Turkish foreign policy throughout the Cold War was limited and largely predictable: narrowly focused on national security and preserving the sanctity of its borders while hewing to a predominantly Western orientation.[1] Turkey’s foreign policy reflected the constraints of the bipolar international system, which granted little room for smaller powers to adopt independent policies. As such, Turkey pursued membership in key Western multilateral frameworks (the Council of Europe 1949, the OECD 1948 and NATO 1952) in order to improve its negotiating capacity; to enhance its security and status; and to compensate for its relative lack of an independent foreign policy.[2] Membership in these Euro-Atlantic institutions also enabled Turkish policymakers to assert their affiliation with Western culture.[3]

The end of the Cold War in 1989 granted Turkey the opportunity to pursue a more independent policy, yet it remained predominately Western-oriented until the late 2000s, including the first five years of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Erdoğan—a party with roots in an anti-Western tradition of political Islam. The AKP initially followed a liberal internationalist path, seeking European Union (EU) membership and adopting reforms aiming to democratize Turkey’s political system in conjunction with the EU’s “harmonization packages.” The party also remained committed to the NATO alliance, the defining feature of Turkey’s relationship with the West since World War II.

Beginning with the AKP’s second term in 2007, however, Turkey veered sharply away from its Western orientation, as asserting a hegemonic role in the Middle East replaced integration with the West as the central goal of Turkish foreign policy. AKP foreign policy, moreover, became activist, controversial and unpredictable. To date, the AKP’s foreign policy framework has evolved through three distinct phases: the phase of liberal internationalism characterized by a commitment to the EU and multilateralism (2002–2007); the phase of civilizational expansionism characterized by an overly confident, pan-Islamist and expansionist foreign policy (2008–2014); and the current phase of ultra-nationalism, anti-Westernism and the reprioritization of containment regarding the Kurdish issue.[4]

Such dramatic reorientations and abrupt policy shifts in a country that once was firmly embedded in Western multilateral institutions and Western cultural identification, nevertheless, defy readings of AKP foreign policy as simply reflecting its pro-Islamist ideology or simple pragmatism. The dramatic shifts and abrupt reorientations of AKP foreign policy over the past decade, rather, illustrate the subordination of Turkish foreign policy to the AKP’s and, increasingly, Erdoğan’s populism: foreign policy deployed as tool of governance to mobilize popular support for the AKP, tarnish its enemies, divert attention from its failures and adopt whatever policy is necessary at the moment to keep the AKP in power.

Turning from the West

Turkey’s turn away from its historic Western orientation was triggered by a combination of global, regional and domestic factors that came together following the AKP’s rise to power in 2002, culminating in a more revisionist foreign policy after 2008.

A major factor in this turn was the souring of Turkish Europhilia after the EU formally initiated accession negotiations with Ankara in 2005, partially as a result of the 2004 Greek Cypriot rejection of the Annan plan to settle the long festering Cyprus problem, coupled with a firmer anti-Turkish stance taken by some European politicians to block Turkey’s full membership after EU constitutional referendums in France and the Netherlands.[5] As Turkish expectations of swift approval for EU membership declined, Western economies were hit by the economic crisis of 2008, which challenged the Western-dominated model of globalization, revived national initiatives and made smaller powers like Turkey less concerned about engaging with multilateral institutions.[6]

In addition, the relative withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East under the Obama administration—removing its ground forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 and curtailing its overseas commitments—created a power vacuum, giving rise to greater Turkish state interest in regional competition and reshaping alliances. Transatlantic membership in institutions such as NATO began to be questioned by some members of the political elite.[7] Finally, the EU harmonization process eliminated the military’s constitutional prerogatives, which had given it an oversized influence in the country’s politics. A series of trials of high-profile army officers for alleged coup plots following these constitutional changes effectively ended the army’s influence over the formulation of foreign policy, transferring full authority to the ruling AKP by 2008.[8]

Now firmly in control, the AKP adopted a more independent and revisionist foreign policy that became known as the Davutoğlu Doctrine after AKP foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which outlined a vision of Turkey as an independent global power asserting influence in its own neighborhood, the previously neglected Middle East. Davutoğlu’s successive tenures as foreign minister (2009–2014) and then prime minister (2014–2016) were characterized by an increasingly assertive foreign policy and a pan-Islamist vision.[9] Turkey dramatically increased its regional initiatives, adopted a “zero problems with neighbors” policy and increased its trade with the region, while at the same time more frequently employing a populist anti-Western rhetoric.[10]

Fueled by appeals to both nationalist and religious sentiments among the electorate, highlighted by President Erdoğan’s confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos and national outrage over the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists on a state-owned aid ship bound for Gaza, Turkey began to assert itself more forcefully as an active and independent regional power in the Middle East.

Along with Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism, personal relationships between leaders now play a crucial role in determining its policies. One can argue that the most powerful determinant of Turkish alliance behavior has become the calculation as to which outside power is most likely to do what is necessary to keep the current regime in power.

The period after 2009 was the golden era for the AKP’s new foreign policy, as the government enhanced mutual economic and political cooperation with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and signed bilateral agreements with Syria, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon and Jordan.[11] After withdrawing its long-held opposition to the formation of an autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq, relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flourished and Iraq became Turkey’s second-largest market for exports.[12] Turkey also played an active role in solving regional disputes, becoming a mediator between Syria and Iraq as well as between Syria and Israel; promoting conflict resolution in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan; and initiating development assistance programs, becoming the third largest donor after the United States and Great Britain in 2013.[13] The AKP administration also strengthened its transnational links with the Muslim Brotherhood as it involved itself deeper in regional politics.

This newly assertive foreign policy has been described variously as “neo-Ottomanism,” “Islamic Realism,” the “trading state,” or as “sub-hegemony.”[14] Some contend that this new policy orientation was a “non-colonial, non-formal empire,” in which Turkey’s active engagement in the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East would enable the transformation of the country into a key regional power.[15] Others argue that in this vision, Turkey is positioned to act as an “order setting agent” because of its shared historical, cultural and religious ties to the Middle East and Balkans, dating back to the Ottoman Empire.[16] This shared history legitimized the imperial engagement of Turkey with these regions by making a non-coercive appeal of “like us” rather than “part of us,” which has been dubbed “civilizational geopolitics.”[17]

An undeniably attractive byproduct of this new orientation for the AKP was that it opened up new markets to Turkish capital, making foreign policy a backbone of its economic success story.[18] Turkey became one of the most attractive emerging economies for foreign investment after the 2008 financial crisis. Surging global liquidity boosted economic growth and allowed the government to launch ambitious projects to improve the country’s aging infrastructure and social services.[19] Moreover, its foreign policy became a major instrument for gaining a competitive edge in domestic politics, enhancing the AKP’s popularity. The government also sought to resolve the country’s perennial Kurdish conflict by initiating several peace processes with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), realizing that in order to enhance its regional role and attract investment, it needed to resolve its domestic disputes.

The Fall of Neo-Ottomanism

The 2011 Arab uprisings presented an ideal opportunity for AKP-led Turkey to shape the economic and geostrategic make-up of the new Middle East, while also affirming Turkey’s new role with the West as a major power. Two critical developments in the region, however, undermined Turkey’s assertive “neo-Ottoman” policy, eventually leading the AKP to adopt a new, much darker and inwardly focused foreign policy.

The coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt on July 3, 2013 struck a major blow to Turkey’s regional ambitions by undermining the AKP’s reliance upon the transnational Muslim Brotherhood network as an ally and proxy, as well as its alignment with Qatar in the rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional influence after the Arab uprisings. The coup damaged Turkey’s influence not only in Egypt but also in Syria, allowing other regional actors to gain ground.[20] Prime Minister Davutoğlu described how the new regional alignment fostered by the coup, and the subsequent embrace of the Saudi-led coalition by Egypt’s new leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, undermined their Syrian policy:

There are three forces in the international community. First there are those that favor a democratic transition and support democratic groups: Turkey and several moderate democratic forces. Second are those political actors that are scared of democracy. These states prefer autocrats to govern their country: Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the Gulf Countries, except for Qatar. The third group is countries that are sectarian, like Iran. Before, the first two were united against Iranian influence, so they worked together against Assad. However, after Sisi, that coalition has collapsed.[21]

The second development undermining Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions was the rise of ISIS and the surge of transnational Kurdish activism resulting from the collapse of Syria. Syrian government forces withdrew from its Kurdish region early in the Syrian civil war, enabling the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to transform itself into a major regional actor, introducing the possibility of a second autonomous Kurdish region, ruled by the PYD, which the Turkish state believed to be organically linked to the PKK. Initially, Turkey tried to counter this development by supporting anti-Assad opposition forces and Kurdish factions who opposed the PYD—a strategy Ankara believed to be complementary to its regional hegemonic aspirations.

However, the rapid territorial gains and atrocities ISIS subsequently perpetrated against populations under its control in Iraq and Syria put into question Turkey’s anti-PYD strategy, while strengthening the transnational ties of Kurds.[22] Kurdish opposition to ISIS spilled over into Turkey in early October 2014 during the ISIS assault on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. Tens of thousands of Kurds in Turkey’s Southeast protested AKP’s Syrian policy by proclaiming that “Kobane is Diyarbakir,” demanding the government open its border to the refugees and allow Iraqi Peshmerga forces to cross through Turkey to assist Syrian Kurds. Protests then spread across the country, including Ankara and Istanbul, leaving 42 people dead.[23] What had been perceived as an external problem that could be contained in Syria thus became an internal problem. More importantly, the mobilization of Kurds against ISIS received support from the United States, leading to active cooperation between the PYD and the US military, further heightening Turkish security concerns.

By the beginning of 2015, then, the coup in Egypt and the trans-nationalization of the conflict in Syria made it impossible for the AKP government to advance its hegemonic vision for the Middle East or even maintain a consistent regional policy, while also jeopardizing the country’s alignment with the US. More importantly, the visibly Islamic bias of the government both in domestic and foreign politics fueled anti-government opposition, most notably the Gezi movement of 2013.

Embracing Ultra-Nationalism

Facing a major crisis of governance, an ultra-nationalist discourse resurfaced within AKP government circles, pushing aside Turkey’s neo-Ottoman aspirations and imperialist dreams of muscling into new markets. The official demise of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman period was formally recognized when President Erdoğan asked Prime Minister Davutoğlu to resign in May 2016, two months before the July 2016 coup attempt that would significantly damage Turkey’s relations with the West.

At the time of the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the government was already on an ultra-nationalist path, with a steep decline in democratization. The coup attempt accelerated those tendencies. What proved most unsettling for Turkish foreign policy was the intensification of the Erdoğan government’s anti-Western rhetoric, already a prevalent discourse after the Gezi protests of 2013. Erdoğan accused Western countries of meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs, promoting a crisis of governance and even staging the July 15 coup attempt. The government’s conspiratorial thinking projected the causes for the crisis (whether economic or political) onto external, primarily Western, actors.

The decline in Turkish-Kurdish relations was both a cause and effect of this broader decline in AKP fortunes and its adoption of a more stridently nationalist foreign policy. In early 2015, representatives of the AKP government, led by Davutoğlu and Kurdish politicians, announced a short-lived ten-point peace plan.[24] In the June, 2015 elections, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received 13.1 percent of the vote, contributing to the AKP government losing its majority in the assembly, and disrupting its ability to form a single-party government. A week after the June 7 elections, moreover, PYD/YPG forces seized Tell Abyad in Syria, establishing a security corridor from the Iraqi border to Manbij on the eastern side of the Euphrates river, which Ankara had previously declared to be its red line.[25] As a result of these developments, in June 2015 the AKP government abruptly shifted its Kurdish strategy, once again completely securitizing the Kurdish issue as violent clashes between Turkish forces and the PKK were renewed, concentrated along the Syrian border provinces and aiming to cut the links between Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.[26]

As relations with the West soured further, Turkey advanced economic and military relations with Russia. The two countries established and formalized their cooperation in Syria, together with Iran, through the Astana peace talks. In exchange for Turkey’s promise to cut its support to opposition groups in Syria, Russia gave a green light to Turkey’s direct military operations in Syria, such as Euphrates Shield, undertaken to limit PYD influence.[27] The active cooperation with Iran and Russia put Turkey further at odds with the US. The government’s deal to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems was further interpreted as a sign of Turkey’s orientation away from the trans-Atlantic alliance and its declining commitment to Western security institutions.[28] The picture worsened after Washington sanctioned two AKP ministers involved in the detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson, who was charged with supporting the failed coup.

A Populist Foreign Policy

Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP’s foreign policy has been flexible and shape-shifting, driven less by the party’s stated ideology than by its opportunistic adaptation to changing international and regional dynamics, domestic constraints and intense elite conflict. Throughout the AKP’s three phases of liberal internationalism, civilizational expansionism and ultra-nationalism, Turkey has exhibited the key social and political elements of a populist vision. Populism is a thinly centered ideology which typically construes politics as a contest between two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite,” and populist political parties often display greater flexibility and pragmatism in their adoption of various ideological orientations.[29]

Not unexpectedly, as a populist political party, the guiding factor driving AKP’s foreign policy has been its flexibility and opportunism.[30] Like other populist parties, the AKP engaged with multilateral institutions when party elites saw immediate material benefits, and became pro-Western when positive relations with Europe favored their interests. Foreign policy has played an important role in the growing popular appeal of the AKP as Erdoğan was able to present the country’s international status in terms of other states’ perception of it. AKP supporters believe that the government has restored the country’s status and honor in the West, which was damaged during the republican era. They further cite jealousy as the main reason why foreign countries might oppose Turkey.[31] Moreover, the party emphasizes that the country’s international status is explained not on the basis of values and norms such as human rights and democracy, but on the basis of its infrastructure investments, such as bridges, roads and airports.

The AKP has utilized foreign policy, particularly after the setbacks of 2013–15, as a governance technique to project blame onto external actors for it failures on both the international and domestic front. More recently, the AKP expanded its populist notion of fighting against a corrupt elite to include financial centers, foreign governments and international institutions—virtually any external actor that challenges or criticizes the AKP government. Coupled with nationalism, a populist rhetoric of blame attribution upon “corrupt outsiders” has allowed the AKP to ask its base to tolerate policies that fail to improve their own quality of life, and to forgive government failures.

Erdoğan has been especially skillful in reframing who is “them” and who is “us,” and who is an “enemy” and who a “friend”—which has become an increasingly effective strategy in the face of Turkey’s economic crisis, questionable interventions in Syria’s civil war and rising Kurdish transnationalism. As Turkey has faced sharp reversals in its foreign policy positions, the electorate has responded rapidly and emphatically to Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership. According to results of a survey on foreign policy conducted by Kadır Has University, those who stated that “Turkey has no friends” increased from 17.2 percent to 22.5 percent in one year.[32] In the same period, those who think that the United States is a hostile country increased from 10 percent to 16.2 percent, while those who define relations with Russia as positive and cooperative increased from 18.1 to 46.5 percent.

The AKP’s populist vision has also rested on a direct connection between the leader and “the people” without a need for intermediaries. Parallel to the restructuring of domestic politics, the executive branch and Erdoğan’s personality now dominate foreign policy decision-making. Prior to the AKP, foreign policy was largely determined by its powerful armed forces and foreign ministry professionals. Currently, reflecting both the structural transformation of the international system and the loosening of domestic constraints, Ankara’s foreign policy has grown ever more executive-oriented with few oversight mechanisms that would give more room to inter-agency consultation. Along with Turkey’s drift to authoritarianism, personal relationships between leaders now play a crucial role in determining its policies. One can argue that the most powerful determinant of Turkish alliance behavior has become the calculation as to which outside power is most likely to do what is necessary to keep the current regime in power.

In the last decade, Turkey has gone from being promoted as a model Islamic democracy to a model for authoritarianism; from Westernization to anti-Westernization; from “zero problems with neighbors” to a crisis-prone foreign policy. The concept of a populist foreign policy is the most useful tool for explaining these dramatic transformations and abrupt shifts under the rule of the same party. Foreign policy is not what makes a political party populist, but populist political parties use foreign policy more aggressively as a technique of governance to remain in power, thereby creating a more unstable, unpredictable and conflict prone foreign policy, with grave consequences for regional and global stability.


[1] Mustafa Aydin, “Determinants of Turkish Foreign Policy: Changing Patterns and Conjunctures During the Cold War,” Middle Eastern Studies 36/1 (2000).

[2] Aydın, “Determinants of Turkish Foreign Policy”; Şuhnaz Yılmaz, “Turkey’s Quest for NATO Membership: The Institutionalization of the Turkish–American Alliance,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 12/4 (2012).

[3] Eylem Yilmaz and Pinar Bilgin, “Constructing Turkey’s ‘Western’ Identity during the Cold War: Discourses of the Intellectuals of Statecraft,” International Journal 61/1 (2006).

[4] For a discussion on periodization see Gencer Ozcan, “2000’li Yıllarda Türkiye Dış Politikası (2002–2016),” TUSİAD Dış Politika Formu Araştırma Raporu (2018).

[5] Evren Balta Paker, “The Ceasefire This Time,” Middle East Report Online, August 31, 2005.

[6] Ziya Öniş, “Multiple Faces of the ‘New’ Turkish Foreign Policy: Underlying Dynamics and a Critique,” Insight Turkey 13/1 (2011), p. 15.

[7] Serhat Güvenç and Soli Özel, “NATO and Turkey in the post-Cold War world: between abandonment and entrapment,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 12/4 (2012).

[8] Gencer Ozcan, “The Changing Role of Turkey’s Military in Foreign Policy Making,” UNISCI Discussion Papers 23 (2010); Evren Balta and İ. Akça, “Beyond Military Tutelage: Analyzing Civil-Military Relations under the Justice and Development Party,” Ebru Canan Sokulu, ed., Rethinking Security (New York: Lexington Books, 2012).

[9] Behlül Özkan, “Turkey, Davutoglu and the Idea of Pan-Islamism,” Survival 56/4 (2014); Ümit Kıvanç, Pan-İslamcının Macera Kılavuzu (Istanbul: Birikim Yayınları, 2015).

[10] Bülent Aras, “Turkey and the GCC: An Emerging Relationship,” Middle East Policy 12/4 (2005), Bill Park, “Turkey’s ‘New’ Foreign Policy: Newly Influential or Just Over-Active?,” Mediterranean Politics 19/2 (2014).

[11] Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy Activism: Vision Continuity and Reality Checks,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 14/2 (2014).

[12] Henri J. Barkey, “Turkey’s Syria Predicament,” Adelphi Papers 54/447–448 (2014), p. 106.

[13] Bruce Gilley, “Turkey, Middle Powers, and the New Humanitarianism,” Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs 20/1 (2015), p. 38.

[14] Faruk Yalvaç, “A Historical Materialist Analysis of Turkish Foreign Policy: Class, State, and Hegemony,” Uluslararası İlişkiler 13/52 (2016), p. 14.

[15] Ibid., p. 16.

[16] Karabekir Akkoyunlu, Kalypso Nicolaïdis and Kerem Öktem, The Western Condition: Turkey, the US and the EU in the New Middle East (Oxford: SEESOX Book Series on Current Affairs, 2013), p. 10.

[17] Pınar Bilgin, “A Return to ‘Civilizational Geopolitics in the Mediterranean? Changing Geo-political Images of the European Union and Turkey in the Post-Cold War Era,” Geopolitics 9/2 (2004); Pınar Bilgin and Ali Bilgiç, “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Towards Eurasia,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 52/2 (2011).

[18] Yalvaç, “A Historical Materialist Analysis.”

[19] Ziya Öniş and Mustafa Kutlay, “Rising Powers in a Changing Global Order: The Political Economy of Turkey in the Age of BRICs,” Third World Quarterly 34/8 (2013).

[20] In March 2014, Saudi Arabia officially designated the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and ISIS as terrorist organizations. In the same month, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain increased pressure on Qatar to reduce its support for the Brotherhood by staging a coordinated withdrawal of their ambassadors from Doha. F. G. Gause III, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,” Analysis Paper 11 (2014), p. 17.

[21] “Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation with Richard Falk,” Open Democracy, December 17, 2004.

[22] Gareth Stansfield, “The Unravelling of the Post-First World War State System? The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Transformation of the Middle East,” International Affairs 89/2 (2013), p. 280.

[23] “6–7 Ekim’in Acı Bilançosu,” Radikal, November 12, 2014.

[24] “Turkish Government and Kurds in Bid to Revitalise Talks,” Financial Times, February, 2015.

[25] Ozcan, 2000’li Yıllarda Türkiye, p. 37.

[26] Evren Balta, “Hendek Savaşı Değil, Sınır Savaşı,” Birikim Online (2016).

[27] Evren Balta, “Kirpi İkilemi: Türkiye ve Rusya İlişkileri,” Al Jazeera, 2017.

[28] Kemal Kirişçi, Turkey and the West: Troubled Alliance (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 2018).

[29] Yunus Sozen, “Politics of the people: hegemonic ideology and regime oscillation in Turkey and Argentina” (PhD diss., New York University, 2010); Cas Mudde “The populist zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39/4 (2004).

[20] Burak Bilgehan, Özpek and Nebahat Tanriverdi Yaşar, “Populism and foreign policy in Turkey under the AKP rule,” Turkish Studies 19/2 (2018).

[31] A. B. Çelik and Evren Balta, “Explaining the Micro Dynamics of the Populist Cleavage in the ‘New Turkey,’” Mediterranean Politics (2018).

[32] Research on Public Perceptions on Turkish Foreign Policy: http://www.khas.edu.tr/en/news/289, accessed July 21, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Evren Balta "The AKP’s Foreign Policy as Populist Governance," Middle East Report 288 (Fall 2018).

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