Transformation Of Identity In Turkish Foreign Policy – Analysis


By Bahadir Dinçer and Dilek Karal

A transformation under way in Turkish foreign policy, one that is inextricably linked to the change in the country’s identity. The dynamics responsible for this change of identity have to be sought in the social, economic, and cultural transformation which Turkey is currently living through.

For many years Turkey gave little attention to areas outside the Western world and in particular to the Arab world. This was largely because it gaze was entirely fixed upon the West. Turkey of the Republic chose to identify itself only with the Western world. It perceived modernization and Westernization as concepts which complimented each other. Consequently relations with the Islamic regions were always kept at a distance and a low level. On the agenda of the new Turkish State, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa were just an area of the map which it was not worth spending time on.

However we have now reached a point where a foreign policy is blossoming which has largely shed these negative perceptions. There is a transformation under way in Turkish foreign policy and it is one which is inextricably linked to the change in the country’s identity. The dynamics responsible for this change of identity have to be sought in the social, economic, and cultural transformation which Turkey is currently living through.

A Changing Sense of Identity

The reforms carried out in the early period of the Turkish Republic aimed at a Western-style of modernization when developing a social structure and creating a political order. This model was intended to discard dogmatic forms and make positivistic ideas predominate in the social structure. So as far as possible the Islamic past and Turkey’s Ottoman heritage which represented a period of this structure were both discarded. Niyazi Berkes described this transformation of Turkish modernization as “an absolutely unconditional directing towards Western civilization and the suppressing of every kind of tendency in the opposite direction that there might be.”

Westernization was seen as a key which would open up the door to an economic welfare and social order which adorned the dreams of the new Turkish state. This mentality was constructed upon the dichotomy of “the West and the rest” and the door was kept firmly shut upon “the rest”.

Before anything else, the transformation in Turkish foreign policy has an important role for the perception of the Arabs in Turkish society. The transformation now being experienced at the social level has given, in a similar fashion, form to Turkish foreign policy. To put it another way the wind of change is driving everyone before it. Different sections of society and the state keep on changing more and more as the channels of democracy are opened up.

One of the factors which shaped perceptions of the Arabs in Turkish society is the Arab revolt and the nationalist movement which emerged at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the wake of the revolt, the Arabs were thought of as traitors for many years in Turkish society. The Western world deliberately exacerbated this and mutual misperceptions took root.

During the Cold War Turkey slipped into the Western bloc and became member of NATO, something which further distanced Turkey from the Middle East. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, something which caused a further deterioration in its relations with the Arab world. There were periodic slight signs of change up to the 1980’s, but it was only in the Turgut Özal period that the negative perception of the Arabs was shattered.

A Period of Change Opens With Turgut Özal

It was policy during the Özal period, that first shook the statist, nationalist, and secular structure which had prevailed in foreign policy up until the 1980s. The fact that the Cold War had ended and that Turkey had increased strategic importance in the region and a new structure woven from threats and opportunities arising in neighboring countries all affected the course of Turkish foreign policy. New foreign policies sparked the development of Turkey’s distinct identity in relations with the Middle East and North Africa.

But the shift in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and North Africa which began in the 1980’s failed to develop sufficiently partly because of the international atmosphere at that time and partly because of the problems which Turkey was then experiencing in its domestic political life. The criticisms which the Turkish media made about the Middle East at this time played a central role in the growth of negative ideas about the Arab people.

After the 1980’s the existing state structure was subjected to growing criticism and this laid the basis for alternative ideas about modernity in our attempts to understand the adventure of modernization in Turkey. The liberal economic policies applied after 1980 strengthened local capital and ushered new actors into economic life and a new economic transformation linked to them. The growing influence of Anatolian capital led to the growth of the capital group known as the ‘Anatolian tigers’. Investments which were spurned in the traditional statist structure on both economic and ideological grounds were now embraced. The growth of Turkish trade with the countries of Middle East, Africa, and Asia is an indicator of this. Put another way, Turkish businessmen now abandoned an ideological and self-limiting approach and adopted pragmatic and inclusive methods. This was a social and economic transformation but it was also a political transformation as well. This transformation in internal dynamics provided a structure in which politics supported this change in the economy.

Professor Nilüfer Göle’s idea of ‘alternative modernities’ links the differentiation which Turkey underwent in the social, economic, and political spheres with the inclusive structure of Turkish politics. In similar fashion, the Turkey which we have today might be said to be one in which a secular elite, one that identified modernity with secularism, has passed the baton over to a pragmatic and conservative elite which represents an alternative notion of modernity. The transformation this picture which has taken shape in domestic politics and the economy was formed within a framework of popular support and expectations and there is no doubt that it has influenced Turkish foreign policy.

Professor Ersel Aydinli has defined the carryover of the transformation of identity in domestic politics and the economic into foreign policy as ‘de-elitization’. Professor Aydinli here is referring to a structure in which the place of the elite perspective in international relations has been replaced by a structure based on relations between peoples, similarities, a common culture, and heritage. The transformation which Turkish foreign policy is undergoing is something which, when it is studied alongside the changes which Turkish society is going through, could be described as a process of ‘re-elitization’ following ‘de-elitization’. In our view this approach offers a broader framework for understanding the effect that a new foreign policy is having on the transformations under way at the centre in Turkey. This change in the social, political, and economic structure is pushing Turkey act pragmatically in its foreign policy today rather than to follow a statist and pro-status quo line. Turkey’s pragmatic foreign policy and changing internal structure is the harbinger of a structure which is more inclusive and centered on constructiveness

Towards a More Dynamic Society and More Active Foreign Policy

This new conception of foreign policy goes far beyond mere perceptions of threats: it represents a view which runs parallel to the inclusivist and constructive policies now being applied in Turkey, and underpins its growing role in this region and the world as a whole. This more inclusivistic perception of identity is helping increase people’s self-confidence. It is impossible not to see the fact that Turkey is now starting to play a stabilizing role in the international area in this context. A Turkey which is able to speak to both east and west thanks to an inclusivistic foreign policy can deal with events in a multidimensional fashion. A change of this sort is a gain which is not obtained just by a mere change of government. Rather governments are a product of this change. Turkey has become a stabilizing element in the region not just because of the success of government initiatives but also because the people are the driving force behind this change.

The visit to Iraq at the end of last March by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his recent visits to Middle East are excellent examples of this. Visits of this sort would have been very hard for a society to accept unless it had been at peace with itself, or if it had been unwilling to embrace others and had still relied on cultural codes stressing the rejection of others. But Turkey succeeded: it is now clearly a country which is working at reducing differences and aiming to reconcile various sides.
By once more recognizing its historical and cultural ties with its neighbors, Turkey has made the overall perception about its neighbors alter by creating a new geographical sense.

The role of perceptions in determining foreign policy is known to be an important fact. Some experts would even go so far as to say that perceptions are the one reality in foreign policy. No one should overlook the fact that the change in perceptions of the Middle East in Turkish foreign policy has been the cause of paradigm shifts. The narrow and one-dimensional moulds of identity that long years were spent trying to create with the support of the West no longer fit Turkey as it changes and develops. Referring to the breaking of these moulds as a ‘shift of axis’ means nothing less than that the costume designed for Turkey is now too small. What is more, approaches of that sort arise from failing to see that the West is no longer a homogenous entity. We are passing out of a period in which the question ‘Which West’ had frequently to be asked.

Dark Clouds Dispersing

The strengthening of ties of influence that arises from the growth of economic relations paved the way for the different sides to know each other more closely. This enabled us in Turkey to realize that people living in countries with whom we shared a common border were no different from ourselves. The growth of practical awareness of this led to a deep solidification of the perception of identity which was undergoing a change of philosophy. Scrapping of visas, the increase of trade, and more frequent travel between countries as a result of this led to a decline of cliché-ridden negative perceptions. Thus one may say, the dark clouds hanging over Turkish-Arab relations began to disperse.

Today foreign policy is no longer something which only the elite are concerned about and have a role in forming. The socio-political and economic wheels that can construct a new kind of elite have long been turning. It was inevitable that changing social dynamics would eventually affect Turkish foreign policy and in the end it did indeed happen. The foreign policy of a dynamic Turkish society is now much more active. But at the same time this transformation obliges Turkey to act more cautiously. An explosion of expectations could widen the gap between expectations and capabilities in Turkey and so lead to disappointment. For we are not just talking of a country which is altering its perceptions but of one which at the same time is in a position to direct its perceptions correctly.

This article was previously published in ANALIST Journal, May Issue, 2011.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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