The shift in Turkey's foreign policy orientation towards the Middle East has raised fears that the country could turn away from the West. In his essay, Hüseyin Bagci, professor of international politics at the Technical University of Ankara, explains that despite appearances, the USA and the EU remain Turkey's most important partners
Turkey's foreign policy has undergone so many "initiatives and openings" in recent times that even the Turks themselves have difficulty understanding where their country's foreign policy is actually heading. The steps taken by Prime Minister Erdogan are surprising many observers. Only one thing is certain: Turkey has much more self-confidence than ever before and already sees itself as a regional and global player.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu's new foreign policy formula, which could be summed up as "no problems with the neighbours", is starting to bear fruit; at the same time, it is also raising fears that Turkey could turn away from the West. Turkey is already a "political Mecca" for the Islamic world and, at the same time, an indispensable partner for the West.
Rooted as it is in the West in political, economic, technological and cultural terms, Turkey has enjoyed more room to assert its influence abroad since the end of the Cold War. No Turkish prime minister before him has enjoyed such conducive foreign policy conditions as Tayyip Erdogan.
Ultimate goal: accession
In terms of the EU's geostrategic interests, Turkey remains indispensable, even though both France and Germany are unwilling to acknowledge this fact. The Turkish policy of both these countries is neither creative nor result-oriented. Nevertheless, Turkey will not walk away from the accession negotiation table.
Ankara should continue to push on with its reform process in order to meet European standards. On the other hand, the EU must also fulfil its obligations to Turkey. The relations between the European Union and Ankara must be improved both in terms of their quality and their quantity.
Accession to the EU remains the unswerving ultimate goal of Turkish politics. From the Turkish point of view, it is no longer a question – and has not been for a long time – of whether the country will become a member of the EU; for Turkey, membership is practically a matter of course.
The reforms introduced over the past 20 years have changed Turkey, and the EU remains a very important modernization factor. At the same time, the USA will remain Turkey's most important partner in foreign and security policy. Ankara's new Kurdish policy and its opening up towards Armenia can only succeed if Washington continues to operate as a peacekeeper.
Other countries are also showing interest in Turkey. Ankara is also an important partner for Russia in the field of energy and in terms of its regional policy towards the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Russia is Turkey's most important trade partner; after Germany it is also the second-biggest buyer of Russian natural gas.
Moscow support's Turkey's decision to open up to Armenia. When the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey signed a rapprochement agreement last October, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, was present. Public opinion about Russia in Turkey has never been as positive as it is at present. Nevertheless, Moscow is not a political alternative; it is primarily an economic partner.
Turkey's decision to improve relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq and the entire Islamic world puts the country at the political centre of the Middle East. Prime Minister Erdogan is the most popular political figure among the Arab masses, but not necessarily among Arab regimes.
Tayyip Erdogan also acts as Israel's most high-profile critic. The Turkish-Israeli crisis was intentionally started by Erdogan, and he is enjoying it. Moreover, Ankara does not intend to end its close relationship with Iran just because the West does not approve of it.
Erdogan is pragmatic, and Iran is a good economic partner. At the same time, Turkey would like to play the role of honest broker between Iran and the USA. This is why Iran is using Turkey to break out of its own political isolation. For Iran, Turkey is a springboard. Even in Turkey, this has generated much severe criticism.
Regional power in the Middle East
Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq constitute a common problem for the USA (as the protector of Baghdad) and Turkey. Iraq's Kurds are benefitting from the new Turkish policy to avoid, where possible, all problems with neighbouring countries.
The visit of Turkish foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, to the Kurds in northern Iraq was an expression of this new policy. In the long term, Turkey is Iraq's best partner in the region. Turkey's recently concluded agreements with Syria, Iraq and Iran are mostly economic in orientation and are a demonstration of Turkey's "soft power".
The reorientation of its Kurdish policy has both domestic and foreign policy consequences for Turkey. It could mean the end of the PKK as a terrorist organization; in any case, the Kurds are becoming more self-confident.
Nevertheless, an independent Kurdish state is unlikely. That being said, Turkey's neighbours realise that the time for confrontation has passed and the time for co-operation has arrived. In this regard, Turkey can indeed be considered the peacemaker of the region.
In doing so, Ankara's political pragmatism makes use of Islam and the common cultural history of the Ottoman Empire. The debate about "Neo-Ottomanism" also points in this direction. The intellectuals and politicians of the Ottoman Empire believed in the mission of modernizing both the Islamic world and the Middle East. This is the political heritage of the current government in Ankara.
In this regard, Turkey will not be lost to the West. On the contrary, Turkey is promoting common values in the Middle East. Turkey considers itself to be the ambassador of democracy in the region and remains firmly rooted in the West, even under Tayyip Erdogan.
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan