Turkey’s Eastward Shift

This James Joyner post has a couple links that offer some good context for Turkey’s shift in recent years from sometimes problematic Western ally to more assertive regional player: his own interview with Swedish diplomat Henrik Liljegren (scroll down to question 5) and this Der Spiegel article. Both highlight the ways in which Turkey has essentially concluded that it has more to offer the West in general and the EU in particular than the reverse. This tracks with what Gareth Jenkins wrote in his Strategic Posture Review for the March/April issue (sub. req.) of WPR’s digital journal. (The SPRs are one of the great features of WPR premium content that are only available in the digital journal.)

What’s interesting is that this shift was not an unavoidable result of the coming to power of the Islamist AKP party, which initially put a great deal of energy into EU accession. The other thing that’s noteworthy is that Turkey’s shift back eastward, to its “neo-Ottomanist” role as a central power, has exacerbated some of the tensions between the AKP party and the secular military. So there’s not necessarily an ironclad domestic consensus on the shift. And last but not least, as Jenkins pointed out, Turkey’s vocal support for Hamas during the Gaza War, which damaged its ability to serve as mediator between Israel and its Arab neighbors, also damaged its support among Arab nations who “never shared Turkish Islamists’ fond memories of the Ottoman Empire,” as Jenkins put it.

What’s clear to a non-interested observer is that Turkey has more to gain by harmonizing its various domestic foreign policy constituencies than by allowing them to create antagonisms. The army’s close ties to Israel, for instance, mean little in the way of advancing a mediator role without the AKP’s close ties with the Arab nations. And both its regional role and its strong bonds to Europe and the West are complementary, with each amplifying Turkey’s ability to leverage its influence with the other.

The fact that the U.S. now has enormous incentives to encourage Turkish regional influence — and the Obama adminsitration’s apparent willingness to do so — suggests that for the time being, this will be more of an “and” than an “either/or” scenario. But it remains a fragile balance in terms of Turkish domestic consensus. And if it is upset, everyone could end up on the losing end.