The Shifting Drivers Of Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Secularism, Islamism, Nationalism – Analysis


Turkey occupies a unique geographic and geopolitical position in the modern world: it lies at the physical boundary between Europe and the Middle East, and sits on the blurred ideological borderline between East and West. This makes for a unique history of contrasting civilizational influences, which have combined to form the complex domestic political environment within which foreign policy is constructed. Turkey’s location at this diffuse crossing point of cultural, religious and political influences has made it a country of high geo-strategic importance, and has facilitated its rise as one of the 21st Century’s most prominent emerging powers.

To understand its evolving outlook towards the rest of the world, and to map these changes throughout history, it is essential to identify with Turkey’s complex domestic politics and the core drivers by which they have been influenced: Secularism, Islamism, and more recently, Nationalism. Taking a historical perspective which focuses on issues of culture and identity, can unravel the evolution of Turkey’s foreign policy approach over the many decades since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and can aid in understanding the path to the current approach adopted by President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP): a pragmatic and reactionary approach in the pursuit of the national interest.

This relatively new, flexible foreign policy outlook signals a marked shift in approach when compared with much of Turkey’s recent history; as over the past 100 years, the country’s political decision-making has been decisively influenced by two competing ideologies: secularism and Islamism.

The influence of secularism in Turkey began in the late 19th Century, as the Ottoman Empire fell into a steep and irreversible decline, whilst Europe was making huge strides forward due to modern scientific and technological advancements. The influence on Turkey was huge: positivist and western ideas began to spread at the turn of the 20th Century, resulting in the emergence of a secular-leaning, western-oriented elite. These newly-powerful groups faced initial hostility, but went on to form the Young Turks movement in exile. Their ideas rapidly gained credence amongst the wider population, and resulted in the formation of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which became Turkey’s ruling party in 1908. In later years, the influence of the Young Turks on the country’s development became clear, with the group now widely regarded as being the original founders of the Turkish state. Under their rule, western-style political institutions were established, along with secularized judicial and education systems.

As the century progressed, these trends were further accelerated by the emergence of Arab nationalism across the region, which helped solidify the ideological construction of Turkey as a modern, coherent, sovereign state. The eventual result of these modernization processes was the Kemalist Revolution, which took hold during the 1920’s, and was led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. During this period, what was previously a traditional and loosely-connected society became a thoroughly modern one, signalling a dramatic break with the past and the end of the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire. The state became officially secular, with Islam excluded from formal political life to make way for the emergence of a new national identity, in a country which had been radically socially transformed. The principles of Kemalism were enshrined into Turkey’s 1937 constitution, and defined the character of the Turkish state and its international outlook for decades to come. In terms of its foreign policy direction, Turkey began to look West rather than East, aiming to co-operate, trade and build trust with Europe and the United States. After World War Two, Turkey joined western-created institutions such as NATO and the International Monetary Fund, whilst expressing strong desires to join the European Union. In contrast, engagement with the Middle East was reduced, especially when compared to Turkey’s regional outlook during the Ottoman era.

In the second half of the 20th Century, Turkey solidified its role as a key partner of the West, as a secular and non-confrontational state. Turkey was viewed as an especially stable ally in the region, at a time when the US perceived new threats originating from other parts of the Islamic world: such as after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, along with the increasingly hostile dictatorships of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Whilst this secular stance on the international stage continued, Turkey’s domestic politics began to undergo profound changes during the 1970’s and 1980’s, culminating in the rise of political Islam. This movement initially stemmed from the rural population, whom in general were less affected by the social changes which Turkey had experienced, leading to a clash of identity between rural traditionalists and the largely pro-western urban population. Society became polarized as the National Order Party, led by Necmettin Erbakan, grew in strength through promoting the argument that Turkey should be more interested in engaging with the Muslim world. In particular, political Islam developed alongside strong domestic opposition towards Turkey’s proposed integration into the EU, with many viewing the idea as being against the country’s traditional Islamic values. By 1995, the newly-formed Islamic Welfare Party (IWP) had become the largest in the Turkish Parliament, after winning 21% of the vote amidst a background of increasing anti-western rhetoric. Erbakan became Prime Minister the following year – he sought closer engagement with the Middle East and re-orientated Turkey’s outlook from West to East, making symbolic visits to both Libya and Iran during his time in power.

The era of Islamism in Turkish politics appeared to be short-lived, as Erbakan’s government was shut down by the constitutional court in 1997 for contradicting the state’s ‘secular principles’. Despite maintaining popular support across large segments of the population, Erbakan’s government faced huge pressure from the political establishment and the military, which historically has been tasked with defending the secular nature of the country’s politics. At the turn of the 21st Century, Turkey once again appeared to be on a western-oriented path: it maintained its close relationship with the US, and EU integration was placed firmly back on the agenda.

However, the remarkable rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – first elected to power in 2002 – represented the start of a new era in Turkish politics. It also marked the beginning of years of debate from analysts and outside observers, over Turkey’s intended direction in the international arena. As the decade progressed, the AKP consolidated its power and formed a majority government, with the Islamic tendencies of its leaders sparking concerns amongst the country’s secular elite. Whilst the AKP’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consistently labelled the party as ‘conservative’ rather than ‘Islamist’, there have long been accusations that the AKP has pursued a hidden Islamist agenda, which is being stealthily imposed upon the nation. This also led to concerns amongst Turkey’s increasingly uncomfortable western allies, that the traditional reliance on their key strategic partner in the region could no-longer be guaranteed.

However, Turkey’s foreign policy direction in recent years tells us that such concerns may be over-stated in the West. Whilst some of President Erdogan’s rhetoric has undoubtedly advocated an increased role for religion in the everyday lives of Turkish citizens, the country has remained a firm ally of western states: it has supported the US-led campaign against Islamic State, whilst co-operating with Europe over the refugee crisis, and itself providing refuge for large numbers of civilians fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Syria. If anything, Turkey’s foreign policy has become more pragmatic and reactionary in nature, rather than being driven by any long-term ideological shift initiated by the AKP.

Therefore, whereas Turkey’s foreign policy was historically formulated against an ideological background of secularism, and then increasingly influenced by Islam, it is now being determined to a greater extent by nationalism – with decisions predominantly being taken with the idea of ‘national interest’ at the core.

The evolving, multi-dimensional approach which has been adopted by the AKP, has been made possible by a significant gradual change: Turkey’s relative increase in geopolitical power in relation to its long-standing western allies. As its domestic economy has grown and the wider region has become more volatile, Turkey has been an increasingly important state to the West, whilst its own influence and capability to act independently has risen considerably. In essence, Turkey’s role in the international system has changed: it is no-longer viewed just as a boundary between East and West, but as a formidable emerging power in its own right; a central point in the region and a primary actor in global politics. So whilst retaining its mutually-beneficial relationship with the West, Turkey has also engaged more intimately with the wider region on its own terms.

At the level of foreign-policy formulation, Turkey appears to have overcome the traditional secularist-Islamist divide – however it is a divide which remains a prevalent feature of Turkish domestic politics and within wider society. Yet on the global stage, Turkey is a more a self-confident and independent actor: often acting in-line with western interests when it matches the national interest, but no-longer serving as a passive tool for the mere extension and practice of western security policy. This flexibility is visible in the ‘Strategic Depth’ doctrine which the AKP has adopted: a strategy which aims to enhance regional integration and foster new trading relationships with its neighbours, whilst maintaining healthy relations with its existing allies in the West.

When adding Turkey’s increased political power to its geo-strategically significant location at the boundary between the cultures, religions and societies of East and West; Turkey has a unique opportunity to act as a symbol of integration and co-operation in the modern world, as a country willing to facilitate engagement and understanding. Turkey itself serves as an example of a country which has managed to exist relatively peacefully for decades, despite chaos in the surrounding region and internal tensions caused by the competing influences of secularism and Islam. In the coming years, the AKP’s flexible and assertive foreign policy looks set to continue, with decisions being taken primarily in the national interest. However as the devastating conflict in Syria continues to negatively impact upon Turkey’s stability, the primary concern of the West may no-longer be the Islamisation of Turkish politics; but rather the question of whether President Erdogan’s nationalist foreign policy approach will remain restrained, pragmatic, and measured in the face of growing regional pressures.

About the author:
*Michael Hart is a freelance writer in international politics, focusing primarily on civil conflict in Africa and the geopolitics of South-East Asia. Hart is currently studying an MA in International Relations at the University of Westminster, undertaking dissertation on the role of political rhetoric in the South China Sea disputes. In 2013 Hart graduated with a BA in Human Geography from the University of Exeter, and has written for online publications including Geopolitical Monitor and World Review, and runs a blog providing news and analysis of conflicts which are under-reported in the mainstream news media:

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Michael Hart

Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has written for online publications including The Diplomat, World Politics Review, Geopolitical Monitor, Asian Correspondent and Eurasia Review. Hart also runs a website – – providing news and analysis of under-reported conflicts. Hart previously studied an MA in International Relations at the University of Westminster, and a BA in Human Geography at the University of Exeter.

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