This paper claims that Erdoğan’s ongoing quest for strategic autonomy has been motivated by his neo-Ottoman-inspired identity and personal desire to consolidate his power as Turkish president. To comprehend the factors driving Erdoğan’s foreign and security policies, one must examine the volatile conditions of the domestic and international environment in Turkey. The Islamic-oriented elite of Erdoğan Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled the country since 2002, believes that the West, especially the US, is no longer the dominant geopolitical power and the new multipolar system, as its replacement, offers more favorable opportunities for Turkey to pursue an autonomous foreign policy that serve its national interests. Thus. While it maintains relatively close ties with Western powers, the pro-Islamist elite, whose worldview is profoundly shaped by a neo-Ottoman identity, has cultivated transactional and purely interest-based relations with the US and the European Union, without any shared normative base as a guiding strategic philosophy. This new foreign policy, also labelled as neo-Ottoman, is motivated by a fresh form of Islamo-Ottoman-Turkish nationalism.
Acknowledging the personality traits of Erdoğan are essential in understanding the Turkish government’s recent foreign policy moves in Libya, the Nagorno-Karabakh region and Syria, along with the breaking of relations with Egypt and its regional allies. As Erdoğan single-handedly determines the parameters of his government’s foreign policy, his senses of history, ideology and identity are instrumental to understanding the dynamics of continuity and changes in foreign policy. But, Erdoğan’s assertive foreign policy instead has done more to induce regional countries to align against Turkey rather than opening space for Turkish national interests to be addressed constructively. To comprehend how Erdoğan’s identity guides such decisions, one must broaden the perspective to encompass the historical, cultural and political contexts of Turkey. His identity is constituted by his conservative upbringing in the Kasimpasa district of Istanbul, his Imam Hatip education system, and his experience of political socialization associated with his participation in the Islamist National Outlook Movement (Milli Gorus) and encounters with the writings of Necip Fazil Kisakurek, Turkey’s most prominent intellectual who also espoused anti-Semitic sentiments.
A country’s foreign policy typically emerges from the intersections of domestic and external dynamics, a confluence that girds the ruling government’s political stability and endurance. However, since 2010, the operational environment of Turkish foreign policy-making has been empowered and constrained by Erdogan’s self-serving needs more than they have been by Turkey’s national interests. What specific objectives would Erdoğan have in his personally tailored foreign policy? The answer is rooted in Erdoğan’s worldview shaped by his self-serving foreign policy and his primal fear of being removed from power by some coalition of domestic and international actors. These two factors drive Erdoğan’s foreign policy decisions, which are militarized, interventionist, and anti-Western. Erdoğan’s principal goal is to consolidate his domestic power and maintain a public image validating his role as “regional leader” and “the leader of umma.” Erdoğan envisions Turkey as a global Muslim actor and the leader of a distinct (Islamic) civilization. Turkey’s national interests, for Erdoğan, are defined in accordance with his compulsion to remain in power and enrich his coffers. His foreign policy is free from institutional constraints and is based instead on personalized, assertive, and militaristic dynamics converging on his obsessive goal to consolidate his power. For instance, Turkish-Russian relations depend on the personal ties and mutual trust that Putin and Erdoğan have established.
Erdoğan used the failed July 2016 coup to transform the political governing structure from a parliamentary system into an ala Turca Turkish presidential system without the prior checks and balances on executive branch powers. Erdoğan’s presidential system discards the separation of powers and replaces it by fusing the effective powers of three branches of the state under his control. By dominating the judiciary, executive and legislative branches, Erdoğan has been running the country as a despotic sultan. He is not only the president of Turkey but also the chairman of the AKP and has proclaimed himself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. He prevails with direct power over all essential domestic and foreign policy moves with virtually no recourse allowed from others in his cabinet or from the political opposition.
The Gezi protests last decade marked the beginning of the end of Erdoğan’s pro-Western foreign policy. The protests confirmed Erdoğan’s fears that a coalition of domestic and international actors would rise to overthrow his government. His fears deepened when the 17th and 25th December corruption investigations exposed his bribery network. These fears led Erdoğan to search for new domestic and international allies to consolidate his authoritarian practices. Erdoğan did more to activate dormant anti-Americanism than any domestic political group in his country could muster and consequently made it a cornerstone of his domestic political agenda. After being elected as president in 2014 and with the resignation of Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister in 2016, Erdoğan became the only actor to direct Turkey’s foreign policy. Thus, he promulgated an agenda framed in anti-Americanism (i.e., anti-West sentiments), the first use of military force, and messages mobilizing Islamo-nationalist emotions to consolidate his authoritarian position. Erdoğan has succeeded in positioning “the Western Other” within the constructed pillars of a Muslim-Turkish identity. He poses the Ottoman and Islamic traditions as tolerant and peaceful in opposition to the West, which he contends is racist, imperialist, xenophobic and anti-refugee. He identifies the West as a source of the problems in developing countries. With the decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missile system, Erdoğan turned Turkey away from the West, signaling his willingness to ally with authoritarian regimes.
Erdoğan’s Islamism is constituted within his sense of Ottoman history and his perception of Turkey as the “natural leader of Sunni Islamic world.” Thus, Islamism and Ottomanism represent two sides of the same coin for him. His neo-Ottomanism, unlike Turgut Ozal’s formulation of neo-Ottomanism, is Islamist, anti-Western, and hegemonic while seeking dominance in the Ottoman geographical sphere. He seeks to legitimize and cement his autocratic style of governance in the manner of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r.1876-1908), the Ottoman Empire’s last ruler. In contrast, Ozal’s neo-Ottomanism was cosmopolitan, pro-European and religiously pluralistic in nature. Erdoğan has always attacked and ridiculed Kemalism, the founding ideology of the Republic of Turkey, as an alien identity serving exclusively the pro-Western elite and Europhile segments of Turkish society. In recent years, he has openly criticized Kemalism for its attempt to reorient Turkey from its Islamo-Ottoman civilization to an Western civilization alien to what he sees as Turkey’s deepest historical roots. He claims that the founding father of the Republic cut the country’s cultural and spiritual roots with the legacies of the Ottoman and Islamic civilizations. As Erdoğan formulated perceptions of the West with concepts of racism and colonialism, he presented his rendition of Islamo-Ottomanism as the preferred and tolerant model of coexistence. Since 2016, he has regularly accused the West of being Islamophobic. He believes that Western powers support terrorism in Muslim countries to solidify perceptions that Islam and terrorism are interchangeable terms. He claimed in 2019 that:
“Starting from racist parties, European political leaders are part of the anti-refugee campaign. The refugees, who are supposed to become a way of evaluating the commitment to democracy and human rights, are regarded as the biggest threat. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are spreading all over the European communities as poisonous forces. We regularly watch on the news about these fascist practices targeting our people because they’re Muslims and Turkish. This sickness has enveloped the Western countries.”
Furthermore, 2021 represented Erdogan’s primary focus on silencing political opposition forces by either criminalizing them through kangaroo-court-style trials or by delegitimizing them through unwarranted and unsupported claims that domestic opponents are manning the fifth column against the state. Due to the worsening economy and widespread evidence of government-endorsed corruption as primarily observed with Sedat Peker, a prominent criminal syndicate leader, the Erdoğan government’s approval rating declined to 31 percent, among the lowest levels observed since the AKP gained ruling power in 2002. Moreover, according to major polling agencies, young and first-time voters are indicating that they are more likely to vote against his authoritarian, corrupt style of governance. As levels of popular approval continue to decline, Erdoğan has become more assertive in using Islam to silence the secular opposition. He even defended the total collapse of the Turkish lira vis-à-vis foreign currencies on the basis of keeping interest rates low, given his assertion that the Qur’an forbids all forms of usury. Erdoğan said, “Our biggest weapon against the inflation and decline of the value of Turkish lira is in the verses of the Qur’an.”
As the Turkish economy remains in a near-death condition, Erdoğan seeks to divert the debate by pursuing a confrontational foreign policy against the US and the EU. One of the consequences is frightened foreign investors, who either are leaving the Turkish market or staying away from any new investments. Turkey’s economic growth could only be restored and sustained with foreign investment and suitable credit lines to finance its debt obligations and reinvigorate economic development. The worsening economic conditions in 2021 forced Erdoğan to reset relations with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Rather than improving relations with the EU or the US, he prefers authoritarian regimes which will avoid criticizing Turkey’s disturbing and growing trend of dismissing basic human rights assurances and protections. Meanwhile, in recent years, the US State Department’s annual human rights reports have tracked the growing incidents of human rights abuses in Turkey.
Although he has sought to improve relations with authoritarian Arab World regimes, there is very little evidence of trust embedded in Erdoğan’s policies, as many countries in the region see the Turkish president’s moves as little more than cosmetic facelifts. These new initiatives are rich in platitudinous rhetoric and poor in policy substance. The defining characteristics of Turkey’s current foreign policy is its sense of isolation — loneliness in the region. The EU has allied with Greece over the issue of Turkish hydrocarbon business and industry in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey, in turn, has weaponized the refugee crisis to force the EU to adopt softer lines regarding Erdoğan’s worsening human rights record.
Currently, Turkey’s relations with the EU remain transactional, in terms of Erdoğan receiving a huge sum of foreign aid to keep refugees in Turkey. The EU provides billions of euros to Turkey while being careful not to anger Erdoğan over human rights concerns. Relations with the US are worse than in 2020, with the central issue being the lack of trust between the two NATO allies. Turkey’s continuing commitment to NATO is questionable. Yet, the US also has lost Turkey, by developing closer ties with the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish militias. In 2021, Erdoğan’s relations with Putin were firmed up and the two countries are working together in three major concerns to Turkish foreign policy (Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh). Although there is no solution in these conflict areas, the two countries have worked together to compartmentalize the issues and make sure one issue area does not have a negative effect on the others. The other issue areas—the Cyprus conflict, the question of borders and rights in the Aegean Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon exploration conflict—have aggravated the distance between Turkey and the West. Thus, Western indifference to Turkey’s vital interests and the EU alliance with Greece has helped Erdoğan to legitimize in his own words the purpose of his anti-Western rhetoric and the need to mobilize his Islamo-nationalist grassroots to consolidate his presidential powers.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy is designed to remain in power indefinitely and to expand his domestic and international influence. Although the current foreign policy elite tends to frame his decisions in terms of expanding and enhancing Turkey’s “strategic autonomy,” what they really mean is “autonomy from the West.” Erdoğan does not want Western powers to shame or punish him (e.g., economic sanctions) over widespread human rights violations in his country. Due to domestic needs and his desire to strengthen the budding authoritarian system in Turkey, Erdoğan has moved away from the West by aligning with Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes. In recent years, Erdoğan has emphasized military might as the only useful tool in defending Turkey’s security and interests. As Turkey becomes more isolated in the international system, the Erdoğan government will require more coercive power to protect its interests at home and abroad. The militarization of Turkish foreign policy has several devastating consequences. It has forced regional countries to form a coalition against Turkey. This, in turn, further isolates Turkey and emboldens public opinion in Europe and the US regarding Turkey as a rogue state. As Turkey’s current foreign policy is defined by Erdoğan’s political priorities and personal needs more than by the country’s comprehensive national interests, Erdoğan cares less about the international standing of his country, economically and diplomatically. In short, as Erdogan wins in the arena of domestic politics, Turkey, as a nation, is losing substantially ground in both realms of domestic and foreign policy making.