By Galip Dalay, Chatham House, 05 June 2023

How geopolitics will affect Turkey’s relationship with the West will depend on whether they compete or cooperate in their shared neighbourhood.


Following his re-election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced his cabinet, and it has been well received both domestically and internationally.

Turkey’s new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, is a powerful former spymaster who has transformed the nexus of Turkey’s intelligence, security and foreign policy ecosystem, and one of the chief architects of its geopolitical activism. The new finance minister is the market-friendly former Merrill Lynch economist, Mehmet Simsek. Both are experienced and well-regarded names with close working relationships with their international counterparts. Another experienced name with an economic background, Cevdet Yilmaz, will serve as vice president.

These appointments signal there will be a close connection between Turkey’s foreign and economic policies. While over the past decade, geopolitical, security and political considerations have defined Turkey’s foreign policy, the economic framework of its foreign policy now looks set to become more prominent. Many states in the Middle East are trying to bridge the gap between their geopolitical aspirations and economic needs. This is particularly pressing for Turkey as it is experiencing a severe economic downturn. To tackle its economic woes, Ankara will likely embark on a mission to find money and investment: the Gulf, Russia and China could offer money with no strings attached; or it could turn to the West – but that would come with a set of conditions.

Defying the simplistic pro- or anti-Western narrative, these appointments also suggest that while Turkey will remain Turkey-centric and continue to pursue autonomy in its foreign and security policy, and increased status in international affairs, this does not necessarily mean anti-West. To the contrary, the new cabinet signals an attempt at managing differences and disputes more skillfully.


A geopolitical balancing act


Turkey represents, if not spearheads, a key trend in global politics whereby regional powers are demanding and acquiring a greater role in regional affairs, more autonomy in their foreign and security policy, and greater status in international affairs. Compared to other regional powers, such as Brazil, South Africa and Saudi Arabia, Turkey has two distinguishing features. First, it is a NATO member, making its geopolitical balancing act and quest for autonomy more contested. Second, it is a post-imperial state, where the idea of grandeur in international affairs is highly popular. Indeed, it played a key role in Erdoğan’s election narrative.

Elites in Ankara believe that regional and international developments over the last decade – not least since the Russian invasion of Ukraine – validate the assumption and premise of Turkey’s foreign policy that today’s global politics is not as Western-centric as before, although necessarily not post-Western either. This policy has been disproportionally informed by developments in the Middle East, which, for Ankara, is a microcosm of structural changes in the global order, highlighting the relatively reduced regional importance and presence of the US and the growing importance of regional actors. Meanwhile, Russia’s role in regional security and China’s economic importance in the region have increased. Turkey and Russia have worked together on regional conflict management in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and even in the Black Sea, a significant learning process for Ankara.

The invasion of Ukraine has been another learning process. To the chagrin of the West, many non-Western countries have engaged in a geopolitical balancing act, including some of its traditional partners, such as India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE. For its part, Turkey has pursued two interrelated policies, attempting to be pro-Ukraine without becoming anti-Russia. It provided defence equipment to Ukraine early on, including armed drones. The war is taking place in the Black Sea and Turkey is a major Black Sea power, along with Russia and Ukraine. If Moscow fundamentally changes the balance of power in its favour, this will pose a long-term threat to Turkey and reduce its room of manoeuvre in the region. However, when it comes to the confrontation between Russia and the West, Ankara effectively pursues a geopolitical balancing act and will not be joining international sanctions.

This approach has thus far served Ankara well and allowed Turkey to play multiple roles. It plays a diplomatic role by trying to mediate the conflict, a humanitarian role by facilitating the grain deal along with the United Nations (UN), and a geopolitical role by controlling the passage to and from Black Sea through the Turkish straits. Its careful balancing act has also maintained a steady flow of Russian money and tourists to Turkey. Given its many benefits, this policy is unlikely to change.


Key issues remain in relations with the West


In contrast, underlying issues in Turkey’s relations with the West are unlikely to be resolved. There is a significant gap between Turkey and the US in their reading of global politics and associated threat perceptions. Great power competition forms the current overarching framework of international politics and informs the US and Western security perception. However, such competition also means there are multiple centres of power, which Turkey views as a key opportunity for leverage.

The future of Turkey’s relations with the West will be shaped by this competition, and by the nature of Turkey’s relations with Russia and China. Particularly critical would be if Ankara again purchased Russian weapons – its previous purchase of Russian S-400 systems was largely an outcome of the state of Turkey-Western relations – and engaged with China in the field of sensitive technologies.

 

 

 

 

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