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Looking Towards Turkey's Future, Where Is It and Where Is It Going?

The dramatic changes in Turkish foreign policy and strategy in its regional and international relations in the first decade of the new century stand in sharp contrast with that of its immediate past. At no time since their days at the helm of the Ottoman Empire have Turks commanded as much international attention as they do going into 2011. However along with this attention comes increased anxiety and questions about the character, direction and orientation of Ataturk's modern Turkish Republic. Turkey's European Union process is still ongoing, but seems to be in a deep-freeze all the more stark because of the simultaneous warming of relations between Turkey and its neighbors, particularly its Muslim ones. The rise of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Muslim worldview as the dominant and unrivaled force in Turkish politics as personified by Prime Minister Erdoğan has only heightened fears among many in the West that Turkey is on the cusp of becoming another Islamic Republic. Rather than seeing further democratization and economic interests behind Turkey's re-orientation towards its neighborhood, they see a final nail being placed in the coffin of the military and secular elites that once pushed ardently for Westernization. Given the beginning of a new decade and year, it is important to assess exactly where Turkey is today and what is driving these changes.

End and Beginning of an Era

After the end of the Cold War, Turkey was seen as a prickly power in a tough neighborhood, one that included two major zones of instability, the Balkans and the Middle East. On three separate occasions, Turkey came to the brink of war with its neighbors: Armenia in 1992, Greece in 1996 and Syria in 1998. Regular military incursions were launched into Northern Iraq; in the Aegean, continuous tactical military provocations between the Greek and Turkish air force took place. Little movement was evident with regard to Cyprus and at one point Turkey even threatened to annex the northern part of the island. Relations with post-Cold War Russia were tentative and burdened by a long history of tension and conflict. Relations with Iran were soured by the Kurdish conflict and political Islam. Turkey's overall approach to its neighbors was characterized by confrontation, mistrust and the use of threats and force. Yet, despite tensions over domestic issues such as human rights, widespread use of torture, and the situation of the Kurdish minority, Turkey remained a strong transatlantic partner.

The contrast with the current environment is striking. Relations with Greece have improved since the beginning of rapprochement in 1999 with the earthquake diplomacy to the point that Prime Ministers Erdoğan and Papandreou routinely headline events together as they did most recently at the World Student Games and Turkish Ambassador Summit. In 2004, the Turkish government reversed its position on Cyprus to support the Annan plan for reunification. Turkey is now not only at peace with Syria, but is engaged in close political and economic cooperation with Damascus through a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC). A similar approach and HLSCC toward Iraq culminated in the first ever visit of a Turkish Head of State to Baghdad and official relations with the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq. Turkey has also begun a process of reconciliation with Armenia aimed at reopening the border -- closed since 1993 -- establishing full diplomatic relations, and jointly investigating historical events that burden contemporary relations. Gains from trade and recognition of common interests have substantially improved relations with both Iran and Russia. Turkey's active foreign policy aimed at "zero problems" with its neighbors, which first aimed at improving bilateral relations and regional cooperation in the Balkans and among former Soviet states, has now been extended to the Middle East, the Gulf, and North Africa as well.

Accounting for these developments on the domestic, historical and international level is critical in order to understand Turkey's foreign policy orientation, marked by the concepts of "zero problems" and "Strategic Depth," elaborated upon by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and a former Professor of International Relations Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu. "Strategic Depth" seeks to reposition Turkey from the periphery of international relations to the center as an actor sitting at the intersection of multiple regions just like the Ottomans did for six centuries. It does so by courting different alliances in order to maintain optimal regional and global independence and influence, by specifically taking on a larger role in its former Ottoman territories, and by prioritizing "dialogue and cooperation" over "coercion and confrontation." This approach has gained favor with business and civil society, who favor closer ties with neighbors in both economic and social realms. In other words, the doctrine of Strategic Depth provides a normative chapeau to the plethora of state and non-state interests, which concomitantly push Turkey to develop deeper and stronger ties to its neighbors. It also conceptualizes a foreign policy trend which has been in the making since the days of former Turkish Prime Minister and President Türgüt Özal in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ismail Cem in the late 1990s.

The emergence of the AKP in 2002 as a political force has turned Turkish foreign policy on its head by drawing strength from its common heritage and history with its neighbors rather than considering it a handicap. Turkish foreign policy under the AKP has come to articulate a vision for improving relations with all its neighbors, particularly by privileging its former Muslim space in the Middle East, such as Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Syria where agreements are being signed for a free-trade zone and an eventual Middle Eastern Union. As a result, the debate over Turkey's historic roots and its legacy as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire have been rekindled and been put on the political agenda again. As a result of its Islamic roots and Muslim outlook, the AKP has focused on the unifying character of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim values inherited by the Turkish Republic. Articulating a new vision for Turkey that is not dependent upon the West while actively seeking ways to balance its relationships and alliances, the AKP harkens back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, and more importantly of a self-confident regional power. Some scholars have labeled this "Neo-Ottomanism," much to the chagrin of the AKP, which emphasizes that Turkey can be part of both Europe and the Middle East in a non-zero sum world.

Understanding the Shifts

The shift in Turkey's policies towards its neighborhood is stark and can be explained by a confluence of international, regional and domestic factors. At the international and regional levels, these factors range from the power vacuum left by the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 war on Iraq, to the changing dynamics in the Kurdish question and the deterioration of the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza during 2008 and 2009. They include the waning influence which the EU now has on Turkish foreign policy, as well as the U.S., by first aggravating Turkey's sensitivities on the Kurdish question in 2003-2007 and then diffusing them by cooperating with Turkey in the fight against the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK.)

Presenting Turkey as a "soft power"in the Middle East was made possible by Turkey's broader democratization since the end of the Cold War and in particular since September 11, 2001. There seems to be a relationship between greater democratization and Eastern oriented foreign policy initiatives throughout Turkish political history. The three longest serving prime ministers (Adnan Menderes, Türgüt Özal, and Recep Erdoğan) have all implemented at least one Eastern oriented initiative (Baghdad Pact 1955, Central Asian Initiative 1991, and "Strategic Depth" 2004) along with their domestic democratization efforts. These same prime ministers commanded the largest percentage of the parliament and were among the most responsive to public opinion, which led often to tenuous relationships with Turkey's traditional purveyors of foreign policy, the military. There is something electorally attractive about Eastern initiatives even if they are less institutional or formalized in the same way than Western initiatives have tended to be (NATO 1952, EC Application 1987, and EU candidate status 2004). Within the democratizing Turkey of the last decade civilian leaders cannot as easily ignore public opinion on critical foreign policy questions in the same way as military leaders who previously dominated Turkish foreign policy decision-making.

The role of history and imperial memories has further facilitated the transformation in Turkey's outlook on the Middle East. Turkey's "rediscovery" of the Middle East has been greatly initiated by the AKP's historical memory and ideas about Turkey's "rightful" place as the heir to the Ottoman Empire both in and outside the region. The rise of the AKP has subsequently meant a de-emphasis of the "othering" and "Islamic threat" in Turkey's view of the region. Closer Middle Eastern relations are not seen as being dichotomous or detrimental to Turkey's western orientation, at home or abroad, as they had been seen under military rule in the 1980s. Hence, a more "Islam-friendly" approach that focuses on economic opportunities and shared heritage has come to permeate Turkey's policy towards the region.

Alongside this, Turkey's economic growth has also helped develop closer ties to its neighbors, building economic interdependence with formerly hostile countries like Syria and Iraq, while drawing others closer into Ankara's orbit. Rather than seeing Iran, Iraq or Syria as former enemies or "others," Turkey increasingly sees its eastern neighbors as potential markets for their goods and partners in a neighborhood that can benefit from an actively engaged regional stabilizer. A growing Turkish economic interest in Middle Eastern neighbors in turn has led to a growing influence of business and civil society actors in foreign-policy-making, these non-state actors in turn press the government and bureaucracy to develop cooperative ties to further their interests. Growing commercial interests in the region have raised Turkish stakes in a peaceful and stable Middle East, consolidating Turkish foreign policy objectives to promote peace and regional integration in the Middle East.

The change in Turkish foreign policy hinges on Turkey's domestic transformation and democratization, kick-started, inter alia, by its EU accession process, and is propelled by the rise of the ruling AKP under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish foreign policy has traditionally been the exclusive domain of the military and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the course of the last decade, not only have these institutions been transformed, but others have also acquired a growing role in foreign policy making as a result of Turkey's increasing democratization. These include state bodies such as the ministries of energy, environment, interior and transportation and the under-secretariat for foreign trade. In addition, civil society, and in particular businesses associations such as the Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (MUSIAD), the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), the Turkish Union of Chambers (TOBB), the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD) and the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), constantly lobby the government on foreign policy questions. It would be hard to make sense of Turkish foreign policy towards countries such as Russia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria without taking into consideration these economic interests. Similarly, economic interests have played an important role in efforts to improve relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government as well as Armenia. These factors all push toward the same direction of greater regional integration and cooperation.

The upshot and irony of this increasingly democratic Turkey is a growing readiness to diverge and say "no" to the U.S. or the EU when the latter's policies have been perceived as countering Turkish interests. Unlike during and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when Turkish army generals and diplomats could be counted on to support the West even when policies harmed Turkey's national interest, Turkish leaders are now being held accountable for their foreign policy decisions by their people and at times give-in to populism. In other words, like any other democracy, Turkey today responds to the public, including its nationalist and religious segments, as well as to powerful business interests. Turkey's new self-awareness as a regional power means that rather than simply being able to rely on Turkey as an instrument of Western power projection in the Middle East, the West is now facing a stronger and more assertive Turkey that can and will disagree on key foreign policy issues.