionally cautious foreign policy. Many point to the Gulf crisis of 1990/91 itself as an example of this. Ozal supported the initial US effort against Iraq with a presentational flourish as well as substantive action. In doing so, he assumed that great economic and diplomatic benefits would accrue to Turkey. While one could argue that the strategic value placed on Turkey in the US today was in great measure predicated on Ozal’s prompt and forthright action in 1990, the outcome of the crisis, from the continued economic sanctions against Iraq through the creation of a political twilight zone in northern Iraq, have certainly not been to Turkey’s advantage.

Second, Ozal was bad for foreign policymaking in Turkey in the way that Bismarck’s was ultimately detrimental to Imperial Germany. During his period in power, Ozal’s personal approach to foreign relations began to undermine the rule-based systems that make bureaucracies, and especially diplomatic services, run smoothly and effectively. The unsettling effect of this period can be seen in the discontinuities of contact and in the confusion of methods and procedures. Perhaps the best, certainly the most high-profile example of this was Ozal’s telephone diplomacy with President Bush during and immediately after the Gulf crisis, and his refusal to take officials and even his foreign minister into meetings in Washington with the Americans in 1990. In that way, Ozal, like Bismarck before him, began to establish a style and system of foreign relations which only he could operate. His attempt to build in his own indispensability simply disadvantaged Turkey as an actor once his influence waned.


II) Collegiate Bureaucratic Approach, 1991-94

The accession to power of the True Path Party and the Social Democratic Populist Party coalition, as a result of the October 1991 general election, may not, at face value, have looked very promising. There was deep division between presidency and government; the government itself comprised a two-party coalition drawn from different ideological hues; many of those participating in government were inexperienced, and even Demirel himself, nothing if not a political old stager, had been out of office for some 11 years, during which time the world had changed profoundly.

In spite of the apparently inauspicious circumstances, the period between 1991 and 1994 was to prove to be an island of ordered foreign policy management between two periods of relative chaos. In this phase, Turkey emerged as a weighty force for stability and continuity during the most turbulent period of the post-Cold War systemic transition. Turkey managed to harness the caution of the Kemalist era, but without succumbing to its blinkers, notably with regard to Kemalism’s traditional contempt for engagement in such regions as the Middle East. Increasingly, continuity and co-ordination came to typify government, as the system rowed back from the highly personalised approach of the Ozal era through the partial re-institutionalisation of the conduct of foreign affairs. Turkish foreign policy may have been low key and unadventurous during this period, and certainly eschewed the grand initiatives of the Ozal period, but, with instability and even conflict all around, this ‘softly, softly’ approach was the perfect antidote to the tumultuous conditions of the day.

Demirel returned to the premiership having shown little inclination for foreign affairs in the past. His contribution was, however, important in laying down some general guidelines for foreign policy, notably that Turkey should not act alone, but jointly with other countries, and preferably its allies, under proper international auspices.[7] Beyond such parameters, he was content to give considerable lee-way to his foreign minister, Hikmet Cetin, on the condition that he was kept regularly briefed. Demirel also showed wisdom in his decision to continue to work with the incumbent secretary-general of the foreign ministry, Ozdem Sanberk. Thus was formed the Cetin-Sanberk team which was to serve Turkey so very well in managing the destabilising events which were to unfurl all around over the next three years.

Tansu Ciller, who became the prime minister after Demirel succeeded Ozal as head of state in summer 1993, was certainly different to her predecessor. Erratic, inexperienced and politically extremely insecure, she was more prepared to intervene in foreign affairs than Demirel. Indeed, she began ominously by appointing a senior diplomat, Volkan Vurel, to be her personal adviser; shades, she might have believed, of Charles Powell to her Margaret Thatcher. Such thoughts, however, were illusory. Her interventions in foreign affairs were to remain limited due to the necessities of constant maneuvering at the domestic political level just to retain power, her grasp on office appearing precarious from June 1993 through to as late as September 1995.[8] When Mrs Ciller did dally with foreign affairs it was principally with the old Kemalist preoccupations of Europe and the US, in which her interests became increasingly those of form rather than substance. For most of the time, then, the Cetin-Sanberk team prevailed.


In few cases did Turkey show itself to be more of a status quo power than in relation to the break-up of Yugoslavia. In this case, the characteristics of caution, multilateralism and due consideration for the views of allies typified Turkish policy, even when Ankara regarded with distaste those developments on the ground.

As was the case with relations with the Soviet Union, even as the cohesion of the Yugoslav state began to weaken, Turkey maintained regular relations with Belgrade. Turkey remained fully committed to the protection of the unity and the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, not least because of concerns at home about its own integrity at a time when the PKK-led insurgency was nearing its pinnacle of intensity.[9]

As senior members of the Yugoslav state visited the Turkish capital to try to maintain Ankara’s support for the union, so did top officials from some of the constituent republics lobby for their own interests. Throughout this process Turkey remained subject to the diplomacy of others, rather than acting as an initiator. Again, this is reminiscent of Turkey’s first interactions with the so-called Turkic Republics of the former Soviet south between spring and December 1991.

Turkish policy eventually changed as circumstances changed. Once the Bosnian war had begun, Turkey emerged as an energetic actor in support of Bosnia within the multinational machinery of which it was a part. For instance, at one point in December 1992 Cetin managed to address the CSCE, the conference on Yugoslavia at Geneva and a NATO Council of Ministers meeting, all in the space of less than three days. Turkey’s main initiative during this period was the ‘Action Plan for Bosnia Herzegovina’ of 7 August, which it presented to the London Conference shortly afterwards. The plan clearly identified the Bosnian Serb militia as being responsible for the continued conflict and it demanded that Belgrade cease helping the Serb irregulars. Increasingly, however, this period became one of disillusionment as Turkey’s allies politely, even sympathetically, heard the passion with which Ankara argued its case only to turn their backs on the sort of substantive action being proposed. Nevertheless, this did not lead to any serious wavering in Ankara’s commitment to action within a multilateral context.

Turkey’s enhanced diplomatic activity was also evident within the Islamic Conference Organisation towards the end of 1992 and in early 1993. Turkey tried to use the emergency meeting of the ICO in Senegal in January to hinder the Vance-Owen Plan, which had been unveiled less than 10 days before. The vigour with which Ankara pursued the matter at the ICO, of which at the time it held the presidency,[10] was, nevertheless, a shrewd move; it prevented Islamist ideological rivals such as Iran from charging Turkey with being soft on the Bosnian issue because of its strategic alliance with the West. Ironically, it also raised Turkey’s importance in Western strategic calculations, as Ankara was viewed as an effective block against the adoption of embarrassing resolutions. Even Lord Owen himself, who was presumably irritated by the Turkish stance at Senegal, acknowledges that Turkey was ‘important for our credibility with the Islamic nations’.[11]

With Ankara’s plan for limited intervention clearly moribund, in autumn 1992 Turkey switched track. The Turkish government now began to argue that, in the absence of military help from the international community, the Bosnian state should not be deprived of the right of self-defence.[12] Indeed, by mid-October Ankara had decided to concentrate its diplomatic efforts on trying to get the UN arms embargo, which hitherto had been applied on all parties to the conflict, revoked in the case of the Bosnian government.[13] By December, Turkey had formulated a simple trinity of demands: for the lifting of the arms embargo; the establishment of safe havens; limited military intervention.[14] But while Turkey’s allies in the West continued to listen to the pleas of Turkish politicians and officials with respect, Turkey remained singularly unable to realise any of its central goals.

Instead, Ankara appeared to adopt a much more modest strategy. Rather than forelornly appealing for the international community to take sweeping action over Bosnia, the efforts of Ankara appeared to be more focused on specific and limited diplomatic aims. Foremost among these was the objective of reforging the anti-Serb alliance of the Bosnian government and the Croats and, as a necessary precursor of this, bringing an end to the fighting between Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Interestingly, Ankara did not take the initiative, but only responded, following the urging of both the Bosnian and Croatian governments. The fact that Turkey was a reluctant mediator may have reassured Croatia that Turkey did not have a political prescription which it would seek to thrust upon the Croats. The battlefield reverses for the Bosnian Croats at the hands of government forces gave the Croats an extra incentive to accept Turkey’s good offices. Nevertheless, when Cetin declared that Turkey ‘did not intend to impose its views on anyone’, both parties (though of course not the Serbs) appeared to accept such a statement at face value.[15]

Ankara’s approach to the mediation effort drew attention to the futility of the Croat-Muslim fighting, when the strategic enemy of both sides continued to be the Serbs. In helping to stabilise Croat-Muslim relations the way was prepared for a ground troop counter-offensive, an essential complement to the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in summer 1995. Thus Turkey played its part in helping to create the conditions for a cessation of the fighting and then the Dayton peace agreement.


III) Weak, Fragmented, Competitive Approach 1994-

The removal of Cetin as Foreign Minister, a consequence of a redealing of the ministerial cards of patronage within the social democrats, ushered in a third period in Turkish foreign policymaking, that of fragmentation and competition. Overall, this period has been characterised by intensive competition among largely insecure leaders at the head of weak political parties, divided, with the exception of the Islamist right, on a binary basis.[16] Far from proving a political clearing of the air, the December 1995 general election failed to result in a clear-cut victory for any one party. The intensified ideological clash in the mid-1990s between the old Kemalist forces, led by the military, and political Islam exacerbated systemic instability.

More specifically in the foreign policy domain, the personality struggles, especially among the left of centre parties, together with the short lived coalition governments of the 1995-99 parliament, resulted in a large turnover in foreign ministers. It is worth noting that Turkey had as many as eight foreign ministers between July 1994 and June 1996. Moreover, the unstable personal and party competition for power resulted in the foreign ministry being captured, admittedly for rather brief periods, by some decidedly hard-line and undiplomatic personalities. At other times, the foreign ministry has simply represented a status symbol to bolster politicians in their pursuit of overall power, most particularly in the case of Tansu Ciller.

This Alice in Wonderland treatment of the foreign affairs portfolio ultimately had a demoralising effect on the ministry itself. Career diplomats were able to furnish continuity in foreign policy, but only up to a point. Sanberk soldiered on at the helm of the ministry until May 1995. But the absence for long periods of a policy lead at a political level, punctuated by short bursts of overly robust leadership, such as Mumtaz Soysal’s pursuit of an ‘honourable foreign policy’, helped to drain some of the authority from Turkish foreign policy. Once again, it has been the Republic of Turkey which has suffered as a result of these aggregated upheavals.

The lack of political leadership at the foreign ministry was not, it should be pointed out, merely a function of the high turnover in ministers and the differing styles and priorities of some of their number. Even a relatively lengthy incumbency was no guarantee of serious and consistent policy engagement. Tansu Ciller was foreign minister under the Islamist led Welfare Party-True Path Party (Refah-yol) coalition between June 1996 and June 1997, yet this 12 month ‘presence’ did little to remedy the weaknesses of the previous couple of years. During this period Ciller also held the position of deputy prime minister, and looked forward once again to assuming the premiership upon the coalition’s agreed rotation of office in June 1998. From 28 February 1997 onwards the military was actively engaged in trying to bring down the coalition and in attempting to precipitate a collapse of Ciller’s party, and hence the government, through the encouragement of wholesale defections. Consequently, for much of this 12 month period, Ciller was distracted by national political issues, rather than foreign policy issues.


Erbakan’s Islamic Opening

When Professor Erbakan was finally appointed Turkish prime minister on 28 June 1996 his position was comparatively weak. Though the Welfare Party was the largest single party in the parliament it was unable to govern alone. Erbakan was therefore obliged to enter a coalition government with a predominantly secularist party. Moreover, the new government had to contend with the power of the Kemalist state, especially in the guise of the armed forces. Consequently, Welfare’s room for ideological revisionism was constrained.

Erbakan began by adopting a strategy of survival to ensure a lengthy tenure in power and to routinise Welfare as a party of government. He therefore did not question any of the basic areas of strategy under the control of the Kemalist elite. During this period such an approach pervaded foreign policy. Consequently, Erbakan chose not to contest key issues, despite the fact that conditions, to varying degrees in the country, were ripe for policy re-evaluation.[17] He decided this in order not to provoke the military, which thrice before had intervened to subvert civilian politics. While this quiescence was greeted with relief on the part of Turkey’s Western friends and members of the Turkish Foreign Ministry alike, members and supporters of the party rapidly came to question this inactivity. Mindful of Welfare’s looming fifth party conference, and the almost unprecedented challenges emerging from below to the party machine,[18] Erbakan became increasingly keen to achieve some success. Given the nature of the audience, that success had to be ideological in content.

The result was the two major foreign tours of Erbakan’s premiership: an Asian tour to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia; and an African tour to Egypt, Libya and Nigeria. The former, with the exception of one lapse, was an impressive success.[19] Erbakan was able to make the trip in the name of a ‘multi-dimensional’ foreign policy, which would build ties with significant middle powers to the east, without jeopardising Ankara’s traditional ties with the West. During the visits themselves Erbakan was comfortably able to defend his new initiative on grounds of raison d’etat. In Tehran, clearly the leg of the visit that was the most difficult to finesse, Erbakan signed a gas deal aimed at partially alleviating Turkey’s desperate, looming energy shortfall, while satisfying the non-party members of his team by firmly raising the issue of Iranian links to the PKK. Further eastwards, Erbakan, who traveled with a large delegation of businessmen, talked of the commercial potential of closer relations with some of the Asian tigers.

Erbakan’s Asian tour succeeded in impressing much of his support base at home. His statements that Turkey wanted to be a ‘Muslim Japan’,[20] and that he favoured preserving its Muslim identity while promoting modernism and innovation like Indonesia and Malaysia were well received by Islamist intellectuals already excited by the prospect of the global economic centre of gravity shifting from the north Atlantic to the Pacific Rim.

Erbakan’s triumph was, however, to be short-lived. The Asian tour alone would probably have been sufficient to give him the boost he required before his party’s congress. Perhaps Erbakan was intoxicated to the point of hubris by the success of his first tour; perhaps he felt that he had to balance the signing of a defence agreement concluded on 28 August with the state of Israel, into which he had been maneuvered by the military; yet again, perhaps Erbakan was concerned with having a further fillip closer to the 13 October congress: whatever the reason, Erbakan decided to push ahead with his Africa tour. Such a mission would in any case have been harder to justify, Africa lacking the economic dynamism and strategic importance of Erbakan’s Asian destinations. The Welfare Party leader also chose to ignore some critical warning signs. It was only through the combined persuasion of his main foreign policy adviser, Abdullah Gul, and senior members of the foreign ministry that Erbakan was persuaded not to press ahead with his intention to visit Islamist Sudan.[21]

Erbakan showed rather less prudence in the midst of objections from Tansu Ciller and Abdullah Gul to the proposed Libyan leg of the trip. Gul considered such a visit ‘misguided’, coming, as it did, against a backdrop of Colonel Qadhafi’s encouragement of Kurdish separatism.[22] If anyone would have had a feel for the context of Libyan-Turkish relations Gul would. The State Minister had substituted for Erbakan at the 27th anniversary celebrations of Qadhafi coming to power on 1 September; in Tripoli Gul had been snubbed for the absence of Erbakan and insulted by Qadhafi’s attack on Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority, what turned out to be a rehearsal for the trenchant criticism made by Qadhafi when Erbakan subsequently turned up in person.[23] Yet Erbakan insisted on making the visit, mindful of a potential political success perhaps if he could persuade the Libyans to honour outstanding payments due to Turkish construction companies.

The first leg of Erbakan’s Africa tour to Egypt, with a visit to the Islamic university at al-Azhar included, turned out tolerably well. Indeed, the Turkish prime minister’s arrival provided an opportunity for President Husni Mubarak to decline a mini-summit in Washington DC on the ailing Arab-Israeli peace process; providing the excuse for a snub to the Americans would, no doubt, have elicited quiet glee on the part of Erbakan. From then onwards, however, the trip was an unmitigated disaster. In spite of due warning, Erbakan was ‘stunned’ by Qadhafi’s call for an independent Kurdish homeland in his presence at a news conference, at which he also criticised Turkey’s growing links with Israel. Rather than cutting his losses,[24] Erbakan repeatedly exacerbated the situation: first, by agreeing to a final communiqué that implied that the US was guilty of terrorism;[25] second, through a demeaningly lengthy negotiation aimed at attaining a Libyan commitment to settle the outstanding debt to Turkish contractors.[26]

At home, the secularist press and political opposition went on the rampage, thereby dissipating the momentum which the coalition had built up to that point. Erbakan was further criticised for undertaking the final leg of his tour, a visit to the pariah regime in Nigeria. Ironically, however, this was arguably the most successful part of the tour, with Sani Abacha, the Nigerian leader, so thankful for the visit at a time of international ostracism, that a Turkish company received two multi-million dollar contracts soon after.


Dealing with Turkey

If these have been the three stages of Turkish foreign policy since the Cold War, how have Turkey’s neighbours set about addressing their relations with such an important regional power at a time of profound systemic change? There is clearly no consensus. Strategies have spanned constructive engagement through to adversarial antagonism, with yet other states adopting strategies which ‘pick‘n’mix’ from both. Interestingly, the adoption of such a range of strategies do not seem to be much related to the different phases of foreign policy making in Turkey itself. Such factors as historical experience and political culture appear to be stronger drivers in the adoption of approaches to Turkey, even in a context of historical discontinuity.

I) Constructive Engagement

Neighbourhood states as diverse as Bulgaria and Romania in south-east Europe, the Ukraine and Shevardnadze’s Georgia in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Israel in the Middle East have adopted the approach of constructive engagement towards Turkey. In general, systemic factors have been important in explaining the adoption of a positive approach towards Turkey: Georgia and Ukraine share Turkey’s wariness of Russia’s volatile strength; Israel and Turkey have common security concerns in the Middle East, from Syrian enmity to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; Bulgaria and Romania, like Turkey, have a strong economic and strategic interest in peace and stability in the Balkans.

These systemic factors have been bolstered by a patchwork of other considerations. These include value factors (spanning ideology and identity), such as Israeli and Turkish elites regarding one another as European and being committed to democracy in a region more generally typified by authoritarian politics. They also include domestic factors, such as the increasing role of Turkish businessmen in the Romanian economy, and the desire of a post-Zhivkov Bulgaria to integrate its substantial Turkish minority.

A range of diplomatic, economic and even military tools have been used to enhance and underpin this approach of constructive engagement. High level diplomatic traffic has tended to be regular and cordial between Turkey and these countries. A vast raft of bilateral agreements have been concluded as a symbol of a political will for strong bilateral relations. Otherwise, relations have developed according to their own character. Infrastructural integration has been explored with Bulgaria and Romania; Turkish peace monitors have helped to stabilise Abkhaz-Georgian tensions; since 1996 military cooperation has come to dominate bilateral ties with Israel.

II) Adversarial Antagonism

Relations with a second set of countries have assumed a very different experience. Cyprus, Greece and Serbia in south-east Europe, Armenia in the Transcaucasus and Syria in the Middle East have all tended to adopt a position of adversarial antagonism towards Turkey, as a reflection of real or perceived actions and policies from Ankara. Turkey’s relations with these countries are therefore altogether more bleak.

Ideas and identity issues appear to dominate in the emergence of such sentiments. History paints a black canvass for contemporary relations, with the experiences of conquest and harsh subjugation in Serbia and Greece under Turkey’s Ottoman predecessor state, and the killing and flight of Armenian and Greek populations in Anatolia during the First World War and its aftermath. Moreover, the modern state of Turkey is itself widely regarded as harbouring a neo-Ottoman hidden agenda, with expansionist designs, whether in retaining a sizable portion of the island of Cyprus and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, or in being perceived to covet Greece’s air, sea and land space in the Aegean.

The product of realist and zero-sum calculations, any gain for Turkey in the international system tends to be interpreted negatively by such states. All available resources tend to be mobilised to oppose the Turkish state and its interests, no matter what the platform. Thus, Syria seeks to enlist the support of the Arab League against Turkey on such diverse issues as water and Turkish-Israeli relations; Greece has used its membership of the EU to block the dispersal of aid, even that specifically promised as part of the adjustment process linked to the EU-Turkish Customs Union of 1996.

III) Mixed Strategies

Turkey’s relations with yet a third category of neighbouring countries have been rather more mercurial. This group includes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, now the relationship is shorn of the economic inter-dependencies of the 1980s, and the Russian Federation. Here the historical relationship, though often problematic,[27] is not as subject to the mythology of fear and hatred as in the category of the adversarial states. Value factors may obstruct the emergence of empathies with Turkey: such as the Islamist-secularist cleavage between Iran and Turkey, or the Arab nationalist-Turkish nationalist dichotomy between Iraq and Iran. Systemic factors too may be problematic: whether Turkey’s continuing decade-old support for US-led attempts to keep Saddam Hussain ‘in a box’, or Ankara’s support, against Russian interests, for the new republics of the former Soviet south in their attempts to break the sinews of dependency which tied them to the USSR.

Nevertheless, these areas of difficulty are often balanced by other considerations, often domestic in origin. For Russia, the key balancing factor is the need to maintain and develop strong bilateral economic ties based on natural gas exports to Turkey. For Iraq, these domestic factors relate to the struggle of the regime for survival, and the desire to keep Ankara from participating in US designs to bring about regime change in Baghdad. For Iran, there is a strong, though not always uniformally shared, appreciation that tension with Turkey will not help facilitate international rehabilitation.

Against a backdrop of such contradictory and ambiguous factors, relations between this third category of states and Turkey have often veered between the difficult and the cooperative. Indeed, paradoxically, they have on occasion appeared to be simultaneously good and bad. Consequently, for example, Cairo has seemed to criticise and acknowledge reassurance over Israeli-Turkish relations, sometimes in alternating diplomatic breaths; Russia and Turkey have clashed with one another over Moscow’s sales of S-300 missiles to Cyprus, even as bilateral commercial relations have proceeded unimpaired; senior Iraqi officials have spasmodically visited Ankara to plead and cajole Turkish governments, only to vilify them through the regime-controlled media on their return.


Euro-Turkish Relations

Finally, what to report to the Madeleine Feher European Scholar program about relations between Turkey and Europe at the end of the 1990s? Between Turkey and the four leading states of Western Europe, namely Britain, France, Germany and Italy, relations are I believe in much better shape than they are often represented; much better, one might even say, than Turkey sometimes gives them credit for. For these four states, it is unquestionably an approach of constructive engagement which prevails.

Of course, there have been criticisms. The top Western European states have increasingly made human rights and related considerations a central plank of foreign relations. But the issue of human rights co-exists alongside several other key interests, which embrace commercial considerations, security partnership and the future stability of the regions adjacent to which Turkey lies. Consequently, such states have expressed disquiet about human rights abuses in Turkey, but never in a way which has approached foreign policy reductionism, whereby external relations are driven by a single factor. The need to maintain close working relations with Turkey has always more than balanced such concerns. Indeed, in reality governments and bureaucracies in these leading Western European states have parried and ameliorated the single track orientatation of leading NGOs and liberals, for whom the human rights basket is central and exclusive. Not that Ankara has always, or even occasionally, appreciated such efforts. Nevertheless, it is for this reason that bilateral relations between Turkey and European states have been so stable throughout much of the 1990s.

Arguably, there was no better evidence of this than in the issue of the PKK, which has been widely banned as an organisation in Europe since 1993. In spite of the intensity of the Kurdish question and the growing size and effectiveness of the Kurdish ethno-nationalist opposition movement in Western Europe over the past 15 years, such governments have resisted the siren voices of the PKK and their apologists. Perhaps this was best witnessed during the strange, peripatetic journeying of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan between November 1998 and February 1999. European governments, most notably the newly created d’Alema administration in Rome, were unprepared for both Ocalan’s arrival in their midst and the shrill protests on his behalf from within. True, the handling of the affair was not pretty; it took time to forge a common response. But when it came it came clearly and in unison: no concessions to the PKK; no refuge for Ocalan in Western Europe.

But from the vantage point at the centre of the emerging united states of Europe, in Brussels, rather than London, Paris, Bonn or Rome, relations between Europe and Turkey have been rather more turbulent. This has in part been because of: the strong human rights brief acquired by the European Parliament, and its periodic pillorying of Turkey; the adversarial approach of the Greek government, which has often used the Union’s consensus decision-making to block policy favourable to Turkey; the absence within the EU of a state willing and able to play a mentor or advocacy role for Turkey in the way that Greece has for Cyprus or Germany has for the aspiring members of central Europe. Such realities, however, are a product of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and not some well-crafted conspiracy.

To dwell on such matters is to think oneself into the slough of despondency, a position, admittedly, often occupied by Turks over the European issue. But that is, I believe, to be preoccupied with the wrong issues. If one focuses on the actual or substantive, rather than the merely formalistic, a story of deep and growing integration begins to emerge. More than half of Turkey’s trade already takes place with the EU. That is set to increase as the impact of the Customs Union grows. The implementation of a range of Customs Union plus measures, discussions on which are currently proceeding, would further deepen the economic inter-dependencies. Jobs and profits, I would argue, are always likely to give a more secure underpinning to Euro-Turkish relations than the subjective attitudes of ruling elites. In addition, the presence of a large Turkish population in Western Europe makes human disengagement difficult to contemplate for either side.



Looking back over the past 20 years, history has not been particularly fair to Turkey. Yet, in spite of that, Turkey still looks pretty good on it. Turkey today is a large, powerful and increasingly prosperous country, one which its neighbours dare not ignore. Even for the more formidable actors in international politics, like the US and the EU, Turkey is a country to take seriously. Enlisting the assistance of Turkey, whether in containing Soviet expansionism or, more latterly, in confronting Saddam Hussain’s aggression in Kuwait or in managing and ending conflict in Bosnia, has always been a boon for its allies. If Turkey is rather less well placed at the moment to contribute consistently and effectively than it was under the visionary Ozal or the collegiate governance of Demirel and Cetin it is in great measure a reflection of weakness and division at home. And that is a challenge that only the Turks themselves can address.



[1] Taken to correspond roughly with the rise to power of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

[2] The Economist Survey of Turkey entitled ‘Getting Ready for Europe’, 18-24 June 1988, p. 4.

[3] Discussion with three State Department officials on Turkey, Washington, DC, 6 February 1989.

[4] Speaking at Chatham House on 24 January 1989; while criticising other aspects of foreign policy, Ecevit called Ozal’s Middle East policy ‘balanced, realistic and successful’.

[5] IMF Direction of Trade Statistics Yearbook, 1989; SIS Foreign Trade Statistics.

[6] Turkey Confidential No. 10, June 1990.

[7] Turkey Confidential No. 34, December 1992, p. 12.

[8] It is ironic that Ciller’s downfall as prime minister came so soon after she had finally consolidated her hold on her own party.

[9] For example, see one of the first statements of the Turkish foreign minister, Safa Giray, after the creation of the Yilmaz government in June, 1991; a statement which actually took place against a background of increasing violence in Slovenia. Newspot 4 July, 1991.

[10] Turkey held the presidency of the ICO for 18 months, relinquishing it in April 1993.

[11] David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (London: Victor Gollanz, 1995), p. 225.

[12] TDN 29 October, 1992.

[13] TDN 21 October 1992.

[14] For example see TDN 17 December, 1992.

[15] Turkish Probe Vol. 4 No. 45, 28 September 1993.

[16] Two main parties are competing for virtually every inch of Turkish ideological territory: the nationalist right, BBP and MHP; the secular right, ANAP and DYP; the left of centre, CHP and DSP.

[17] See Philip Robins ‘Erbakan’s Foreign Policy’ in Survival (Summer 1997).

[18] The most visible and celebrated case was the struggle for the chairmanship of the Ankara provincial organisation in which Mehmet Tellioglu beat the official candidate Zeki Celik before the election was annulled by the party’s executive board. However, Ankara was far from being the only case of a grass roots rebellion against the centre, and, likewise, far from being the only case where local party elections were overturned.

[19] In Malaysia, perhaps as a result of finding a kindred spirit in premier Mahatir Muhammad, Erbakan could restrain himself no longer making largely gratuitous comments, such as in asserting that the West had made no contribution to the development of science.

[20] Erbakan interview with Ilnur Cevik in Turkish Daily News, 12 August 1996.

[21] One source states that senior Turkish diplomats demanded that Erbakan not visit Khartoum. Sabah 27 September 1996.

[22] Editorial by Ilnur Cevik, who was then close to Erbakan and his inner circle, in Turkish Daily News, 7 October 1996.

[23] Turkish Daily News, 24 September 1996.

[24] Abdullah Gul rather effectively did so by dismissing Qadhafi’s remarks as ‘lunatic nonsense’ unworthy of further comment.

[25] The final communiqué referred to ‘countries engaged in terroristic activities against Libya’, provoking a candid response from Nicholas Burns on behalf of the State Department, and retaliatory remarks from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[26] The talks on repayments continued for some 12 hours.

[27] One must remember that Russians and Turks have fought 13 wars against one another, in one state guise or another.