The AKP’s Worldview: Why Turkey Won’t Change Its Foreign Policy

The ambitious ideology behind the Turkish ruling party's regional strategy.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the polls in last Sunday’s election, winning 49.4 percent of the total votes, totaling some 317 seats in parliament. The election came amid considerable unrest in Turkey. In the past six months, a two-year-old ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down and the Islamic State has carried out five attacks inside Turkey. In neighboring Syria, Ankara remains mired in a proxy war with Iran and Russia, the two major supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In other parts of the Middle East, Turkey’s once-promising effort to decrease tensions with regional states has failed, and Ankara now finds itself at odds with a sizeable number of Arab governments.

Despite numerous foreign policy challenges, the AKP is unlikely to change its foreign policy. The electoral outcome has strengthened the AKP’s hold over the Turkish bureaucracy, and bolstered Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both men view elections as a key pillar of Turkish foreign policy, and will therefore be emboldened by the party’s resurgent popularity.

The AKP and the “Praised Course”:

Both men believe that the country’s current foreign policy-related problems are temporary and that Turkey will eventually emerge as a regional leader. The AKP’s leadership argues that it is following a course that the Seljuk Empire began in 1071. In numerous public speeches, the AKP has referenced this “praised course,” implied that it is the natural successor to this movement, and that the realization of this mission is critical for realizing the stated objective of creating a “new world order.”

This praised course will unfold in three consecutive stages: first, in establishing the “New Turkey.” This will then lead to the development of a “New Region” in Turkey’s near abroad, which will ultimately result in the creation of a “New World.” To realize the first step, the creation of a New Turkey, the AKP argues that it must first create a strong democracy and strengthen the country’s economy. This will then trigger a similar process in Turkey’s neighboring countries.

To hasten this process, Turkey has sought to deepen its trade relations with all of its neighbors and ease visa restrictions. Thus, once the creation of a new regional order is realized, these interconnected states will be able to act closely together, in order to impose a new world; as a byproduct, this process would eventually result in Turkey having “zero problems with neighbors.” The AKP has chastised the current international order and has repeatedly called for the reform of the UN Security Council, arguing that the current regime has failed to address current world problem. On the campaign trail, Erdogan constantly argues that the world is “bigger than five” (referring to the UN Security Council) and has called for the abolition of Western monocultural dominance and “the return of Muslims to world stage.”

Humanitarian Diplomacy: Zeitgeist of the flow of history

Prime Minister Davutoglu suggests that the Western powers do not understand the current trend in the “flow of history” which began with the Arab Spring—and that their emphasis on realpolitik is incongruent with the needs of the region. Instead of a narrow interest-based foreign policy, Davutoglu favors “humanitarian diplomacy.” This refers to the provision of humanitarian aid and the funding of Islamic projects and NGOs, coupled with a rhetoric that appeals directly to the “Arab street,” instead of relying only on a relationship with a country’s autocratic leadership.

Davutoglu describes the pre–Arab Spring autocratic regimes as “leftovers” of the Cold War era, whereas all policies which do not embrace the amalgam of idealism and realism are considered to be leftovers of the twentieth century. Within this constellation, the AKP views itself as the only political power that has overcome the dichotomy between hard and soft power and therefore, at least in the short term, is prevailing in “principled loneliness,” a term referring to the temporary nature of the AKP’s problems with many Middle Eastern governments.

The West, Davutoglu argued, is dependent on autocratic leaders to maintain its influence in the region, whereas Turkey has the ability to leverage its cultural and historical links to appeal to the Muslim masses. This is linked to the AKP’s understanding of democracy and the idea of “national will” (milli irade) and Erdogan, who has been dubbed “the man of the people” (milletin adamı). These two concepts refer to the AKP’s sidelining of the military in Turkish politics and its marginalization of the secular elites, which the party argues does not represent the Turkish masses.