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Turkey's Middle East Policy Reloaded: Rise of Pragmatism?

Turkey's Middle East Policy Reloaded: Rise of Pragmatism?

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This policy brief examines Turkey's role as a Middle Eastern regional power.
This policy brief examines Turkey's role as a Middle Eastern regional power.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Oct 10, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Prior to the ArabSpring, Turkey was admiredas the rising star of the regionowing to its proactive foreignpolicy agenda. But the oscilla- tions observed in Turkey’s policy
during the rst few months of the
Arab Spring led some analysts to suggest that the country’sregional role was in completedisarray, not least becauseAnkara failed to anticipate thiscontingency. Such analysesproved hasty at best, misjudgedat worst. Turkey demonstrated
exibility in adapting to the
rapidly evolving circumstancesand has managed to gain a sayin the political processes likely toaffect the future of the regional transformation. As the pendulumswings back, Turkey is againbeing praised as an importantregional player. Overall, Turkeyhas increasingly moved in thedirection of putting pragmatismabove idealism in the conduct of its regional policies. Yet, a corre-sponding change has not takenplace in the rhetorical parlanceof Turkish leaders who continue to advocate an idealist vision of regional order.
 Turkey’s Middle East Policy Reloaded:Rise of Pragmatism?
by Saban Kardas
October 10, 2011
, DC
Te popular uprisings sweepingthrough the Middle East have putthe dynamics o the regional orderin ux, orcing the local powers toredene their oreign policy priorities.As the revolutionary ervor subsides,o particular interest have been theimplications o recent developmentsor urkey’s Middle East policies.Prior to the Arab Spring, urkey wasadmired as the rising star o the regionowing to its proactive oreign policy agenda. But the oscillations observedin urkey’s policy during the rst ewmonths led some analysts to suggestthat the country’s regional role was incomplete disarray, not least becauseAnkara ailed to anticipate this contin-gency. Such analyses proved hasty at best, misjudged
at worst. urkey demonstrated exibility in adaptingto the rapidly evolving circumstancesand has managed to gain a say in thepolitical processes likely to aect theuture o the regional transormation.As the pendulum swings back, urkey is again being praised as an importantregional player.How has urkish oreign policy aredlately as it navigated the waves o revolution? While it might be wrongto announce the death o urkey’sMiddle East policy, it would be equally problematic to argue that urkey hasemerged untainted rom this experi-ence. Te Arab Spring has presentedsubstantial conceptual challenges tourkish oreign policy vision, whichraised serious questions as to therelevance o the idealist thinking thatundergirded urkey’s regional poli-cies. Overall, during the course o theArab Spring, urkey has conductedits policy by the dictates o 
, and pragmatically realigned itsexternal relations. Yet, a correspondingchange has not taken place in therhetorical parlance o urkish leaderswho continue to advocate an idealist vision o regional order.
Turkey as a Middle EasternRegional Power
urkey’s assertive involvement inMiddle Eastern aairs has beenan outgrowth o its oreign policy activism on a range o regional andglobal issues. As much as the struc-tural conditions creating a permissiveenvironment, Ankara’s recent orienta-tion is underpinned by a strong senseo agency, and as such it reects aneort o its leaders to play leadershiproles in their regional neighborhoodsand beyond. Indeed, urkey’s regionaland global ascendance has coincidedremarkably with the rise to power o anew elite, represented by the AK Party.
Turkish leaders have at timesadopted rather rigid andcategorical foreign policy positionsinformed more by their own beliefsabout the right course of action than the actual facts on theground.Turkey’s regional and globalascendance has coincidedremarkably with the rise to powerof a new elite, represented by theAK Party.
Te intellectual ownership o new oreign policy is usually attributed to the views articulated by Ahmet Davutoğluin his academic writings, where he justies activism withreerences to the geographic” and “historical” depth. Tatsaid, Davutoğlu is not alone in believing that geographicand historic imperatives require Ankara to pursue a multi-dimensional oreign policy agenda, and Prime Ministerayyip Erdoğan especially has been a keen advocate o thisambitious vision.Te discussion o the AK Party’s oreign policy oenrevolved around the provocative question o the role playedby the ideational actors. Analysts have debated whetherAnkara was experiencing a shi o axis away rom its tradi-tional Western orientation, toward a more “Islamist” direc-tion, triggered by the ideological makeup o the ruling elite.What was oen less addressed, however, was the conceptualramework that undergirded urkey’s new oreign policy  vision. urkey’s regional policy had taken largely an idealistturn, in the sense that it was based on the assumption thaturkey’s national interests and the conduct o its oreignpolicy must be inormed by 
a priori
moralistic propositionsabout urkey’s identity and international role. In line withthese role perceptions, urkish leaders have laid out severalprecepts painting an ideal picture o the Middle East — andother regions urkey is a part o, such as the Balkans andCaucasus — and urkey’s place in it. More specically, they have acted on the belie that they are tasked to pursue aoreign policy that upholds peace, justice and reedom bothin immediate regional neighborhoods and the global level.Tough labeling them dogmatic would be wrong, they haveat times adopted rather rigid and categorical oreign policy positions inormed more by their own belies about theright course o action than the actual acts on the ground.
Turkey’s Self-Perception as an Order-Instituting Country
Te leading theme in regional engagements has beenthe idea that urkey could act as an “order-instituting”country. Just as other emerging powers, urkey has aspiredto assume a greater responsibility in the creation o morestable and prosperous orders in surrounding regions. InDavutoğlu’s parlance, the concept o order instituting hasa broader strategic value as he relates it to the concept o central-country. In this view, the extent to which urkey succeeds in setting up a regional order will be crucial orits emergence as a central country in regional and, conse-quently, global politics.In addition to such
justications, urkey’s aspi-rations or order-instituting power also rested on severalinterrelated arguments, indicating the inuence o idealism.First, juxtaposing itsel to the U.S. “hard power” approach tointernational problems, urkey has prioritized “so power”instruments. Likewise, urkey’s policy o penetrating newmarkets and initiating economic integration projects withneighbors, accompanied by the removal o visa require-ments, added a liberal touch to Ankaras recent activism.Echoing the Wilsonian idealism, moreover, urkey hasemphasized cooperative policies and institution-building asthe best way to advance national interests, as well as to orgea peaceul regional and international order. urkey, morespecically, has come to value diplomacy, mediation, andengagement over orce, coercion, and exclusion, believingthat the United States stood or the latter. As a corollary,
Turkey’s overreliance on softpower instruments provedproblematic as Turkey addressed the contingencies in Libya andSyria.
under the rubric o “regional ownership,” urkey has advo-cated or local actors assuming larger roles or the creationo a regional order, which, in eect, has increasingly under-mined the ground or coordinated action with the UnitedStates.Ironically, the emphasis on an order-instituting role reachedits climax on the eve o the Arab Spring. In a January 2011lecture, Davutoğlu called or a proactive oreign policy,meaning urkey should be able to anticipate potential crisesand develop appropriate preventive measures. More impor-tantly, a proactive oreign policy meant that urkey shouldbe in a lead role in the resolution o regional and globalcrises, abandoning the reactive policies that had character-ized the country’s international practices.
Post-Arab Spring: Rise of Pragmatism?
Te Arab Spring has starkly presented the limits to urkey’sability to understand and shape the regional security dynamics. First, it must have reminded urkish leaders thatthe element o uncertainty inherent in international rela-tions presents a major constraint to any attempt at devisingan ambitious grand strategy. Perhaps urkey may not becriticized or ailing to anticipate a contingency such as theArab Spring, as it caught many regional and global actorsunprepared. Judged by the earlier grandiose rhetoric o devising proactive policies to ride regional transormation,however, it captures the eye that urkey was not in the leadposition in eorts to address the uprisings, except or theortunate intervention in Egypt where Erdoğans call onMubarak to leave power earned him applauds.Erdoğan’s knee-jerk rejection o the imposition o sanctionsagainst the regime o Col. Muammar Gadda, and his vocalquestioning o NAO’s possible role in Libya, were drivenless by the actual acts on the ground than his belies aboutright course o action. urkey managed to avoid being side-lined by the pace o events only through a pragmatic changeo course, simply disregarding its categorical objections.urkey, overall, “reacted” to the Western agenda, ratherthan “proactively” determining the policy instruments andplatorms that tackled the violent uprising in Libya.In Libya, urkey bandwagoned with the international coali-tion, and did so only aer much bickering about UN-autho-rized sanctions and the use o orce. Despite Erdoğansinitial rhetoric, which accused other powers o pursuingneo-imperialistic policies and described urkey as theonly country with a morally-driven and righteous agenda,urkey soon recognized the rapidly changing circumstancesand redened its policy, which culminated in Erdoğanstrip to the country. In Syria, again, Ankara lagged behindthe Western world — which launched coercive measuresagainst the Baath regime — and only recently moved inthat direction. What is also remarkable is that in both casesurkey moved to coordinate its policies with the UnitedStates, abandoning the early rhetoric o autonomous action.Similarly, urkey’s overreliance on so power instruments,which almost bred aversion to the use o coercion, provedproblematic as urkey addressed the contingencies in Libyaand Syria. On the issue o regime change, urkey — basedon the idealist oreign policy vision, Davutoğlu’s earlierwritings, and the lessons learned rom Aghanistan and Iraq— deended gradual transormation o existing regimes,standing against regime change through oreign interven-tion. However, urkey’s so power tools were o no avail,as it sought to present an Ankara-based” solution to Libyaand Syria. Syria, in particular, showcased how, aer havinginvested political capital or engaging” the Assad regime,urkey ailed to turn its so power into political leverage.
Where Goes Pragmatism?
Te major principles underpinning urkey’s oreign policy  vision beg reconsideration, having ailed to stand the test o events sparked by the Arab Spring. At the core o urkey’spre-Arab Spring vision was a strong belie o its leaders intheir ability to understand and shape the region aer theirown image. Its leaders imagined a urkey that can leadby example and devise policies with oresight in order toprevent regional crises. Faced with ast-evolving contingen-cies, urkey rapidly responded to new conditions, though

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