In 1964, Turkish prime minister Ismet Inönü had hoped the United States would intervene in the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in Cyprus. If it failed to do so, he warned the Western alliance would break up and a new world would be established under new conditions. Turkey would also find its place in this world.
Although this was almost sixty years ago, something similar is occurring against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nominally a member of NATO, Turkey no longer sees itself under the aegis of the United States and is forming new alliances.
Ahead of his visit with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated that both Russia, China, and their “sympathizers” would together move towards a “multipolar, just, and democratic world order.”
In a July speech for the Ditchley Foundation, former British premier Tony Blair observed that the West had reached a new inflection point. He concluded that the biggest geopolitical change of this century will come from China, not Russia. According to Blair, it is the first time in modern history that the East can be on equal terms with the West in contrast to 1945 or 1980 (the collapse of the Soviet Union), when Western democracy was essentially ascendant.
Blair believes we are coming to the end of Western political and economic dominance, and that the world is going to be at least bipolar and possibly multipolar. So where does this leave Turkey?
During the Cold War period, Turkey was a staunch member of NATO, which went hand-in-glove with its Western-oriented foreign policy. But as Turkish philosopher “Bearded” Celal noted: “Turkey is a ship heading for the East. Those aboard think they are heading for the West. In fact, they are just running westwards in a ship sailing eastwards.”
Turkey’s official Kemalist ideology was countered, for example, by the hard-line Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, whose Refah (“Welfare”) Party was banned in 1998. In the 1970s Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also the head of the Istanbul youth branch of Erbakan’s earlier National Salvation Party.
Learning from his mentor’s mistakes, in 2001 Erdogan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power the following year as a reformist party. However, despite international acclaim, it gradually became apparent that Erdogan and the AKP had another agenda. As British parliamentarian Andrew Duff, a former supporter, concluded, the AKP had simply replaced Kemalism with Islamism.
This worldview has shaped both Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. In 2001, Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s future chief advisor, foreign minister, and prime minister, advocated for “Strategic Depth”—that Turkey’s foreign policy should be built on engagement with countries with which it shared a common past and geography.
As Davutoglu explained in a speech in Sarajevo in 2009, “Like in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Balkans were rising, we will once again make the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the centre of world politics in the future.”
There were no limits to his ambition. As he explained to an AKP congress in Konya three years later, “On the march of our holy nation the AK Party signals the birth of a global power and the mission for a new world order.”
The world order (nizam-i âlem) was an Ottoman concept, according to which the world order in all its aspects—political, social and economic—was ruled by religion (Islam).
A fortnight later, Davutoglu proclaimed his vision for the Middle East in the Turkish parliament: “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and servant of this new Middle East.”
Unfortunately, his policy of “zero problems with neighbours” collided with reality and Davutoglu, who had been hailed as “a true grandson of the Ottomans,” resigned in 2016.
In October 2012, Islamic scholar Ibrahim Kalin, who later became Erdogan’s chief advisor and spokesman, posited a new geopolitical framework at the Istanbul Forum which rejected the European model of secular democracy, politics, and pluralism. Instead, he called for a value-based and principled foreign policy, without explaining which values and principles he had in mind.
Six years later, Erdogan’s head of international relations, Ayse Sözen Usluer, made it clear that Turkey felt no need to choose between the West and the East, or between the United States and Russia. She explained that Turkey had long preferred to diversify its foreign policy choices: Turkey no longer saw its foreign policy within the framework of the Cold War or East vs. West alliances. A trilateral summit between the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish leaders and a meeting between Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Ankara underlined Turkey’s strategic importance and not a shift of axis.
On the one hand, in St. Petersburg in 2013, Erdogan called on Putin to let Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization “and save us from this trouble” (the European Union’s demands for genuine reform). Yet in January, Erdogan declared that EU membership still remains a strategic priority, which indicates how hard-pressed he is by the collapse of Turkey’s economy.
In March at the Doha Forum in Qatar, Ibrahim Kalin reiterated his call for a new security architecture in the world, which again begs the question of what role Turkey will play.
With regard to Turkey’s professed neutrality in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Ankara is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It has not only condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but at the same time called on Russian oligarchs to invest in Turkey.
At the same time, the photo op of Ebrahim Raisi, Erdogan, and Putin with linked hands at the recent summit in Tehran has an ominous ring. It brings to mind George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and is a far cry from Kemal Atatürk’s maxim of “peace at home, peace in the world.”
Robert Ellis is an international advisor at RIEAS (Research Institute for European and Amerian Studies) in Athens.