Turkey’s foreign policy

President Erdogan’s combative foreign policy poses a new challenge for regional relations and global democracy

Photo by Mandel Ngan for Getty Images.

4 minute read — By Daisy Olyett

Whilst Turkey’s new foreign policy took centre stage as we entered the New Year, the significance of this dramatic change in foreign relations began nearly 100 years prior. In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne saw the formation of the Turkish Republic’s physical borders, which we still recognise today. Many viewed this treaty as a success for democracy, but century-long resentments have been brewing and the desire for a powerful Turkey, resembling that of her Ottoman past, have become overwhelmingly apparent in modern Turkish politics.

Since the attempted military coup in 2016, Erdogan has steadily increased his autonomy as president by deterring political opposition. Over the past five years, thousands of academics, journalists and civil servants have been imprisoned for publishing works that criticise Erdogan’s government. Turkey’s new and invasive foreign policy sparked controversy when Turkish ships were spotted off the coast of the Greek island Kastellorizo while probing for hydrocarbons. Despite repeated warnings from NATO as well as the EU, Erdogan continues to expand Turkey’s oil industry across international borders. The instalment of Turkish power in the Mediterranean may not appear to be an immediate threat to European and Middle Eastern democracy, but the culmination of events that have unfolded in recent months suggest that a sudden shift in global power is imminent.

Erdogan’s actions to reinstate Turkish sovereignty within the international community has also seen the violation of several human rights laws, especially after interference in the Syrian civil war.  This military action was sparked by the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry – the Republic of Turkey continues to disregard the Kurdish people’s desire to have their own nation (Kurdistan) and many perceive Kurdish sovereignty as a threat to Turkey’s own. Although Kurdish fighters only belong to a few small and often sparse communities, Erdogan has used their fight for independence as reasoning for increasing Turkey’s military power.

Kurdish independence referendum: 'A stronger and safer Kurdistan benefits  the world'
The Kurdish people’s desire for independence has created multiple problems for Erdogan. Photo by Alamy.

Military power is one of the more overt ways Erdogan expresses Turkey’s new hard line foreign policy, but his emphasis on increasing cultural power has been increasingly effective in his attempts to redefine the country. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey paid little attention to the potential of Africa for trade but the apparent popularity of Turkish programming and investment in the continent has created some firm allies for Erdogan. Over the past 15 years, 30 new Turkish embassies have been founded across Africa and Turkish real estate in the Horn of Africa has flourished. Turkey’s competitors – the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – watch intently at this new competition from the side lines. Support from Turkey’s European neighbours now appear feeble in comparison to the financial potential of Erdogan’s new allies in Africa who would have little reason not to indulge in investment from overseas. 

The more worrying aspects of Erdogan’s power nonetheless come from within Turkey’s borders, which signal the beginnings of an almost totalitarian rule in Turkey. During Erdogan’s time as president, a dozen universities have been forcibly closed and several others face threats of government intervention. On New Year’s Day, Erdogan appointed conservative politician Melih Bulu as rector of Bogazici University, one of the most prestigious institutions in Turkey. Whilst their president preached about the freedom of students in Turkey, 24 young activists were arrested outside their university buildings for protesting in fear of government intervention in their studies.

Turkish defiance against Erdogan’s government may persist in the form of young activists and freedom fighters, but the cocoon of far-right nationalists that envelop Turkish politics continue to polarise opinion in Turkey. Erdogan’s open support for groups like the Nationalist Movement Party, which hold firm views on Kurdish militants and Turkish involvement in Cyprus, demonstrate the realities of what his government stand for. It firmly contrasts with the utopia-like image that Erdogan has aimed to manifest for Turkey over the course of his presidency; preaching of liberties that simply do not exist whilst the champions for freedom of speech sit in jail cells. His government draws far too many similarities with those that have fallen to the likes of fascism and dictatorship. Last year we hoped that the events in Belarus signalled the downfall of the last dictatorship in Europe, now the worry shifts to the depressing realisation that Erdogan’s Turkey could be the beginning of a completely new one.