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Turkey's Third Wave -- And the Coming Quest for Strategic Reassurance

Turkey's Third Wave -- And the Coming Quest for Strategic Reassurance

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This policy brief examines Turkey's changing foreign policy strategy.
This policy brief examines Turkey's changing foreign policy strategy.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Oct 25, 2011
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Turkey may beentering a “third wave” in theevolution of its modern foreignpolicy, with continued regionalactivism played out in a strategicenvironment that is increasinglyinsecure and crisis prone. The
prevailing mix of self condence,
assertiveness, and coolness toward Western partners maynot be sustainable as Ankaraonce again requires greater
reassurance against conict
and chaos on its borders. Thereturn to brinkmanship in theeastern Mediterranean is afurther complicating factor, andone that may play a growing rolein Turkish-Western dynamics.After a decade of commercialengagement and soft power,hard security issues are returning  to center stage. The deepening Kurdistan Workers Party chal-lenge from Northern Iraq, andpotentially from Syria, is just onefacet of an increasingly troubledsecurity picture across Turkey’sneighborhood.
 Turkey’s Third Wave — And the Coming Quest for Strategic Reassurance
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser 
October 25, 2011
, DC
urkey may be entering a “thirdwave” in the evolution o its modernoreign policy, with continued regionalactivism played out in a strategic envi-ronment that is increasingly insecureand crisis prone. Te prevailing mixo sel condence, assertiveness, andcoolness toward Western partnersmay not be sustainable as Ankaraonce again requires greater reassur-ance against conict and chaos onits borders. Te return to brinkman-ship in the eastern Mediterraneanis a urther complicating actor, andone that may play a growing role inurkish-Western dynamics. Aer adecade o commercial engagementand so power, hard security issues arereturning to center stage. Te deep-ening PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party)challenge rom Northern Iraq, andpotentially rom Syria, is just one aceto an increasingly troubled security picture across urkey’s neighborhood.
From Deterrence to Commerce
Te rst wave o urkish oreign andsecurity policy, a security- and alli-ance-centric approach that prevailedrom the end o the Second WorldWar, through the end o the Cold War,and beyond, was already in declineby the time o AKP’s rise to power.For decades, urkish policy had beendriven by the need to deter a majoradversary to the north, and a minoradversary across the Aegean. In the1990s, the security agenda came toinclude the threat posed by Syrian saehavens and support or PKK opera-tions in southeastern Anatolia. Tisextended period o security-drivenstrategy coincided with an era inwhich external policy was set, almostexclusively, by senior military ocialsand proessional diplomats. Even inthe context o urkey-EU relations,economic concerns were trumped by political and identity issues. Deter-rence and sovereignty-consciousnesswere at the center o urkey’s world- view, and security partnerships withthe United States and NAO had highpriority, even i these partnershipswere oen troubled and dicult tomanage.Te advent o AKP government,and perhaps more importantly, thepost-2001 period o high growth andeconomic dynamism that continuesto this day, changed the balance inurkey’s international policy. Many analysts describe this shi in East-West terms. But the real shi wasrom security to commerce and romdistant partners to the immediateneighborhood. o be sure, urkishpolicymakers deserve credit or
The Balkan Trust for Democracy
helping to deuse a series o crisis-prone relationships onurkey’s borders, most notably with Greece and Syria. “Zeroproblems with neighbors” may have been a sel-denedcaricature, but it has been a reasonably accurate descriptiono the benign regional environment acing urkey over thelast decade. Tis was also a highly permissive environmentin economic terms, encouraging a signicant expansion o urkey’s commercial ties with Middle Eastern and Eurasianneighbors, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gul Coopera-tion Council states, and above all, Russia. Political scientistKemal Kirisci’s description o contemporary urkey as a“trading state” is very apt. o reverse the traditional maxim,urkish policy under AKP has been a case o the agollowing trade.Te erosion o urkey’s security-centric worldview coin-cided with a period in which the PKK insurgency, whilenot eliminated, appeared relatively contained. Certainly,the level o violence, while rising in recent years, has beenlow when compared to the 1990s, when perhaps 40,000people were killed in the insurgency, counter-insurgency,and political violence. Despite the continued prominence o PKK attacks in urkish perceptions, urkish public opinionhad become progressively less “hawkish” on oreign andsecurity policy. Tis trend is clearly illustrated in recentndings rom the German Marshall Fund’s
survey. In the 2011 edition o the study, urks andEuropeans exhibit virtually the same views on the ques-tion o the “use o orce to obtain justice,” with only a thirdregarding this as acceptable.
(Te most recent spate o PKK violence, above all the October 19, 2011 attack that killed 24urkish troops, may well reverse this trend).A relatively benign regional environment, coupled withhigh growth, took the edge of o urkey’s tradition-ally conservative, status quo-oriented, and elite-drivenoreign policy. Over the last ew years, in particular, theAKP leadership has embraced what might be described asan increasingly nonaligned strategy, seeking new ties toother emerging powers and adopting some o the oreignpolicy vocabulary o the global south and the ashionableobsession with so power. Te anities and concerns o the prime minister and the oreign minister — and mucho the urkish public — have also been reected in aconrontational policy toward Israel, the Palestinian issue,
German Marshall Fund of the United States,
Transatlantic Trends 2011: Key Findings.
. The comparable gure for U.S. respondents was 60 percent.
and Gaza in particular. On these, and on other questions,personalities play a role; this is hardly a unique example, butencouraged by a strategic environment in which urkey’straditional alliance relationships have been o secondary concern.
The End of a Permissive Environment
Are we looking at the end o urkey’s ambitious “secondwave” in international policy? Several signs point in thisdirection. First, the extraordinary economic growth thaturkey has enjoyed in recent years may not be sustain-able. Current projections suggest that urkish growth may all rom the prevailing 8-9 percent to perhaps 2 percentnext year — and that might still be high by U.S. and Euro-pean standards. At the same time, economic conditions inurkey’s Middle Eastern neighborhood have deterioratedsubstantially. Chaos in Syria, new sanctions and a less posi-tive relationship with Iran, and an unsettled environmentrom North Arica to the Gul will likely put the brakeson urkey’s trade and investment ties to the region. radi-tional markets in Europe will remain critical to the urkisheconomy, but the outlook there is equally dim. Overall, it isquestionable whether urkey can maintain a commercially driven external policy when the international economy appears set or protracted low growth, i not renewed reces-sion.Second, the strategic environment in urkey’s immediateneighborhood is now ar rom benign. In the space o ayear, urkey’s relations with Syria have gone rom boomto bust. Te political relationship between Ankara and theBashar al-Assad regime has deteriorated to an extraordi-nary degree. Even i the regime in Damascus manages tohang on to power, the extent o its repression and alienationrom the international community suggests that there canbe no going back in terms o Ankara’s engagement withSyria. Under Assad, the country will remain an unstablepariah. Under other scenarios, urkey may ace a chaoticand conict-ridden Syria or some time to come. In eithercase, the possible security implications will be stark roma urkish perspective, and will range rom uncontrolledreugee ows to the revival o PKK sae havens across theborder. urkey’s recent large-scale cross-border operationsagainst PKK havens in northern Iraq suggest that Ankarais unlikely to tolerate the revival o a Kurdish insurgency based in Syria. Even short o this, a standing state o mili-tary conrontation with Syria is not out o the question, a
condition that urkey’s recent military deployments alongthe Syrian border may anticipate.Tird, urkey is likely to ace a series o longer-term geopo-litical challenges o a kind that Ankara has not had toponder or at least a decade. Prime Minister Recep ayyipErdoğans appeal to Egyptian opinion aside, a post-revo-lutionary Egypt is unlikely to be comortable with a highlevel o urkish activism in the Arab and Muslim world.A resurgent Egypt, possibly with a strong Islamist bent,is more likely to be a regional competitor than a strategicpartner or Ankara. Tis may not pose a direct threat tourkish interests, but it could well limit urkish activism ineconomic and political terms.In a very diferent quarter, a relatively benign Russia canno longer be taken or granted. At a minimum, currentpolitical dynamics in Russia suggest a series o disturbingopen questions or urkey’s leadership, including the possi-bility o new conict around the Black Sea, Russia’s returnto political and security engagement in the Mediterranean,and a potentially tougher relationship between Moscow andAnkara on energy issues. A more troubled security rela-tionship between Russia and the West as a whole will poseurther challenges or urkey, rom nuclear strategy to theconventional military balance. Russias recent acquisition o Mistral class amphibious assault ships rom France may notseem so benign rom a urkish perspective against a back-drop o more competitive relations with Moscow. Ankarais unlikely to reconsider its resistance to expanded NAOoperations in the Black Sea, even under these conditions.But the notion o conronting a more assertive Russia or achaotic Russia on a protracted trajectory o decline — orboth — on a unilateral basis will be unattractive to a urkey already acing multiple security problems.Te prospect o a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran will also takeon a diferent character when the regional environmentis unpredictable and insecure. urkey is highly exposedto Irans nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions. Beyondthe risk to urkish population centers, a nuclearizing Iranmay use its perceived strategic weight to pursue a moreaggressive regional policy through proxies in Lebanon andelsewhere. Or the loss o Syria as a regional ally may add tothe isolation o the regime and reinorce the Iranian interestin acquiring a nuclear capability. Over the past decade,urkey’s leaders have taken a low-key approach to this risk,and have tended to see themselves as privileged interlocu-tors with ehran on this question. Signs o change on thisront are already visible. urkey’s decision to participate inthe new NAO missile deense architecture, including thebasing o U.S. radars on urkish territory, is one indicator.Te increasingly strident Iranian discourse about urkey and its regional role is likely to heighten Ankaras uneaseand raise the specter o a looming, longer-term geopoliticalcompetition with Iran.Security dynamics are also becoming more complex onanother ront. Te recent brinkmanship over ofshore gasdevelopment in the Eastern Mediterranean harks back to the years o instability in urkish-Greek and urkish-Cypriot relations.
For over a decade, urkey and its Euro-pean and U.S. partners have had the luxury o developingtheir regional policies without the constant impediment o day-to-day crisis management in the Aegean. oday, there isa very real risk o serious military incidents at sea or in theair, this time in a more complicated, multi-aceted rame,with urkey, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and other regionalstakeholders. Behind the competition over potentially  very extensive energy reserves — some analysts see Israel’sLeviathan eld alone as transorming or the regionalenergy picture — lurks a steady deterioration o strategicrelations among the principle players. Clearly, the questionhere is not one o reassurance or deterrence when it comesto urkish relations with Greece, Cyprus, or even Israel,but rather condence building and a return to regionaldétente. Without predictable ties to NAO partners, and inthe absence o progress in urkey’s EU candidacy — urkey has threatened to reeze ties to the EU when Cyprus holdsthe European presidency rom July 2012 — the problem o stability and crisis prevention in the Eastern Mediterraneanwill be even more serious.
What Next?
Te return o security questions to the top o the urkishagenda will surely heighten the tension between Ankarasdesire or active diplomacy in its neighborhood, some o which has been at odds with European and U.S. interests,and the growing need or deterrence and strategic reas-surance. Te scale o the security problems acing urkey suggests that only urkey’s traditional Western partners canll this need over the longer term. Te alternative is a costly,
See Michael Leigh’s recent piece on this theme, “Brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediter-ranean,” German Marshall Fund,
Transatlantic Take
, September 23, 2011.

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