Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Ankara’s Ambitions, Regional Responses, and Implications for the United States

For the last century, Turkey’s foreign policy has been driven by the need to preserve the achievements of the Lausanne Treaty in the face of often serious threats from the great powers. As a result, Turkey has largely been a status quo country, and its relations with its neighbors have largely been determined by its place in wider geopolitical struggles. However, with the end of the Cold War and the rise of Turkey’s economic, military and diplomatic power, this has changed. Turkey’s foreign policy has begun to focus on reshaping the regional order in light of its growing desire for influence. Looking ahead, the nature of Ankara’s efforts and the response of Turkey’s neighbors will be an increasingly important factor in Turkey’s relations with the United States and Europe. Turkey’s new dynamic will remain a source of tension under any future Turkish government, but it need not lead to long-term rifts between Turkey and the West if managed well by all sides. The deeper Turkey becomes embroiled in disputes with key US allies from Western Europe to the Persian Gulf, the more difficult it will be for Washington and Ankara to build a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship. And the more Turkey sees itself as a revisionist power, the more it will come into conflict with America’s allies. As a result, it is more important than ever for US policymakers to understand the historical trajectory of Turkey’s place in the region.

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Turkey emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire as a status quo power, an orientation it has maintained for most of the past hundred years. Although the new country was stripped of its former territories in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East, it also forcefully defeated foreign efforts to occupy Anatolia itself. For the founders of modern Turkey, the success of avoiding complete colonization was far greater than the failure to preserve the entire geographical extent of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, they developed a pragmatic foreign policy tradition that prioritized the preservation of their achievements: a sovereign and secure Turkish state within its current borders. This objective remained constant throughout the long and tumultuous 20th century, even as its implications changed, and allowed Ankara the flexibility to choose which countries to work with to maximize its declared interests. In the interwar period, when threats came mainly from powerful European empires such as France, Italy and Great Britain, the defense of Turkish sovereignty required a policy of neutrality and non-alignment. However, immediately after World War II, Turkey’s geopolitical situation changed dramatically. Suddenly, the Soviet Union emerged as the most immediate and dangerous threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. In this new strategic context, seeking the support of the US and NATO became the only possible way to preserve the threatening status quo, supply the country’s armed forces, and ultimately defend its borders. The result was a strong and mutually beneficial alliance with the United States and much of Europe.

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However, the success of this alliance has sometimes obscured the complex, ever-changing and often paradoxical relationship between Turkey’s status quo orientation and its historically grounded relations with regional states. The circumstances surrounding the fall of the Ottoman Empire created a bitter legacy, giving almost all of Turkey’s neighbors emotional and practical reasons to feel hostile towards it. But with other countries that share a commitment to the status quo, Ankara had an equally compelling reason to overcome this hostility. For countries on the wrong side of Turkey’s geopolitical situation, these grievances and unresolved issues have steadily increased.

History Turkey’s regional relations can be read through the ever-changing dynamics of power politics and its troubled history. In the case of Greece, for example, Ankara and Athens began an ambitious rapprochement in the 1940s when both felt their security was threatened by Italian irredentism in the eastern Mediterranean. When this common threat was supplanted by the Soviet Union, the two countries were even more closely united under the umbrella of NATO. But soon the growing rebellion against British rule in Cyprus made the status quo unsustainable, leaving Athens and Ankara with radically different views on what should happen next. It is only in this context that several long-standing issues, such as maritime borders and the status of historical minorities in both countries, have been renewed. Crucially, even as tensions over Cyprus escalated, both sides still had Washington to help remind them of their shared security interests. Throughout the Cold War, the United States was able to manage tensions between Turkey and Greece to avoid an internal NATO war between the two allies that would benefit the Soviets. In other words, by acting as a staunch defender of the status quo, Washington helped ensure that both Greece and Turkey maintained their joint commitment.

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After the end of the Cold War and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, Turkey embarked not only on a new foreign policy, but also on a new foreign policy direction. Ankara is no longer interested in maintaining the status quo, it now wants to change it. Just as Turkey’s status quo orientation led to different policies under changing circumstances, Turkey’s new anti-status quo orientation led Erdoğan’s government to adopt different strategies. However, in order to understand these changes and the reactions they caused in the region, it is crucial to understand that Turkey’s neighbors have responded no less than in the last century, in light of their history, but more importantly, their own history. orientation to the regional status quo.

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