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The Race for Iran

Understanding Turkey’s Foreign Policy

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The Economist is the latest to weigh in on Turkey’s growing diplomatic role in the Middle East and to question whether Turkey is moving away from the West and toward what has been called a “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy that increasingly emphasizes strengthening ties with Turkey’s southern and eastern neighbors.

Turkey’s activist policy in the Middle East has been in the spotlight recently due to Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Iran last month and his support for the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

The article provides a thorough and mostly helpful account of Turkey’s recent foreign policy, but I think it shares one key misconception with much of the recent Western commentary on this subject.

Here is what The Economist describes as the roots of Turkey’s new, eastward-looking foreign policy:

The Turks are now back in the Middle East, in the benign guise of traders and diplomats. The move is natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed, Turkey’s Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.

This explanation, while partially accurate, is incomplete. Turkey’s foreign policy posture must be understood in context.

A significant reason for Turkey’s increasingly independent, “zero problems with neighbors” policy in its neighborhood is the fact that the United States’ recent policy in the Middle East has been an unmitigated disaster – particularly since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 over Turkish objections.

Ian Lesser hit the nail on the head when he said back in 2006 that

For decades the U.S.-Turkish strategic relationship was based largely on the defense of the regional status quo, territorial and political – an approach well suited to Turkey’s essentially conservative foreign-policy outlook. Today, Turkey faces an American partner with more dynamic, even revolutionary objectives in areas of shared interest

Siding with the United States against the status quo in the Middle East is simply too risky of a strategy for Turkey, which does not enjoy the option of withdrawing to the safety of North America.

Remarking on the divergence of American and European foreign policies after September 11, Tony Judt said that “America’s strategy of global confrontation with Islam is not an option for Europe. It is a catastrophe.”

The same could be said for Turkey.

– Ben Katcher

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