BROOKINGS: Warming up Turkey: The importance of economic engagement

04/07/2015

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Warming up Turkey: The importance of economic engagement

Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was recognized as a solid and reliable member of the Western-led world order. More recently, however, Turkish priorities and preferences have drifted away from those of its traditional transatlantic allies. In Syria, Turkish policies have clashed with those of the United States, particularly since the rise of the Islamic State (also know as ISIS or ISIL). The Turkish government has insisted on prioritizing regime change in Syria over defeating ISIS, leading some to even advocate for Turkey’s expulsion from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey’s muted response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, coupled with its enthusiasm for closer economic relations with Russia, have raised questions over Turkey’s commitment to the values defining liberal Western order.

Turkey’s drift away from its Western moorings began with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, followed by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. Turkish leaders began to believe that the West was weak and that Turkey no longer needed or wanted a Western anchor. Slowly but surely, Turkey’s governing elite charted a course increasingly independent of their transatlantic partners on a wide range issues. In 2010, for example, Turkey voted against a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iran sponsored by the United States. More recently, Turkey refrained from joining sanctions against Russia and avoided enlisting in the military coalition against ISIS.

Domestically, this transformation was driven by a newly found confidence that the governing elite (first elected in 2002) drew from successive electoral victories and Turkey’s strong economic performance. Unlike the previous governments, they did not bind themselves to the traditional precepts of Turkish foreign policy, like non-involvement in the domestic affairs of third countries and a commitment to the transatlantic alliance. They increasingly encouraged a stronger bond to Arab and Muslim countries. The 2011 Arab Spring and the manner in which Turkey was touted as a model boosted the temptation for an independent foreign policy course.

The Turkish government sought closer relations with countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China and aspired to join their ranks. As protests in Kyiv in November 2013 unfolded in support of a Ukraine with closer ties to the EU, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to admit Turkey into the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Erdoğan declared Turkey was tired of waiting to join the EU.

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