By Katya Mavrelli,
In ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, Samuel Huntington made an argument that has progressively become solidified over the past years; he argued that Turkey’s pro-Western secular elite would become diffused and eventually marginalized in a setting dominated by nationalistic and Islamic elements. As Erdogan’s hold on power become undisputable, despite wavering in the past years, Huntington’s argument points to the systematic departure of Turkey away from any tendency for Westernization.
With regards to its neighbors, Turkey has turned foes into strategic partners into enemies again. The characteristics case of the United States is the cornerstone of Erdogan’s mismanagement of foreign relations. Approaching the US after decades of distance between the two countries seemed like a good idea at the time, one that would distinguish Erdogan as a pioneer in Turkish foreign policy. This move turned out to be more fruitful than expected, leading the two NATO states to enjoy some years of peaceful and much-needed strategic cooperation. However, their policies soon started diverging, with their positioning on the Syrian Civil War being the epitome of their disagreements. The Obama-Erdogan bond shattered soon after Turkey realized that the US was less willing to engage in full-scale intervention in Syria as it had shown and more willing to eliminate the threat of ISIS instead of the Assad regime. During the Trump era, the bond between Turkey and the US resurfaced once more, with Former US President Donald Trump and Erdogan attempting to form personal relationships rather than diplomatic ties over almost all policy matters.
Preferring not to stand on its own and following Ahmet Davutoğlu’s 2004 foreign policy doctrine of “Zero Problems with Neighbors”, Turkey decisively turned its attention elsewhere. Apart from the focus on the Arab world, with the noticeable relationship with Qatar and the close bonds with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan has also turned to other partners. Despite historically rocky ties dating back to the Ottoman Empire, Ankara has recently re-approached Moscow, realizing that strategically aligning itself with a titan other than the US may prove beneficial in the future. Linking their policies and carving spheres of influence in Libya and Syria, Erdogan has made it evident that the Russian cooperation phenomenon is here to stay. Apart from the Russians, the Chinese have also approached the Turks, wishing to align their policies in more fields than simply politics or economics. The recent extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BIR) towards the Middle East serves as a case in point that China picks its allies carefully. After the signing of the 25-year agreement with Tehran on economic, political, and strategic cooperation, the attention fell to Ankara, with cooperation on vaccine distribution serving as the first testing point.
Over the decades, it has become clear that Turkey’s only wish is to stand alone but not be alone. It wishes to rid itself of foreign influence, external pressures, and any sort of third power guidance on all matters relating to its foreign policy, but it also doesn’t want to become isolated in a region surrounded by Arab powers in the fields of oil and energy. More than anything, the recent re-adjustment of Davutoglu’s ‘Zero Problems’ policy signifies that Turkey doesn’t wish to become part of the Russian or Chinese dream, but rather wants to be able to keep a wary eye out for both. Instead of letting Turkey become assimilated in either camp, Erdogan assertively and skillfully, wishes to manage the great-power rivalry.
This balancing act is one of Erdogan’s feeble last attempts to cling on to power, maintain Turkey’s great power status and prevent the eruption of another conflict among influential titans. The embracement of this strategy additionally implies that Erdogan’s rhetoric, political speeches, and television dramas embrace a transformed Ottoman legacy towards a new civilization order. This order is one that will be built and developed preferably without the ‘intrusion’ of the ‘imperialist’ West.
Often, Erdogan glorifies the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and takes active steps towards its restoration. The expansion of the Turkish military footprint in the lands formerly belonging to the Ottomans, including Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, serves as evidence of the rebirth of one of the world’s largest empires. And amid skillful and fast foreign policy maneuverings, Erdogan aims to embody Abdulhamid II, the late 19th century sultan he looks up to. Abdulhamid refrained to address domestic calls for constitutional reform, stood firm against the West and thwarted the collapse of the empire. Similarly, Erdogan is often congratulated for standing firm against the intrusive foreign power meddling and for preserving his hold – however feeble that may be – over the Arab world.
What is his real skill, however? It is none other than the perfected act of exploiting gaps in the international fold. Finding opportunities to carve up his spot in the global scene is challenging, let alone impossible when the political titans of today make moves all the time. Erdogan, however, finds opportunities to play the US and Russia against each other. Turkish military presence in Syria has been an issue for US-backed YPG (People’s Protection Unites) Kurdish forces, yet its benefit in halting Russia’s expansion is also acknowledged. In Libya, Erdogan didn’t hesitate to back General Khalifa Haftar in his quest for foreign support. And to have a seat at the table, Ankara systematically carves out space for itself in the age of resurfaced empires and great-power rivalries.
While his decisive foreign policy has mostly served him well, the fragile position at home raises concerns for his future in office. The double-digit inflation, the steeply declining value of the Turkish lira and the high unemployment rates lead to the formation of an economic crisis bubble, which will son burst and carry with it its creator. And while Turks believe in national exceptionalism, placing faith in their country’s past, Erdogan’s maneuverings won’t be enough to distract them from the toll that recent policies have taken on their economic well-being. Distancing from the West means international isolation and marginalization in the MENA region.
Ambitious and relentless foreign policy hasn’t allowed Erdogan to make Turkey great again – yet. Turks still have not seen the outcomes of the policies in the Erdogan agenda that will equate the current Turkish Republic to the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan may have gone too far in some cases, and refrained from taking more decisive action in others, alienating important partners and making the wrong friends. Is this a parallel to the period of decline of the Ottomans?
The Erdogan regime and its legacy will have to tell that tale sooner or later.
- Matwa Maziad & Jake Sotiriades, Turkey’s Dangerous New Exports: Pan-Islamist, Neo-Ottoman Visions and Regional Instability, Middle East Institute (MEI) Education, Available here
- Talmiz Ahmad, Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism a risky approach for Turkey, Arab News, Available here