What does President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election for an unprecedented third term mean for Turkish foreign policy? Not much. In fact, even if the opposition had won, the country’s foreign policy would have changed only in style, not in substance.
For Turkey, striking a pragmatic balance between its obligations as a member of Nato and its working relations with Russia and China is an unavoidable cultural and strategic imperative.
Erdoğan might be an Islamist autocrat with a short fuse, but when it comes to Turkey’s role in the world, he is nothing if not practical. He has long catered to frustrated voters through periodic attacks on the West, touting the “Eurasianism” that has traditionally been a far-left rallying cry in Turkey.
Moreover, at a time of a global realignment, Erdoğan has determined that it is in Turkey’s interest to hedge its bets by pursuing relations with the West’s antagonists.
But Erdoğan – who early in his presidency took significant steps towards meeting the criteria for accession to the European Union – knows that it is also in his country’s interest not to alienate the US or Europe.
Leaving Nato, disengaging from Europe, and joining the “anti-imperialist” faction led by Russia and China has never been an option for post-Ottoman Turkey.
To be sure, Erdoğan has flirted with a form of “Neo-Ottomanism”. His former foreign-policy mentor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, believed that the country’s position at the crossroads of continents and civilisations should make it a global “pivot state” and a leader of the Islamic world. It was Davutoğlu who, in 2004, articulated the “zero problems with the neighbours” policy that became a pillar of Turkey’s foreign policy.
As relations with the EU soured – the accession process was too slow for Erdoğan, and some EU members indicated that they were far from keen to welcome Turkey into their club – Davutoğlu’s ideas gained ground.
Snubbed by Europe, Erdoğan was leading a powerful country in search of a role. So, after a half-century of estrangement, Turkey began to re-engage with the Middle East, expanding trade links, lifting visa restrictions, and even helping to broker talks between Israel and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the two main Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas.
Things went south after the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, when Erdoğan began to use Islamism increasingly as a tool of foreign policy. In the Syrian civil war, Erdoğan threw his weight behind the mostly Islamist Free Syrian Army. He even briefly engaged with the Islamic State, which shared his vision of revising the Middle East political map.
But Erdoğan would soon be forced to reassess his Islamist foreign policy. In 2013, the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coup d’état against the country’s democratically elected president – a representative of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would also prove far more resilient than expected. Secular forces, it became clear, would fight tooth and nail to defeat Islamism and thwart the hegemonic ambitions of a non-Arab power like Turkey in the Arab Middle East.
Davutoğlu resigned as prime minister in 2016, amid rumors of deteriorating relations with Erdoğan, who then proceeded to consolidate his grip on power. With that, Turkey’s foreign policy began to change.
In 2019, Erdoğan invaded northern Syria and established a “buffer zone,” supposedly to keep the Islamic State away from Turkey’s border, but actually to thwart Kurdish efforts at autonomy. Given that the Kurds were America’s most effective allies in the fight against the Islamic State, Erdoğan’s move further alienated the US.
More broadly, however, Erdoğan adopted a far less ideological, more pragmatic foreign policy that remains in place to this day. To end Turkey’s regional isolation, he pursued reconciliation with the Arab enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Erdoğan is now even working towards a (Russia-brokered) rapprochement with Assad, though this process cannot be completed as long as Turkey continues to occupy northern Syria.
At the same time, Erdoğan has begun downplaying his support for the Palestinian cause and for Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, which has been allowed to plot attacks on Israelis from Turkish soil – to support a thaw in relations with Israel.
After all, Israel is a newly minted energy power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, which has been excluded from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, hopes to be a transit route for Israeli gas exports to Europe.
Likewise, Erdoğan’s foreign policy towards Ukraine has been nothing short of brilliant. He has met Turkey’s Nato obligations, offering Ukraine crucial military assistance, in addition to rhetorical support, just like any other Western ally.
But he has also allowed Russian entities and individuals to use Turkey to bypass Western sanctions. This enabled him to assume a diplomatic role in the war.
Last July, he brokered a deal to establish a “grain corridor” that has enabled Ukrainian output to be exported, thereby helping to boost food security in the Global South.
The West must become accustomed to Erdoğan’s diplomatic juggling act. A global political realignment is under way, in which Turkey is not the only American ally choosing to behave like a swing state, oscillating between opposing loyalties and interests. Saudi Arabia and India are behaving in a similar way.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had it right when he recently described Turkey as a “challenging ally”. That status suits Erdoğan just fine, and it is unlikely to change in his third term.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.